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Construction Safety

In Construction, It's Time To Rethink What We Do

TJ Lyons | December 21, 2018

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Construction worker wearing a harness

I was at one of the big box hardware stores this week and had some curtains cut for my house. There was a box attached to the curtain cutting machine marked personal protective equipment (PPE). The operator was 18 and in his first year of college. As I watched him trim, the PPE stayed in the box as he cut the ends off the curtains to fit the window.

The device was completely automatic; there were no exposed moving parts. The cutting blade under a solid cover you could not put your finger in. To operate, the youngster had to place both hands on two buttons to ensure he could not get near the protected blade. The safety guy in me said, "You know you should be wearing your safety glasses for this." He asked, "Why?" And his answer was correct.

Our focus on PPE over the last few decades has not followed the safety advantages technology and safer design has provided. When you hear, "But that's how we have always done it" or "I don't see that changing," that is a gift. Any organization that is reluctant to change cannot grow. If so, we would be replacing ribbons on typewriters, shoveling coal into cranes, and pulling out the choke each morning to start our car.

I offer the following areas and programs that we continue to support and policies that must be reconsidered in this new century. Use the suggestions below as speaking points for your next toolbox talk, and then listen to what those doing the work have to say.

The 100 Percent Glove Policy

In our attempts to limit the pain and cost of hand injuries, we widely and unwisely spread this 100 percent cut-resistant glove policy mantra across the world. The intent was anyone wearing gloves should not hurt their hands. To some extent, that is true, and many minor cuts and scrapes are avoided daily. I love to wear gloves as they are wonderful protection.

The grip afforded to a tool or an ax handle improves your control. When first thinking of passing out gloves, consider eliminating what is going to hurt someone's hands. I once investigated a serious hand injury. A good guy's hand cut on the end of some steel ducting. I called the manufacturer and asked if they could remove the steel burrs that remained when the duct is cut at the factory. "Sure … some of the more sophisticated clients are already asking we do that." And there was no additional cost.

Here's another example. When I first arrived at a firm years ago, everyone was wearing gloves. It was the law. So, I went up to the fellow running the pipe threader, a beast of a machine that cuts grooves into metal. Powerful. I saw he was wearing cut resistant gloves and asked why? "It's our policy." Looking at the side of the machine, there was a warning label (pictured below) prohibiting the wearing of gloves. The worker replied, "Yeah, but it's OUR policy!" and went back to work. I called the safety manager, who asked, "Where does it say that?" Sometimes we just don't know.

Warning Label - Lyons - December 2018

The new generation of gloves is made of a wonderful material. Unlike the skin torn from animals, these fabrics will prevent a tear to your hands but can tear your hand from your wrist. When they get caught up in any rotating equipment, first they will grip instantly. Try to pull these gloves off by the fingers; that's no easy task. They grab your digits like a child's finger trap, and if they snag on something moving, they will draw your hand into what the gloves are meant to protect you from.

I recently reviewed the health and safety requirements from one of our larger US general contractors. They have taken on the sole decision of when gloves can be removed. Their direction on glove use: "The only exception to this policy is if the competent person determines that the use of protective gloves for a specific activity creates a greater hazard." An attorney's dream. The risk recognized is now directly assigned to the general contractor rather than referring to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) prohibitions and any direction provided by the manufacturer. So, rethink and refine your 100 percent glove use policy.

The following are some supporting examples.

OSHA. Instruct employees not to wear gloves, jewelry, or loose-fitting clothing while operating a drill press and to secure long hair in a net or cap.

Stanford linear accelerator SLAC-I-730-0A21S-052-R005. Suitable gloves must be worn when the following hazards are present: chemical; thermal (extreme heat or cold); radiological; electrical; bio-hazard; possibility of abrasion, puncture, or contamination. Padded gloves should be used to improve ergonomics, as needed.

Important Do not use gloves when operating rotating equipment such as a lathe, drill, or drill press.

Equipment Manual—Hand Tool

Wearing Reflective Vests Inside Buildings

This is one of my favorites. You're walking into a building and notice that everyone is wearing a vest. Why? We don't ask that question because "we have always done it this way." If they are walking across a dark parking lot to get in and out of the building or across an active worksite or streets, yes. But once the building is up, and the roads paved and lit, let's give the guys a break. Take a step back and lose the vests when inside. Buy them some nice shirts with pockets. When the carpet crews come in, reassess the risk … they don't need a vest or a hard hat.

Conventional Hard Hats

Having the opportunity to work airfields overseas, I soon got used to the idea of a chin strap to keep my helmet on my head. When working with Gilbane, they made the right decision and started providing their safety staff this next generation of head protection. A design recognized outside of the US years ago, for our overseas friends understand, in a fall, your helmet may not hit the ground attached to your head. So, they attach you to the helmet. "Brilliant," as my UK pals would say.

Once I started wearing one, it was easy to start a conversation with workers here in the United States. The younger folks love the idea "where can I get one" and the older crowd "won't see my head in one of those!" But I persisted, and soon my boss bought one, for yes, I am a trendsetter. We need to catch up.

Construction Safety Gear - Lyons - December 2018

Make the decision today to better protect your noggin and those doing your work. A 10-year-old in the United States has better head protection with a bike helmet than our construction workers. This is obvious and conveniently overlooked by our industry and regulators.

Several of the large general contractors, such as Gilbane and Skanska, are now specifying these and yes, they meet all the standards. What is the motivation? We know they offer superior protection compared to a regular helmet, save lives, and reduce some nasty injuries, and soon like, there will be a listing for  

Protective-Toed Shoes

Only once in the last 27 years of being in safety have I had an incident related to wearing protective-toed shoes. In that case, the worker was using a jackhammer and that hammer (stuck in the open position) jumped atop his foot, destroying the front of his ankle—missing his toes and that mandatory protection. Yes, he needed toe and metatarsal protection for that task.

Related to the work boot issue is something I personally discovered. Having broken an ankle rock climbing (yes, I did that) and then sitting in a wheelchair for 3 weeks, I remember a conversation with my orthopedic doctor. "TJ, construction guys have the weakest of ankles, and they break easy. Every day you wear a work boot laced to the top, doctors call that a splint. Your muscles weaken from this daily support, and your muscles no longer really can support your ankle—Red Wing does."

We also need to consider the cost of work boots to those working. Often our workers are living paycheck to paycheck. If we can reduce the cost of gearing up for work, we should. If there is no risk to someone's toes (like carpet layers or crane operators), we need to let workers wear the shoes they prefer and feel comfy in—from hiking boots to Western boots with a good tread.

The Safety Checklist versus Correcting Conversations

There is real value in a real checklist. If you have read the book Checklist Manifesto, you understand how powerful they can be. Checklists save lives. But construction overall has morphed the checklist into another task, not a tool. We now call them Safety by Objectives, Safety by Observation, or SWAMBAs (you cannot even Google that one) where you typically walk and confirm people are doing their job safely.

I once was at a firm where 92 percent of their checklist showed the site was 100 percent safe. Some of those checklists photocopied and only the date was changed. When something unsafe was noted it was someone without their safety glasses or gloves. Most "unsafes" were corrected and marked as "safe" so their scores would be high. Walking up to one of these crews I noted a boom lift backing by me, quietly. The spotter in place, an operator wearing a conventional lanyard that would have tossed him clear of the rails if the machine bounced. I asked the foreman for the checklist as the broken alarm was examined, and the operator went to get a lanyard short enough to keep him within the safety of the basket. That checklist included confirmation that the backup alarm was working and the operator had on his fall protective gear. Both wrong but marked as "safe" 1 hour earlier. No one really looked.

We have come to a point in the industry where some see the reason for a checklist as cover. "We checked it this morning, and it was fine. Look right here…." When a firm measures checklist submittals for how many were done and were they done recently, not what was found, it's time to reconsider their value.

Checklists should be used to look for what will kill someone today, developed specifically for the task. The true value of a checklist, a short one, is to start what I call a "correcting conversation." I find these conversations the most satisfying part of my job. Talk with the person, don't blame them. Let them know you care, and show them the need to be safe. They already know they are doing something unsafe. Make the conversation relevant, and it will make a difference in that person's life. There is nothing more rewarding.

To Illustrate

Two stories to finish on correcting conversations—approaches that are often blunt and effective. When you're trying to save someone's life, never mince your words.

I was walking a project in New Jersey and spotted a guy working outside a rail maybe 10 feet from the ground. So I stopped and asked him for his help … and to tie-off. He had all his gear on, just not connected. I then went on and asked if he had any kids. Wary at first, he admitted to having two little girls. As we talked, I went over some recent falls in the area and said, "Just keep in mind, if you don't die when you hit the ground and are paralyzed, do you want your girls to spend their time wiping the spittle from your lips?" He laughed that off, and I went on my way. On my next stop to that floor about an hour later, he called me over. "Okay, you really pissed me off, but now that I think of it, you're right." And then he said thanks.

Last week a safety professional and I were talking about how we encourage workers to do the right thing. We are both Catholic, so guilt was our shared gift, but she had a unique and powerful approach. She will ask someone who is not tied-off at height, "Well can you at least say you are tied off 99 percent of the time?" And they will usually bite. "Then would you be okay if your pay was right 99 percent of the time, or your wife was faithful 99 percent of the time?" Finally, "Would you want some other guy raising your kids and sleeping with your wife because you don't want to tie-off?"

If you are looking for other examples of how to start these correcting conversations or a nice effective construction checklist, give me a call.

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