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Design the job for safety

The construction industry has plenty of flaws, even as it creates some of the most beautiful and inspiring objects devised by humans. The most serious flaw is the ongoing death and injury rate for construction workers. While most US industry has achieved drastic reductions in death rates, construction has continued to see unacceptably high death and injury rates on construction sites.

Historically, life has been cheap in the construction trades. Deaths on building sites have been commonplace throughout the history of the US, and long before Europeans had broached the western hemisphere, construction in major ancient civilizations like Rome, China, and Egypt included a heavy cost in lost human lives.

In more modern times, the can-do attitude and high level of acceptable risks inherent in the construction trades cultures has led to many deaths and injuries, even today. In 2010, 4.2% of all US jobs were in construction trades, but over 16% of fatal injuries occurred on construction sites. 230,000 serious injuries and 774 deaths occurred. More recent data suggests that total is increasing. 2017 saw about 900 deaths on construction sites, or more than 11 deaths each week! Non-fatal injuries are also overwhelmingly incurred on construction job sites.

Industry participants have in some cases awakened to this problem and have developed internal programs to reduce this carnage.

Much of the injury rate is often traced to unsafe work methods, and failures to wear proper personal protective equipment. New challenges emerge also, even as we are now working through safe procedures for working during pandemic crises.

However, not all risk can be addressed during the construction phase. A 1991 study in Europe concluded that 60% of fatalities resulted at least in part from decisions made prior to the start of construction. Thoughtful design can reduce risks for construction workers, and continue to provide safety benefits during subsequent renovation and maintenance activities. Reducing risk by eliminating unsafe operations is a better solution than simply adding PPE.

Some options:

As evidenced by the dramatically lower insurance rates for factory labor versus site labor, choosing pre-manufactured assemblies over site-built construction moves labor into the more controlled atmosphere of a factory floor or yard, where worker safety is more easily managed.

Safe methods of construction need to be identified prior to incorporation of design elements into structures wherever new processes or design elements are being considered. If it can’t be built safely, there should be a question of if it should be built at all.

Insist on identification in the design drawings, of pre-existing risks, such as hazardous materials, or dangerous structural conditions as part of project documentation for projects involving existing structures. This is not uncommon today, but needs to be the rule.

Trade worker organizations should continue to identify common operations that create hazards to workers and either develop alternative methods and tools, work with manufacturers and suppliers to eliminate those operations, or create or upgrade training programs that reduce the risks to their membership.

Minimize as far as possible construction of confined space areas (areas in a building or structure that are not intended for occupation, so may not have ventilation or lighting, and may have access, height or other issues making it difficult to move around in.) These areas pose special risks during construction and during occupation and repair phases, and should be avoided if possible.

Finally, communication of risks is a key factor in safety. Project documents should identify unusual risks, unexpected fall locations, required safety items, and any local conditions that create unusual situations. Everyone on site should be familiar with the on site risks, both by being familiar with the project documentation, and by abiding by temporary signage and warning devices on site.

All parties involved in a construction project have a hand in reducing the death and injury of the workers doing the actual building. Every person should go home at the end of the day in the same condition they arrived for the beginning of their shift. Identifying and eliminating the risk of death and or serious injury in the construction industry needs to be a focus for all industry participants. The deaths and injuries of construction workers are on all of our hands.

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