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Construction safety programs need constant support
Monday, November 24, 2008
My heart sank the morning of Nov. 18, when I read the AJC’s article about a 15-year-old boy who died because he wasn’t wearing any safety gear while working on a construction site in Duluth (“Youth died without safety equipment at construction site,” Metro, Nov. 18). I’ve noticed that much of the coverage of the accident focused on the fact that Luis Montoya was too young to work on the construction site and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But we can’t forget that the unfortunate death of Montoya could have happened to anyone, and will continue to, if something doesn’t change.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries in the construction industry and were responsible for 442 deaths nationwide in 2007, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Each one of those people could have been saved if their construction company had a better safety policy. For that reason, construction companies need to improve their safety practices and adopt meticulous safety programs to prevent tragedies like Montoya’s.
Effective safety programs are easily accessible and offered by numerous associations, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Associated General Contractors, and Associated Builders and Contractors. According to their Web site, ABC members participating in their program have a 70 percent lower fatality rate and 50 percent lower incident rate than the BLS average. Because safety programs have such a dramatic effect on the lives of construction workers, it is imperative that they become the standard for our industry.
A primary way that safety programs reduce construction incidents is by adopting a policy of using safer building practices to eliminate the risk of injury while building. For instance, at Bovis Lend Lease, we don’t allow unsafe A-frame ladders of any kind on our construction sites, and instead use scissor lifts, baker’s scaffolds and podium-style ladders. We have also modified our formwork system and build concrete stairs while building floors so that no one is ever exposed to the kind of fall that killed Montoya.
Equally as important as instituting safer building practices is creating a culture of safety among co-workers. You can have all the rules and regulations in the world, but if your people don’t believe in the program, those efforts won’t matter. Most accidents happen in safe environments because workers choose to do the wrong thing. Taking shortcuts might save a little time, but they can dramatically increase the risk of the task. That’s why you can’t just hand workers a guidebook on the first day and never mention safety again. Supervisors have to be an example and emphasize the importance of safety on the first day of work and every day thereafter. If companies are consistent in their commitment to safety, you can change the way construction workers view those rules and guidelines and actually make people want to wear that hard hat and take the extra time to do a job safely.
Our firm is proof that safety programs can make a difference. Since we adopted our safety program, Incident and Injury Free, in 2002, our experience modification rate, calculated by number of incidents and cost of injuries, dropped from an already low .46 to an even better .34 within two years.
And yet, even though our company has become known for providing a safe construction environment, I worry that the next construction site our subcontractors work on won’t have the same emphasis on safety, and those same workers that were safe on our jobs might get hurt on another. The only roadblock to safety programs is that not enough construction companies are committed to making safety a priority. Having a written program as required by OSHA is not a commitment. Believing in the program and visibly supporting it at all levels of the organization is what is required.
Let’s not wait until someone gets injured or dies on a job site to improve safety policy. All construction companies should learn from Montoya’s death and re-commit to their safety programs.
• Mike Hampton, a construction safety expert, is principal-in-charge for the Atlanta office of Bovis Lend Lease, a project management and construction company.