Seven Steps to Small Contractor Safety

Feb. 1, 1999
Industrial hygienists are targeting their sampling more carefully than in the past as priorities and resources change.

Let"s be frank -- there is a problem in construction. The safety equipment and technology are available, the standards cover the hazards well enough, and workers have some training and knowledge of the safety procedures, but 13.9 construction workers per 100,000 still are dying each year. Although it has been declining in recent years, the injury rate in construction is 40 percent higher than the average for all of private industry. 1

More often than not, a small construction company has a safety program and/or a safety professional on board, not because it has a true commitment to safety, but because management feels that it is a necessary evil. This is not to say that all construction companies operate in this manner, but a great number of them do.

The reasons for this are not simple. Construction frequently operates with a small margin of profit. This leads to cutting corners. As a result, if the client does not enforce safety or is not even on the jobsite to oversee the work, the contractor has less incentive to make safety the top priority.

The client or the person the construction company is doing the work for has a large effect on the amount and quality of safety practiced by the contractor. A client truly concerned about safety will include separate bid items specifically for safety costs, or will include additional time in the schedule to account for lowered production because of personal protective equipment hindering the worker.

Ask most of these companies without proactive safety programs if they are putting their workers at risk, though, and they would likely deny it. Instead, they would admit that they are just not following all of those picky, difficult-to-understand OSHA standards.

Another reason construction safety lags is the difficulty in getting the information to the final user: the worker in the field. The construction worker is a nomad. He travels to where the work is and stays only if there are enough overtime hours to pay for the hotel room he is renting by the week or month. This is a person who is hard to catch and train for a full day. If safety training is not mandated by the owner/client, then the construction company will avoid it. Currently, the extent of most training is 10- to 15-minute tool box talks on Monday morning. The information is read, word-for-word, by a supervisor who is uncomfortable with public speaking.

What can small companies do to change this scenario? Here are seven steps that companies and their workers can take to implement an effective safety and health program:

1. Get a real commitment to safety from top management. This is the most important step! Depending on the size of the company, top management could be the owner, a company vice-president or a manager of a division. Without this commitment from the top, anything done is just "surface safety": safety that is put in place to look good, with no commitment under the surface. If it would cost more to do the work safely than complete it with risk and still make a profit, the latter would be chosen. You must ask yourself if the company, from the top, is committed to a comprehensive safety program. If the answer is "yes," then the rest of this article will apply.

2. Put the company"s safety policies in writing. The written safety program should not be generic, nor should it be overly detailed. The document should represent the type of work the construction company does. For example, a residential contractor should not have the same procedures as an industrial pipe fitting company. Yes, they are both construction companies, but they have few procedures in common, other than the basic safety policy and some personal protective equipment (PPE) crossover.

The written safety program, often referred to as the safety manual or safety procedures, should specify when a competent person must be assigned. Also, the plan should have sections to define site-specific safety programs.

3. Develop site-specific safety plans. At every work site, workers face new hazards. For example, one job-site may be isolated from public traffic or any pedestrian traffic, while another may be right in the middle of town, where traffic control is needed and canopies must be constructed for pedestrian sidewalk traffic. At the downtown site, employees have to be protected from excavation collapse, due to traffic weight affecting the walls, and a trench box will be used, due to limited space.2 The excavation on the isolated jobsite would be "laid back" (sloped), as necessary, depending on the soil type.2 Also, the isolated jobsite"s excavation would pose almost no threat of a hazardous atmosphere because of the fresh, undisturbed soil conditions. The excavation in the city could have a hazardous atmosphere, due to traffic exhaust, underground gas or sewer lines leaking, or even contaminated soil. This is just one scenario of hundreds that could change from job to job.

The variability in construction sites requires preplanning the job with safety in mind. The progress of the job should be scheduled with safety as an integral factor. This is the most difficult thing to change in the culture of small companies. For years, they may have completed work safely by their measure, and they see no economic benefit to the added cost of slowing down the planning stage to add the input from safety. In a perfect world, project managers and superintendents who now understand why quality standards have to be met would also understand the need for considering safety rules, but, for now, the input of the safety director is often vital if safety is to receive its proper consideration.

4. Follow through on implementation of the safety program. Of course, a site-specific plan in conjunction with a comprehensive written program does no good unless it is successfully implemented. I know many safety professionals (I have been guilty of this as well) who completed or amended a safety program and "implemented" it by putting it in the mail to all of the field superintendents. Believe it or not, the receipt of a program is not implementation. The supervisors will not sit down and read it. The first time the safety director will get a call about it is when a problem comes up in the field and the superintendent is trying to find "where it is in the safety book."

In actuality, the users of this safety manual need to understand completely the information contained in it. They need to know how to use any forms within it, where the different information is so they can show the workers what needs to be done when a new job is started, how to update the "MSDS book" and chemical inventory log, when they are required to use a competent person and what PPE is required for what job. The list goes on and on. Again, the most important idea is that the users have a complete understanding of the information contained in the safety manual. The only way ensure this is by training the supervisors when the new program is implemented.

5. Invest the necessary time in training. While construction was once the occupation of last resort for those who could not find work in other industries, it is now a much more complex process and requires more knowledge and training than ever before. Yet construction leads only the retail trade, wholesale trade and finance sectors in the percentage of workers (32.9 percent) receiving any formal safety training. This percentage falls below the service industry, manufacturing, transportation and mining.3

Training is time-consuming, but crucial to the success of the program. As mentioned earlier, the construction worker is difficult to reach. The worker is not always a permanent employee of the company. For that reason, many companies avoid extensive training. While many workers who have been through apprenticeship programs have a basic, generic knowledge of safety on construction sites, they may need more detailed training related to the specific job-site or type of construction work being completed.

When hired, each worker should be assessed to determine the level of safety training he or she has and how recent the training was. Safety requirements and rules change constantly. His or her recall of a safety rule could now be totally off the mark. At a minimum, a company needs a new employee safety orientation to include the following:

  • General safety rules;
  • Company safety policy;
  • Specific safety policies related to the work (e.g., lockout / tagout, excavations, confined space, fall protection, scaffolding);
  • Hazard communication; and
  • Disciplinary policy explanation.

The amount of required training that exists now has caused many companies to create a safety handbook with a disclaimer in the back that the employee must sign. It says that he or she has read or will read the handbook and understands all of the safety rules and requirements. THIS IS NOT TRAINING.

6. Use safety audits and accident investigations to constantly assess the effectiveness of the safety program. These are great ways to evaluate the performance of the safety program and great ways to show improvement. The safety audit form should not be overly detailed. The form should have major safety categories to jog the safety director"s memory of any part of the work he or she has forgotten to take a look at. The audit should be performed on each jobsite at least twice a month. This is the minimum amount of time that should pass between audits, due to construction"s ever-changing work conditions. They also must be used to communicate what is wrong or what went wrong. This information should not only be kept in a file in the safety director"s office, but also sent to the appropriate superintendents and project managers. If an accident investigation determined a cause that was part of how that operation is conducted, then the supervisors and workers must know this and how to correct it.

Correcting hazards is a difficult thing to do. First, an understanding of the work and how it progresses is paramount to making a decision on correcting it. Even though the function of the safety director is safety, production and work flow must be considered. Once this is understood, the safety director should ask for assistance from the supervisors and workers on how to do the job safely.

When correcting safety violations or hazards, use some finesse and diplomacy. Do not be a safety cop. First, gain the workers" and supervisors" confidence. Second, get to know them on a first name basis. Third, let them understand that the job of a safety director is to keep them safe, not to turn them in to the boss. It takes some time, but before making corrections, establish the trust. Once workers and supervisors know and trust the safety director, they will go out of their way to help with safety.

7. Establish accountability for safety with all people involved with the job. The project managers should plan ahead and make safety a priority. No one in upper management should ever discount safety or speak of it as a hindrance. If upper management is supportive and the workers see this commitment, the program will be easier to implement and maintain.

There must be a management accountability system that ensures that the superintendent is verifying a safe jobsite daily. Of the many responsibilities superintendents have, this still is the most crucial item on their list. The daily inspections should be documented and submitted to the safety director to ensure that they are being completed. The safety director should do at least bi-weekly inspections of the same jobsites to check for continuity of inspections by the superintendents.

Workers should have the freedom to complain about unsafe conditions or make suggestions without the threat of being laid off or fired. Encourage workers to become involved in safety by participating in safety committees that inspect the jobsite, and seeing that their suggestions are put into practice.

Accountability should also be considered, with a disciplinary policy. Something that is used regularly in construction is the "three strikes you"re out" rule. This represents a verbal warning, a written warning and a dismissal. This, of course, would have to go through local unions for agreement, if you are working in a union environment. All employees should fall under the policy"s rules, and it must be implemented consistently. For example, one worker should not be written up for the same safety violation for which another employee was not. As soon as inconsistencies occur, the program will not be respected by employees, and will become useless.

These seven steps are the foundation of a solid, comprehensive safety and health program for small construction companies. Implementing the program and gaining support for it are the keys to success. It will require many hours of dedication to the cause of keeping the construction workers safe and sending them home to their families in one piece. When a safety professional has put these seven steps into practice and sees them result in safe work sites, it will be worth all of his or her time and energy.


1The Center to Protect Workers" Rights,1998. The Construction Chart Book, April 1998. Washington D.C.: CPWR.

2Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Department of Labor, 1997. "Occupational Safety and Health Standards-Excavations." 29 CFR 1926 Subpart P. Washington D.C.: USGPO.

3Frazis, Harley J.,Diane E. Herz, and Michael W. Horrigan, "Employer-provided Training: Results from a New Survey." Monthly Labor Review, May 1995, p. 3-17.

Mark Fullen is a Construction Safety and Health Specialist with West Virginia University Safety and Health Extension in Morgantown, W.Va. His specialty is construction safety and fall protection in particular. Before joining the Safety and Health Extension, he was a safety director for a bridge and industrial contractor in Charleston, W.Va. He also worked for an international engineering and construction company, where he was employed as a safety engineer at various petrochemical sites around the country. He has a B.S. degree in Safety Engineering Technology from Fairmont State College in Fairmont, W.Va., and a M.S. degree in Occupational Safety and Health from Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!