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Construction Safety

Doing Things Right in Construction Safety

TJ Lyons | August 4, 2017

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Building a house--construction worker

Most of my career has been in safety—from early work in industrial hygiene to my love of construction safety. Often, I write about the weakness in our safety systems. This time, I want to share what we are doing right in construction safety. 

One thing I recognized when creating this column is how long it takes for ideas to take hold, confirming that we need patience for our interventions to take root. I always say long-lasting changes are incremental. Baby steps are needed, and our safety professionals often start the industry on that journey.

National safety "weeks" or "stand downs" are organized each year with a focus on construction safety. This is a perfect and fairly new opportunity to have vendors display new safety equipment and help firms to deliver a specific message to the folks in the field. And they are right to do so. It is valuable to take the time to review successful industry efforts as well as failures. Both are learning opportunities. Below are examples of just a few of the many successes.

Safer Construction Techniques

The impact of lean construction techniques changed the world of construction safety. Massive segments of piping are being assembled off-site and delivered to the worksite and simply plugged in. Those days of raising piping with roust-a-bouts, winches, and rope and workers hoping not to fall from a ladder are slowly being recognized as archaic.

I visited one of our projects in Buffalo, New York, where the majority of the plumbing systems were assembled off-site using a modular approach. Each pipe hanger was labeled, barcoded, and cut to the exact length needed for a specific section of pipe. The pipe sets are on wheels so "nothing hits the ground."

Precut Pipe Hanger - Lyons - Aug 2017

When I spoke with the general superintendent, his approach was based on efficiency and the quality of the work in a controlled environment. No one had to stand on a ladder to solder these pipes together. Buffalo's prefabrication was all about production and safety.

Safer Materials

We also use safer materials. For example, we no longer clean windows with acetone at the end of construction projects. One of my earlier jobs (before the Web page was invented) was to monitor air quality as hundreds of windows were cleaned with acetone in a computer assembly factory. Now we use glass cleaner. This was a relatively simple fix but illustrates construction safety progress.

Safer Leaders

Project bonus programs now include the site safety officers. That has not always been true and is being corrected. Another improvement is that more women are entering the field and are being chosen as safety leaders. Our current safety director here at Gilbane, Rebecca Severson, came up through the ranks to the top spot. The New York Division Safety Director, one of our largest, is led by Marianne Santarelli. Tied to more women in the safety field, and in the construction workplace, is a recent rise in firms offering personal protective equipment designed and sized for ladies. Take a Google look, and you will see how that market is taking root. (And not everything is in pink.) Expanding the number of safety officers helps improve construction safety.

Safer Protective Ware

The idea of eliminating hazards rather than providing protection for the worker has taken root. The philosophy of prevention through design popularized by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has taken hold. The American Association of Industrial Hygiene, American Society of Safety Engineers, and American National Standards Institute are also helping to spread the idea that protecting the worker from harm is easier by removing what can harm the worker. In my opinion, safety by design is one of the most exciting and practical approaches to safety since Herbert W. Heinrich developed his injury pyramid. Rather than measuring how often people will get hurt, we now aim to eliminate the hurt.

Safer Equipment

As I constantly preach, the move away from stilts and ladders to work platforms will save lives. Though ladders certainly have a use, work platforms are being built that make the work easier and faster. The idea of "Ladders Last" is now a recognized approach, replacing ladders with a reasonable place to work makes for a safer, and more comfortable, workforce. Choosing a ladder that one can work from without fear of it failing, or a fall, is being engineered by the ladder industry. The increased use of platform or pulpit ladders that allow workers to comfortably stand on their feet are slowly replacing conventional step ladders.

We now have boom lifts that soar to incredible heights, hand-powered scissor lifts that can be used on suspended scaffolds or in confined spaces, and simple lifts that allow you to work in a ceiling (through one ceiling tile) and run off a battery-powered drill. The days of balancing on a ladder rung or stilts are fading. The move away from ladders to working platforms has taken hold. When you fall from a ladder or stilts, you fall into the emergency room. Fall on a work platform, and you only get dirty. 

Me Cleaning Gutters - Lyons - Aug 2017

Safer Waste Collection and Removal

Even trash collection has become safer. An example I frequently cite involves Dan Lavoie of Liberty Mutual and I walking a project in New York City on February 17, 2009. We spotted a pile of steel stud ends accumulating on the floor at a work station. I stopped the worker and placed a container to catch the scrap pieces before they hit the floor.

Steel Scraps - Lyons - Aug 2017

From there, the idea of containerizing debris and materials arriving on a project was born. Paul Huntley, the safety director for Turner from the Nutmeg State (Connecticut), started calling the idea "nothing hits the ground." That name and philosophy has become common on worksites, in lean language, and is now referenced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

There are also fewer fires on construction site. The days of smoking on the job or burning scrapwood or coke in barrels to keep warm are gone. Inside work shanties in New York City, you will find a self-containing sprinkler to stop a fire with a detector to sense the fire when no one is around.

Self-Contained Sprinkler Unit - Lyons - Aug 2017

Being Safe for the Family

And lastly, and my favorite thing we are doing right … we are bringing the idea of a working family into our safety efforts. Construction firms are coaching field staff on the value of relationships. When we advise a worker about doing something unsafe, we understand what the outcome could be (let's say a fall from a too-short ladder) and the effect that fall would have on his or her family.

I recently coached someone in what could become a dangerous situation by asking if he had a family and whether it was worth 10 seconds of his time to connect to the lifelines. When I saw him a few hours later, he was still connected. I thanked him, and he replied, "Well, when you mentioned my family, that's when I listened." When you make a change based on protecting others, that is as real as it gets.

While we're on the topic of family, my son and I went fishing on Father's Day. That was his gift to me. As I picked through my gear, choosing what was needed, I grabbed my two life vests. Not an afterthought or on a checklist, life vests are now just another piece of fishing gear. Lives are saved when "safe" becomes routine. Like helmets when biking or seat belts or car seats when driving, we become comfortable with things that protect us, and we use them without thinking. That's safe habits, and that's the goal.

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