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Construction Safety

In Construction Safety, Focus on the Workers

TJ Lyons | October 13, 2023

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Abstract image of construction worker

When working for Turner, one of the largest constructors in the United States, the CEO Peter Davoren would visit our office. Always a bit of fanfare when he and his entourage arrived—but soon they would fade away—and he would take the time to say hello to everyone in the office. A handshake was offered, and if he did not know you, then he wanted to meet you. This was not just something nice; it was something great.

This article is centered on those things we can and should do as we work on construction sites or lead those efforts. The focus should be on the person and not on whether they are wearing safety glasses. Observations made on things that work in the field gain real trust rather than on things that do not.

Nothing is more critical than the people doing the work, though we don't always take the time to remember that fact. An example: When an incident alert goes out that there has been a construction accident, the more common response is often "Will this be a recordable?" or "Let's set up a crisis call to see how this happened." My response is first "How is the fellow that got hurt doing?" If the focus is on the cost to the firm, not the cost to the person and their family, that needs to change.

The Spanish-Speaking Construction Worker Challenge

One in three construction workers are Spanish speaking. It's time to look at the effect of not communicating properly and effectively with them. In some areas, they are doing the majority of our work. Not being able to communicate with these great people is a contributor to their getting hurt, and we don't discuss that often enough. Instead, we all keep a "I wish I had …" list in our heads. Mine ranges from passing up a career opportunity as a meteorologist, not having the guts to ask Cindy Keller to the junior prom, and not learning Spanish.

One would think with the increase of Spanish-speaking workers and leaders on our worksites and in our offices, Spanish as a second language would be far ahead of mandatory training for ethics; environmental, social, and governance; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. How can we say we care and consider it a safe workplace when we cannot communicate what right and wrong look like? Just as important, how can we establish a trusting relationship with a worker if we cannot even understand what they are saying? The next time you visit a worksite, ask how onboarding or orientations are completed, and ask to see the presentation and materials. Then ask if it's presented in Spanish.

Construction Safety Technology Challenge

Use the technology—we need to spend time with those doing the work; show, don't tell. During a recent site walk, I spotted a man cutting Unistrut. He was using a vise that weighed a few tons and a pipe stand that will pinch off fingers. The saw doesn't care what it cuts, including your gloves or legs, and then you need to file off the razor-sharp ends created by sawing, all without cutting your hands. I found his foreman, whipped out my phone, and showed him a machine that can do all of that within 11 seconds. After he watched the video, the foreman asked, "Damn … where can I get one of those?"

Conventional Pipe Stand Strut Cutter

Conventional Pipe Stand Strut Cutter

Photo by TJ Lyons

Automatic Shear

Worker cutting Unistrut with a safety shear

Photo by TJ Lyons

Make it relevant. When walking a project, look for those "killing conditions." A sign hangs over my desk that says "Eliminate the condition, and you eliminate the incident." So, as you walk the site, take the time to lay out how the little contributors you see can accumulate and cause an incident. An example: If you see a guy walking with an extension cord over his shoulder, first suggest that corded tools are "old school." Battery power eliminates the hassle.

Then point out that same condition you are looking at has killed someone before. See if they are interested, and if so, relate the tale below on how a series of little contributors killed someone. Then ask a favor: Have them use the example at the next site toolbox talk or for a safety moment. They can hand out the text below and ask the audience to look for how may contributors were in play. Few will get the fact that he was standing on a plastic bucket. This is storytelling backed up by consequence, and that always gets attention.

Abstract: On September 25, 2007, Employee #1 was using a refurbished, double insulated Bosch Rotozip saw, model 4351, to cut holes in the sheetrock ceiling of a residential home under construction. The cord of the tool had an inadequate splice in it. The tool was plugged into a 120-volt extension cord which was plugged into a power strip. The power strip was connected to a series of three extension cords that went to an outlet located in the house next door. The outlet was equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). The extension cords between the power strip and the outlet were missing their grounding pins. Employee #1 wrapped the extension cord that powered the saw around his neck so that the plug where the power tool was connected was resting on the left side of his chest. It was a hot day, and he was sweating. A witness heard Employee #1 yell, and saw him throw off the tool and cord. He then stepped off the plastic bucket upon which he was standing, took two steps, and collapsed. Employee #1 never regained consciousness. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The electrical shock he received was not enough to leave burn marks on his body, but it was enough to disrupt the rhythm of his heart. The medical examiner's report listed the cause of death as acute cardiac dysrhythmia due to low voltage electrocution.

Source: "Accident Report Detail," Occupational Health and Safety Administration, US Department of Labor, accessed on October 11, 2023.

Use the apps! Consider that the current generation of workers and leaders have never held a pencil. Yep, their tools are on a tablet or phone, so leverage that when walking. If it seems loud, show them how the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Sound Level Meter app works and review what numbers to be worried about. This is a chance to show someone's actual exposure; they will be using it afterward, and that's coaching at its best. Not sure if a ladder is at the right angle? Ask the "student" you are walking with to download the NIOSH Ladder Safety app on their phone and check! A very cool tool for both determining safe ladder angles but also excavation slopes.

NIOSH Sound Level Meter App

Hand holding a sound level meter app on a smartphone

Photo by TJ Lyons

NIOSH Ladder Safety App

Hand holding an angle measuring ladder safety app on a smartphone

Photo by TJ Lyons

Get the Construction Worker Involved—Be the Teacher

I love to ask those walking with me to do a quick video. It may take less than a minute, but it allows them to focus on the contributor that you see and help them understand the concern. We spend too much time on site walks telling people what is wrong versus helping them understand why it's wrong. Here is a simple example: I was walking with a foreman and rather than asking "Dude, really? You think that is going to work?" I took advantage of the moment to have him help me explain to others why it could be so much better.

Island Offices on Construction Sites

I once visited a site in Arizona, and no one was in the trailer with the exception of two young engineers and an intern. This was a project (new construction) covering 34 acres and would cost $1.2 billion to complete. I introduced myself and found they had been on the site for several weeks but had not stepped foot on the construction side. Hence the "Island Office."

Promises were made to return the following morning, and if they could find some work boots, I would supply their gear. The next day, we toured and walked the sites. I showed them what I looked for and what to fear, focusing on killing conditions that were in play and providing examples of accident prevention. They had the opportunity to pose for a selfie as the water truck sped by. A life lesson was learned by them about water truck drivers and being a target. Though, they did dry quickly.…

Construction Pride

When you think of construction pride, think about the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who do the work. The goal of a site walk is to meet the people doing the work, show them you truly care, have them appreciate what you do, and understand what you bring to the site. That is not how many safety professionals work. I was one of those at first, searching for unsafe things to show off how much I knew. Tagging someone not tied off and having them removed from the site made me a bit proud; I was doing my job. But as my career grew, I understood those doing the work are good people, and they are proud of what they do and what they have done. Until you understand the value of the workers, you will never win them over.

Next year during National Safety Week, have an open house on a Saturday for those doing the work and their families. We don't do this often enough.

  • Provide a safe path so workers can give their family a tour of what mom or dad is building!
  • Instead of boring "We Care about Safety" T-shirts, get some shirts for the kids saying, "Look What My Parent Built!"
  • Pass out cheap tape measures and mock up an area where kids can pose for a picture with a huge jackhammer stuck in a block of concrete or a rock. Earmuffs, safety vests that are too big, and hardhats would be perfect additions.
  • Modify some fall protection gear, get kiddie hardhats, and have the parents pose with their kids in their own gear. Don't just take a photo and email it, but go the extra step of framing it on site. Those workers will never forget you and will treasure what you provided.
  • On a giant screen (you can rent one for the day), show progress photos with plenty of closeups of those doing the work. Make sure to include lots of sparks falling—kids dig that. A few weeks prior to the event, have each crew take photos of their teams or selfies as they work. The best photo taken is awarded that day. Those kids will be searching and watching for their dad or mom as these photos scroll. They will be learning about construction and appreciating the work. That's our next generation of builders in the making.

If the insurance team is reluctant or says no to this type of promotion, look closely at that company's culture. It's telling.

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