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The construction industry includes many inherently dangerous tasks that lead every year to work-related accidents. Although construction work employs about 6% of all U.S. workers, 20% of all work-related fatalities take place in the construction industry–or about 1,000 per year.

Though workplace safety is important at any time, it is all the more important in a sagging economy. The increased competition for a limited number of construction jobs means that some contractors might be tempted to cut corners in order to bolster their bottom lines, and one of the places they may cut is on safety.

The economic downturn also means that more work is being done in occupied buildings, posing a safety risk to occupants.

In an economic downturn, businesses tend to renovate their existing space to better meet their needs rather than relocate to new quarters. They also tend to consolidate on office space in order to save on rent, which can mean squeezing more employees into a smaller area in order to free up additional offices or subdividing existing space in order to sublet the excess.

Whatever the case, instead of working in empty spaces, contractors are increasingly working in occupied offices. In addition to exposing occupants to the risk of construction-related accidents, the need to limit the time that employees are subjected to the disruption of working at a construction site means that these jobs are often conducted under aggressive timetables.

In summary, the economic slump means that there’s more pressure to get the job done for less money and in less time, which carries an increased risk of workplace accidents.The good news is that mishaps can be avoided through the implementation of a proactive safety management program. Most construction-related accidents fall into defined categories, and thus are highly predictable, and easily prevented. These include:

• Falls: About one-third of construction deaths nationally are related to falls, including falls from roofs, falls from ladders and falls through openings such as skylights. Most of these accidents can be prevented through simple measures such as making sure ladders are properly anchored or scaffolding has adequate guardrails.

• Scaffolding failures: Scaffolding, the temporary framework used to support construction workers and materials during work on large structures, must be built correctly in order to ensure workers’ safety. Again, simple measures, such as making sure scaffolding parts are not mismatched, can prevent accidents.

• Falling objects: Construction workers, as well as building inhabitants, are at risk from falling objects when overhead work is being performed. A wide range of safety precautions may be taken to minimize the risk of injury from falling objects, including something as simple as wearing a hardhat.

As a general contractor, we are responsible for the overall management of the construction project. One of the most important aspects of our safety program is our requirement that our subcontractors submit a written pre-task plan that lays out the scope and sequence of the work, the safety hazards posed by the work and their plans for addressing those hazards–not only for their own workers, but for others who may be on the site.

Such plans are submitted daily for any high-risk work. Although such plans are generally required on high-risk construction sites, it is unusual for a general contractor to require them from every subcontractor on every project. These safety plans allow us to evaluate whether subcontractors are meeting their safety obligations. The plans also help with enforcement, allowing us to call subcontractors to account for failure to comply with a plan’s terms.

Although the requirement for such pre-task safety plans initially met with resistance from subcontractors who were more accustomed to discussing safety measures with their employees than writing them down, our subcontractors have come to realize that such plans work to their benefit as well as that of their employees and other workers on the site. A “morning huddle” among the multiple trades working in the same area is another important aspect of our safety program.

The only way to make sure that safety is uppermost in the minds of everyone on the job is to educate workers. But because construction workers typically move from job to job, it is difficult to assess which workers have received training and at what level. The only way to be sure workers have received the proper training is to provide it yourself. Sweetwater provides the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Act 10-hour training course in health and safety hazard recognition and prevention to subcontractors and their employees at a discount. We also work with our insurance brokers and insurance carriers to provide topical training, for instance on common hazards in the industry such as falls, electrocutions and falling objects. Finally, we provide training on project-specific subjects such as working with asbestos or silica, and on the hazards associated with particular types of sites.

In addition to contributing to a safer workplace, a leading-edge safety program also ensures that the jobsite functions more efficiently, thus increasing the chances that the project will be completed on time and under budget. And it serves as a marketing tool: companies with a record of multiple safety incidents and/or OSHA violations have fewer opportunities to even bid on projects, much less to be awarded the contracts.

Although it is costly and time-consuming to implement an effective safety management program, the outlay of such a program is minimal by comparison to the costs of jobsite inefficiencies, the time lost to accident-related injuries and the potential expense of accident liability. It pleases insurance carriers, which lowers operating costs passed down to clients, but the greatest reward of a safety program is the increase in satisfaction from employees who know they are working for a company that cares about making the workplace environment as safe as possible.

Daniel Chapdelaine is the assistant director of environmental, health and safety at Sweetwater Construction Corp. in Cranbury. He can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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