If you look at safety statistics for the construction industry, it is likely you will get a deep sense of disappointment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the construction industry workforce represents 4% of the total U.S. workforce, but it accounts for 21% of workplace fatalities. The “fatal four”—falls, electrocution, struck by an object, and caught-in-between—account for most of these incidents. Similarly, non-fatal injury statistics are also relatively high.
In the face of such dismal statistics, it is very easy to lose sight of successful construction projects. Successful construction projects share numerous features in common, ranging from the old-fashioned trust and teamwork, to recent applications of technological gadgets, including mobile devices. Let’s look at some of these tools that are helping enable safe and successful construction projects.
The Big Picture
First of all, what is streetsmart construction safety? Simply put, it is a pragmatic management style and practice that minimizes bureaucracy, encourages teamwork, minimizes project risk, ensures robust compliance with applicable regulations, and minimizes cost. However, cost minimization does not mean “cutting corners.”
Any construction project, by its sheer nature, involves a multitude of activities, noise, and heavy concentration of workers and equipment. Construction sites can be dangerous. As we might expect, lack of communication, poor safety practices, inadequate outdated tools or documents, and lack of cohesive work environment are some of the factors that contribute to unsafe incidents. In addition, high worker turnover and changes in the environment (heavy rains, storms, flooding) also can contribute to unsafe events.
Above all, if management is or is perceived by workers as cavalier or dismissive about safety, then the chances of unsafe incidents will increase. The importance of having a safety culture cannot be over emphasized. Streetsmart construction safety begins before the start of a project, as discussed below.
At the start of a project, get a good understanding of the top-level management expectations. Conduct a broad risk assessment to identify major risks. Of course, specific risks are site- and project-dependent. However, in general, consider areas such as contractor selection, training, resources for emergency response, site topography and climate, and overall budgeting. Keep top-level management apprised of major potential risks and mitigation measures for their impact. Some issues to consider:
● Most construction projects involve several contractors and sub-contractors. A poor contractor selection process could cause major safety mishaps. Selection criteria for contractors should include, for example, their past safety record, training, safe-work procedures, worker turnover, a review of their recent safety incidents, and limiting your liability. Each contractor and sub-contractor should be in a position to implement your safety practices and safety enforcement policies. For multi-company sites, overall safety policies will need to be agreed on by various parties.
● Develop a broad framework for training/testing of new hires as well as continuing training of all workers. Establishing a continuing safety emphasis is vital; without that, workers could become oblivious to risk.
● In today’s environment, it is less likely that top management is not familiar with the importance of safety. However, they may not share the zeal and perception of safety that you have. Brief them on potential hazards and safeguards for mitigating their impact. The managerial briefing should avoid safety jargon and instead use business and financial jargon. In a nutshell, “talk their language.”
● It is vitally important to keep neighbors “happy.” As the project progresses, keep them informed of progress and safety/environmental milestones. The key is to let them know that their safety is not being compromised.
The term “infrastructure” (in the context of this article) includes all safety-relevant documents for the project, such as applicable safety regulations (e.g., 29 CFR 1926) and cross references (e.g., OSHA regulations may refer to NFPA), safe work plans, site safety and site security procedures and forms, the construction plan and drawings, equipment information (dimensions, weights, metallurgy, any special handling requirements), and Safety Data Sheets (SDS). Consider the following:
● Systems should be in place to ensure documents are updated promptly as needed and are quickly accessible. This is often the task of document control. It should be streamlined.
● Safety studies, environmental studies and fire risk studies should be performed and recommendations should be incorporated in the construction. As construction progresses, it is possible some recommendations could change—you need to have mechanisms in place to update drawings and incorporate changes without significant delays.
● During construction, questions could arise that may entail modifications from the original design. This poses risk that needs to be assessed. Expert help should be available without significant delays so that changes can be made and documented (MOC system) while minimizing risk.
Today, a number of safety software packages are available for documenting and analyzing safety performance. Cloud-based systems are becoming commonplace. Safety software along with an incident reporting system should be part of your company’s database system. Avoid islands of information. Consider the following:
● The key purpose of safety software is to provide information on actionable items promptly. It should be easy to update, retrieve and analyze data.
● IT help should be available without delay. Also consider alternate sources (such as hard copies) for safety-critical items.
● Although incidents of cyber attacks on construction sites are rare, it is always a good idea to consider appropriate measures for cyber security—for example, firewalls, data access rights based on roles of personnel, and log-in processes.
● Mobile devices/platforms are proving to be a valuable tool for productivity and safety. It is not uncommon to run into situations where you need quick access to data. Managers can access vital information instantly on mobile platforms. At the start of the project, a framework should be in place for data access and access rights through mobile platforms. For very large construction sites, drone application may be considered for monitoring sites (as a part of the site security).
Above all, safety culture is on the top of the list of streetsmart practices for construction safety. You are the key for establishing and maintaining a safety culture. Workers take their cues from your statements, from your actions, from your interaction. Establish an environment of team spirit and cooperative work relationships. Consider the following:
● Empower workers to voice their concern when they see unsafe or potentially unsafe conditions. Respond to their concern appropriately.
● Make sure workers understand and feel comfortable in the use of their tools and PPE.
● Keep your criticism of worker performance positive and prompt. Ensure that they understand that safety is the top priority for everybody.
As is the case with many other professions, construction safety has benefited immensely by software tools, IT and mobile platforms. Along with digital tools, it is also worth noting that the old-fashioned practice of trust and openness, even today, continue to be valuable tools in attaining cost-effective safety.
G. C. Shah, CSP, CFSE, PE, is a senior consultant, process safety, environmental engineering and industrial hygiene at Wood Group, a global project management, engineering, procurement and construction operations company serving the upstream oil and gas, refining and chemicals, pipeline, automation and control, and industrial markets.