Leveraging Technology to Ease Regulatory Challenges Facing Construction

Jan. 31, 2017
Early indicators point towards 2017 bringing many worker health and safety challenges to the construction industry.

Last year, OSHA passed several long-awaited rules and regulatory changes that significantly impact construction by adding more layers of compliance to existing standards, along with increasing noncompliance penalties and fines for violators. More than ever, it's critical that those in construction understand and comply with OSHA requirements and take all possible measures to prevent worker injuries and illnesses.

Effective implementation of EHS software and other technologies can be an important driver in minimizing operational risks, promoting financial stability and driving performance.

Environmental, health and safety (EHS) software systems aimed at ensuring workplace safety and compliance have evolved to help users, especially those in the construction industry, offset additional EHS challenges brought on by the changing regulatory landscape.

Complex Safety Regulations & Violator Penalties

Several recent OSHA developments have resulted in tougher safety regulations and stricter violator penalties for employers, especially those in construction.

Because of these changes, some construction companies are turning to EHS software that offers solutions for high priority areas like incident management, compliance management, audits and inspections and safety meetings as way to better control safety and compliance risks and root out workplace hazards before OSHA ever arrives.

In 2016, OSHA changed its inspection model to a new protocol that focuses on inspection quality versus the quantity. Instead of directing inspectors to conduct a set number of inspections, they now use a new unit of measurement: the enforcement unit.

Weighted on a nine-point scale, routine inspections only expected to take a few hours are valued as one enforcement unit, while inspections that take longer and are more complex could receive up to eight units. The adjustment allows inspectors to spend more time on complex inspections, especially relating to hazards that can lead to the most serious consequences, resulting in more rigorous inspections than may have occurred in the past.

Higher penalties also took effect, increasing the maximum limit for fines by nearly 80 percent.

The agency also plans to continue to adjust penalties for inflation each year, meaning that maximum penalties could continue to increase annually.

Software solutions that address these areas – many of which available through the cloud – give users the ability to track deadlines, implement corrective actions and deploy employee trainings in real-time seamlessly on one dashboard. With better access to EHS information across the organization, users more easily can identify areas that need improvement and ensure that overall safety goals and compliance requirements are being met.

GHS and the Future of Chemical Safety

GHS adoption accelerated an influx of new Safety Data Sheets (SDSs). Employers covered by the standard need to manage their SDS library to ensure they have the most up-to-date documents available to workers. This is another area where technology is a useful aid in safeguarding employees and maintaining compliant worksites.

OSHA's final deadline for its adoption of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) occurred last year, ending a four-year transition period during which employers, chemical manufacturers and distributors were required to adopt the revised Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom).

While those in construction retained many of the same core responsibilities that previously had been in place, the new GHS provisions required those covered by the HazCom standard to update their written HazCom plans as necessary, update workplace labels, replace MSDS libraries with SDSs, train employees on the format changes to SDSs and shipped container labels, and revise workplace labeling systems and the written plan, as well as any newly-identified chemical hazards resulting from chemical manufacturers' re-classification process.

Since 2012, HazCom violations have ranked second on OSHA's annual top 10 list of violations, with the most common citations issued for failure to maintain a written HazCom plan, lack of training and labeling failures and issues related to employee access to SDSs.

With GHS changes still relatively new to many workers, employers must continue to make HazCom training and compliance a priority to avoid potential penalties or fines. The agency also plans to continue reviewing future editions of the GHS to determine whether to align its HazCom standard with information presented in newer versions of the system.

Since the United Nations currently publishes new editions of GHS on a two-year cycle, employers covered by the HazCom standard should anticipate and prepare for future updates.

A good electronic solution provider can help automate the updating process by automatically supplying updated documents as they become available. With a better view into the organizations' hazardous chemical footprint, software users can make better decisions about compliance, workplace safety and safer hazardous chemical use.

In addition to these tools, a good provider also can put all of that critical safety information into the hands of supervisors and employees in the field via mobile devices, making worksite safety information easily accessible – even offline when internet connectivity is limited or unavailable.

Increased Demand for Safety Performance 

Over the last few years, OSHA has put greater focus on temporary and contract workers, and workers on multi-employer worksites, who all too often fall through the EHS cracks. One issue in particular that the agency has targeted is training. Temporary employment arrangements and multi-employer sites have created confusion over the responsibility for complying with health and safety standards and conducting the required training.

OSHA often has said that each employer should provide training on the hazards of the work environment most under their particular control, stressing that the key is coordination and communication between employers, and essentially saying it's everyone's job to ensure employees are trained properly.

One way companies can meet the challenges of workplace training is through the use of on-demand solutions that provide flexible training courses, making it easier to deploy training to employees at multiple sites on multiple shifts.

On Dec. 1, 2016, OSHA issued new recommended practices to help construction employers develop proactive programs to keep worksites safe. Aimed at finding and fixing job site hazards before they cause injury or illness, the Recommended Practices for Safety & Health Programs in Construction outlines a series of simple steps for implementing a safety and health program that includes training workers on identifying and controlling hazards, inspecting job sites with workers to identify any problems with equipment and materials and developing responses to possible emergency scenarios in advance. The agency's approach recommends safety and health programs be flexible, adjusting to fit small and large construction companies handling short-term or multi-year projects.

The recommended practices also emphasize the need to involve workers in safety and health program development and implementation and stress the need for communication and coordination on worksites involving more than one employer.

Despite the wide consensus on the value of safety training programs, several factors in the construction industry often pose significant obstacles when it comes to execution, including the number of people needing it, the broad range of topics that must be covered, the costs and difficulties of delivering it and the time and resources required to track compliance. Many EHS software platforms are accessible on mobile devices, making it easier to report and document hazards, incidents and near misses as they happen, when all the important details are still fresh to all those involved.

Another important issue is language. OSHA maintains the importance of not just providing training, but also making sure it is understood, which can be challenging on worksites with a lot of language diversity. These issues are even more critical when it comes to temporary or contract workers. An online training option also can offer courses in multiple languages, helping to ensure all workers better understand the information they are being trained on.

With more accurate data sent up the chain of command sooner, it becomes easier to correct any issues and be more proactive in preventing additional incidences from occurring.

Safety in 2017 and Beyond

There are many EHS challenges ahead in 2017 for the construction industry. However, there also are more resources available than ever before to meet the array of health, safety, compliance and reporting issues that companies face. From mobile apps to comprehensive cloud EHS software platforms, today's software solutions help manage even the toughest challenges. By making the right EHS software choices, those in construction can move beyond compliance with the latest regulations to develop and maintain a strong EHS culture with effective safety leadership.

Phil N. Molé, MPH is an EHS and sustainability expert at VelocityEHS, a cloud software company that helps companies manage SDS/Chemical inventories, audits, inspections, incidents, corrective actions, compliance issues and reporting and safety meetings management. For more information, visit or call 888-362-2007.

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