Computers: Construction Health and Safety Resources

The Internet is home to a growing body of free information on identifying, evaluating and controlling construction hazards.

by Michael Blotzer

A painter picks up a metal ladder while cleaning up the work site at the end of the day. As he carries the upright ladder to the van, co-workers shout warnings about an overhead power line. Too late. The ladder strikes the power line, electrocuting the painter.

Working alone, a laborer operates a scissor lift while performing finishing work on a newly constructed day care center. The worker becomes pinned between the top rail of the work platform and the head jamb of a doorway. He is discovered hours later, dead by mechanical asphyxiation.

A 16-year-old worker on a framing crew falls from a job-made scaffold, striking his head on a concrete slab more than 10 feet below.

A worker installs flooring in a stairwell that has an operating gasoline-powered generator supplying electric power to the construction site. The worker eventually collapses from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Construction is at the bleeding edge of health and safety a challenging mix of traditional hazards mixed with the new. In addition to the age-old threats of lead, silica and asbestos, workers must contend with the hazards of modern chemicals and advanced materials. And nanotechnology will certainly find application in construction (irc.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/newsletter/v7no4/nanotechnology_e.html).

The dynamic nature of a constantly changing construction site brings further challenges. Changing seasons create additional complications of heat stress in the summer and cold stress in winter. Hazards change throughout the life of a project, by the day, the hour, even minute to minute.

Enclosed areas with poor ventilation increase exposures to hazardous chemicals and exhaust gases from vehicles and equipment. Outdoor workers have greater exposure to West Nile Virus, Lyme Disease and other insect-borne ailments.

Construction workers also face ergonomic hazards. Tasks involve frequent lifting, working in unusual positions, frequent bending, forceful use of hand tools and vibration from power tools.

Statistics confirm the dangerous nature of construction work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), 13,502 construction workers died in the United States due to work-related injuries from 1992 through 2003 an average of 1,125 fatalities each year. Construction accounts for 19 percent of all workplace fatalities in the United States, yet employs less than 6 percent of the work force.

Construction Information

Construction safety and health is certainly a challenge. Fortunately, the Internet is home to a growing body of free information on identifying, evaluating and controlling construction hazards.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Web site is the primary source for cutting-edge safety and health information. NIOSH's Construction Web page (www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/construction) is a portal to the latest NIOSH research findings and recommendations.

Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury in construction. In fact, construction accounts for half of all work-related fatal falls in the United States. The NIOSH publication Worker Deaths by Falls (www.cdc.gov/niosh/00-116pd.html) provides an overview of fall hazards, analyzes fatal falls and describes the elements of a good fall protection program. The NIOSH Construction Web page contains links to similar information covering electrical safety, traffic safety, silica, asbestos, lead and more.

Need to find information that's not on the Construction page? Just click the NIOSHTIC 2 search results on Construction link to see a complete list of all construction-related information in the NIOSHTIC 2 database. Results are listed in reverse chronological order, so you see the latest records first. Now enter your key words in the "User Query" field and click the "Search Within Results" button to quickly locate records of interest.

Whether you like it or not, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets the standards for construction safety and health. That makes OSHA's Construction Industry Web page at www.osha.gov the definitive source for compliance information.

The Construction Topics link provides an extensive list of construction compliance topics, from asbestos and asphalt fumes to welding, cutting and brazing. But while you're browsing, don't overlook the Construction eTool link to OSHA's eTools and Expert Advisor software (www.osha.gov/doc/construction_ecats.html).

eTools are interactive, Web-based training modules covering general construction safety, ergonomics, scaffolds, steel erection and other subjects. As Web-based applications, eTools will run on web browsers operating under Windows, Macintosh and Linux computers.

Expert Advisors are custom expert system software modules designed to help employers comply with OSHA regulations. Interestingly, the Expert Advisors listed at the link, above, are all for Microsoft's Windows operating systems. The page doesn't include the more recent, browser-based advisors that will run under other operating systems. These newer Advisors are available at www.osha.gov/dts/osta/oshasoft/index.html. It seems OSHA needs to do a bit of Web site housecleaning.

Focus on Workers

Getting sound safety and health information into the hands of individual workers is critical to improving construction safety. Thanks to the efforts of the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), and with NIOSH support, the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (eLCOSH) at www.eLCOSH.org is the most comprehensive source of worker-focused construction safety and health information on the Web.

The clean, uncluttered, eLCOSH home page makes it easy to browse the collection by hazard category, trade or type of job site. Visitors also can search the collection by keyword using the site's search engine.

Clearly communicating hazard information to non-English speaking workers is a challenge. eLCOSH helps by also providing a copy of their Web site en Español. In addition, a limited number of documents are available in five other languages Creole, French, Italian, Polish and Portuguese.

eLCOSH is an interesting compilation of hazard information, training materials and original research. The collection includes hazard alerts, a discussion of the importance of rescue planning in fall protection programs, chemical hazard information, construction ergonomic checklists, even a paper describing SARS prevention planning for a pipeline construction project in China.

eLCOSH is also home to The Construction Chart Book. Published by CPWR, The Construction Chart Book is a statistical analysis of the construction industry in the United States. The 49 sets of charts include an economic and demographic analysis of the construction industry. They also cover construction employment and income, health insurance, pensions, education and training and safety and health. Excellent information to help build a case for the benefits of a sound safety program.

One look at the Workers' Compensation Board of British Columbia's WorkSafe Health and Safety Centre for Construction Web site (construction.healthandsafetycentre.org/s/Home.asp) proves that the United States doesn't hold a monopoly on good construction health and safety information. The board's collection of 1-page hazard alerts is one of the best I've seen. The site also includes a useful collection of safety signs, stickers and bulletins. And the Constructive Ideas section provides several innovative ideas for reducing ergonomic hazards in construction.

Construction is hard work replete with hazards hazards you can help eliminate by using resources freely available on the Web. The latest advances in safety and health research, compliance assistance and ready-made training materials are just a click away.

Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast who brakes for animals on the information superhighway. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards or by electronic mail at mblotzer@comcast.net.

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