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Construction Safety

Construction Injury Prevention through Safety

Peter Furst | July 1, 2009

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Group of construction workers of different ages

The creation of a safe work environment on a construction site requires a team effort in identifying, evaluating, and managing the risks that flow to the worksite. All the participants—owners, designers, contractors, and safety professionals—must cooperate and contribute to achieve this lofty goal. "Construction Injury Prevention through Design" discussed the role of the owners and designers. Now we turn to contractors and safety professionals.

When it comes to construction field operation, there are two major elements to address: the means and methods selected by the contractor to execute the construction operational plan and the safety procedures employed to create a "safe" work environment at the project site. So, to assist the designer in addressing construction risk, the contractor will have to provide the proposed project operational plan prepared for pricing purposes. This plan reflects some of the key decisions made on how best to meet the contract terms, expectations, and design intent. The designer and contractor may review this plan and its associated risk to see how best to eliminate or diminish their impact.

The contractor's selected means and methods, usually reflects past operational experience equipment available or perceived efficient methods. To create an injury-free work environment, the contractor must use innovative construction management processes in order to minimize risk. Such tools as the last planner for scheduling and a lean project delivery process go a long way toward minimizing worksite risks. The contractor's use of such tools, as well as Building Information Modeling (BIM), will create fewer challenges for the designer in the elimination of risk during the design process.

For many contractors, safety is not a critical element of the preconstruction operational plan, except for major exposures. Things like fall protection systems, scaffolding needs, excavation protective systems, etc., are usually addressed by subcontractors. The general contractor will need their input and provide this information to the designer. All this effort may be for naught if the contractor does not have safety as a core value and does not address it with its subcontractors at inception. Because in many cases, when production is at risk and contact completion penalties loom, safety tends to "take the backseat." The worker, if faced with a perceived choice between working safely and being more productive given the work climate, will invariable choose taking risks to achieve the productivity goals. We also have to appreciate that taking risk does not always result in incidents and more rarely in injuries, so risk taking becomes more or less routine, and the thought of injuries take on less importance.

Another issue revolves around industry practice. In the case of fall from heights in steel erection (see Figure 1), the usual method used for protecting the worker from falls when disconnecting the sling (chocker) from the middle of the beam after it has been placed and connected, is to provide a cable in the flange area of the beam to which the worker is directed to attach his lanyard. Should a worker fall, the total fall distance (from where his feet are before the fall to where his feet end up after can be in the neighborhood of 14-18 feet depending on some variables (Ellis 2001). Since many commercial buildings have a floor-to-floor height of around 12 feet or so, the falling worker will impact the lower level and suffer an injury. So from this perspective the fall protection system selected in the "example" is ineffective in keeping workers from getting injured. So, there also is a "design" element in the contractor's area of control that also needs to be addressed when selecting ways to protect the workforce from harm on construction sites.

Figure 1

Steel Erection - Typical Fall Protection Solution

There are a multitude of conditions that lend themselves to other solutions depending on the height of the structure. In buildings that are only a few stories high, the worker may be able to perform the task mentioned from an aerial lift, thereby eliminating the need for fall protection. Another option is available in case the steel member weight is within the capacity range of clamps, then the sling configuration is replaced with a safer option. There's also the possibility of using a different sling configuration that will eliminate the choker, and the "disconnection" may be accomplished from the beam ends.

All of these options must be explored during the contractor's planning stage so that the cost of these possibilities can be rolled into the bid price. This suggestion may potentially impact competitiveness in a bid situation. If the owner does not consider the safety aspects of the operational plan, then the contractor must make a business decision, which in all likelihood will mean matching industry standards, which the contractor's competitors will use. To remain competitive, the contractor will be faced with an economic challenge.

Another area to explore is the safety procedures employed by the contractor in providing a safe workplace for its employees. The usual techniques utilized are orientation, meetings, program rules, training, engineered controls, and inspections. If any sort of planning is done during construction, it may consist of completing a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) for "high" hazard tasks, and the use of a 2-3 week look-ahead schedule for coordination and resolution of any safety issues. The predominant means of addressing safety is usually a small part of the production/coordination meetings. This is an ineffective application of the planning process, which is one of the most powerful tools available to the contactor to create an injury-free worksite. (See "Managing Construction Risk through Pre-Operational Planning.")

Contractor's selected means and methods are another source of risk that may be affected by the owner's requirements, although the contractor has greater discretionary control in this area. See numerous articles on this topic on as well as other articles penned by the author.

Safety Management and the Safety Professional

It is generally the worker who is considered to be in control of the safe performance results. Over the years, there have been numerous studies of accident data which indicated that virtually all accidents are caused by workers making choices which lead to incidents, injuries, and ultimately losses (Heinrich, Byrd, et al.). As a result, safety programs, policies, and procedures have generally focused their efforts on interventions that deal with controlling the physical environment and the behavior of the workforce. The underlying premise governing safety performance improvement is that somehow by "fixing" the worker, safety problems will be resolved. There is no question that the workers do have control over their own behavior, and that they do make choices that sometimes lead to incidents, but in the workplace there is much, much more at play than individual worker decisions and choices. An overlooked area is the jobsite management's ability to exercise considerable control over virtually everything that transpires at the workplace, including affecting the worker's decision-making, as well as safe behavior.

Safety performance improvement strategies typically start with a review of past losses. From this analysis flow the interventions for the upcoming time period. These interventions typically include more training, emphasis on certain program elements, writing of new procedures, or more rigorous inspections. More than likely, in the short-term, some of these interventions do garner improved result in the safety outcome metrics. But in the long run, the results never live up to expectations. And so more training, retaining, incentives, and priority programs are instituted with similar resulting outcomes.

Some of this is because the improvement strategy is based on historic data and the future is never exactly the same as the past. The data analyzed may not give a true picture of all the contributing causes. The focus generally is on the worker and not on the systems, processes, and culture. Since the worker is a part of the "system" that takes the design information and builds the physical structure, trying to "change" the worker's behavior does not remove the underlying cause of the behavior. That remains to manifest itself in the actions of the next injured worker. In the construction industry, this happens all the time—somewhat like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Interventions focusing on workers have been used by organizations for decades, generating some success, but the positive result generally tends to plateau and is short-lived.

In organizations, there are a great number of areas where the management of the safety process is out of alignment with innovative thinking. For example, safety is generally end-of-the-line focused and vertically managed. It should have a cross-departmental focus and have a functional horizontal value flow. Safety objectives are usually out of alignment with business goals. Safety management is not integrated into operational processes, and safety metrics have little relationship to measures used to manage the organization. There should be an organizational integrated strategy with defined objectives, aligned metrics, and achievable goals. Safety should report to senior management and have a part in the organization's overall strategy. Safety should be an organizational core value—it should be instinctual!


Integrating safety processes into contractor operations and utilizing innovative approaches to managing the safety process are crucial to ensuring a safe construction environment. The safety professional must be cognizant of innovative approaches to understanding human error (Dekker 2006) and the need to make the work environment and free of hazards and risk as possible. While the owner manages the process, ensuring cooperation between the design team and the contractor team, a well-conducted construction process and knowledgeable safety professionals are critical to achieving the goal of an injury-free workplace.


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