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Construction Safety

It's Not PPE, It's PPP—Planning, Prevention, and Then Protection

TJ Lyons | December 21, 2022

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I was critiquing a subcontractor's safety manual, and I thought it seemed rather prescriptive and rule-driven. Not sure that's the word, but it was clear that if you did not follow the program, you would be written up and, in some cases, written off.

So, I took a minute to get a gauge of the document by a simple word search. When looking at a manual, safety document, or résumé, always check to see if "prevention" is mentioned. It's not as common as hoped.

Curious, I took a tour of Google and looked at the premier health and safety manual in the United States: the Army Corp of Engineers manual known as EM 385. Prevention is listed 107 times. When you look at the safety program template offered by the US Department of Labor (DOL) through one of our states, "prevention" is not referenced in those 77 pages, but "investigation" is found 22 times. One construction firm celebrating its 100-year anniversary published its history, and that book did not have "safety" as a topic.

Safety Trends and Successes

Following are my observations on trends in safety and the successes we are seeing in the field. Also included is a discussion on some barriers we must acknowledge from within the ranks of our safety professionals. To further reduce our sons and daughters getting killed on worksites, we need to change our approach and accept innovations.

First, some good news: we are winning the battle on falls. The following is per the Bureau of Labor statistics.

In 2020, there were 161 fatal work injuries from which ladders were the primary source. This was a 5.8-percent decline from 2019 (171 deaths).

I suspect this is a result of fewer ladders to fall from in the workplace. The ladder is the contributor to workplace accidents. If there is no ladder to fall from, you eliminate falls from ladders.

My approach to safety has always been, "If the condition does not exist, the accident does not occur." So, change the thinking.

  • Rather than look for the highest rated gloves to save hands from cuts, eliminate what's cutting those hands.
  • Falls from heights are responsible for about one-third of construction deaths. So, wherever possible, do less work at height.
  • Rather than build buildings piece by piece, plan the work so that you assemble building pieces then put them together.

Construction Best Practices

Following are some best practices accumulated over my years in the industry. They are broken out by the three Ps: planning, prevention, and protection. In the United States, we typically offer protection first, from birth control to hand protection, for we like to see the results of our "work" (i.e., someone wearing something to protect them). But that's not solving the problem, just treating the symptom.

First, a story about how we safety professionals think. For years we have advocated for SawStop technology in the field. This table saw will stop the blade before losing your fingers. We are now seeing this in the field, so I proudly sent along a photo of this to a safety professional as confirmation that the safety system works. The reply was, "That guy needs to wear gloves," not understanding that gloves would actually impede the blade stopping because the saw's automatic braking system stops the blade upon contact with skin or flesh. His thinking is our barrier. The thing he looked for was protection not prevention. So, I thanked him for his observation and sent him the following from the manual.

Following are some more areas to focus on. If you want the full list, just give me a call.


Assemble first. The industry is moving to prefabrication and modular construction: from toilet rooms complete with Sheetrock and fixtures to overhead pipe racks already filled with utilities and those lines insulated. One contractor is now assembling concrete-encased duct bank in a warehouse and shipping those completed sections to the site to drop in the trench. The saving was 60 percent compared to assembling in the field.

Dull sharp edges. Rather than issue gloves for those working with sharp edges, like on air handlers or prefabricated length of ducts, have the manufacturer debur the cutting edges. After a serious hand injury in Philadelphia, I called the manufacturer of a duct-damper and asked if they would debur the razor-sharp edge of their assemblies. They answered that, yes, they do that for some clients already. And the cost? There was none.

Eliminate ladders. Specify by contract that contractors will only use mobile elevated work platforms. In the rare condition where a ladder is needed, they can get a variance.

Eliminate hot work. Never, ever allow work on an energized electrical system. This is routinely done, and we need to stop. I once was asked to approve a tie-in to a hospital to replace an existing main conductor. That line was in shoddy shape, and I feared it would arc as we worked near it. The client stepped up and did a work-around, and we completed the work safely. It took 3 weeks to engineer, but if the condition does not exist, the incident will not occur. When the safety standard for conducting electrically "hot work" says to wear clothing that does not melt, that's just wrong. We should never ask someone to do hot work in the first place.


Prevention is really the key. The photos of hazardous situations shown below are taken by me. Products referred to below to solve such situations are examples only. I'm not advocating one product over another, and I recommend you do your homework. Research solutions to prevent the problems you encounter.

Dull the edges. We once had a flurry of cuts to the forearms by electrical workers as they routed conductor through the razor-sharp metal wall studs we allow them to work around. The area safety director bought dozens of Kevlar arm guards for protection, and no one wore them. Studs with the sharp edges rolled under were sourced, eliminating that cutting edge, preventing cuts and the need to wear Kevlar for protection. You also need fewer studs in some cases when using these for framing.

Reduce the load. Stop asking workers to drag concrete-filled hoses across a steel-mesh floor with 9-inch openings for hours at a time, all the while reminding workers to "be safe." Instead, use hose puller and placement machines. This device has been around for several years. Firms are using this innovation to supplement a diminishing workforce and make the work a whole lot easier for those we ask to do it.

Use cordless tools. Few of us have corded tools in our garages, but they remain in the workplace. Do yourself a favor in 2023 and prohibit corded tools from your worksites. With few exceptions, tools like drills, task lighting, saws, etc. are now designed to run off batteries. Batteries that, if stolen, won't work elsewhere. You can eliminate much of the cost of Occupational Safety and Health Administration fines, temporary power sources, cord handling inspections, cord "trees," and routing across the work area by this simple step. See examples of cordless systems.

Stop slips and falls. Take down the "slippery when wet" signs, for they are an attorney's dream. Instead, install slip-resistant coverings. This simple and durable material allows rain to pass through while providing great protection to those walking in the rain, ice, or snow. And yes, it is reusable so you can score Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points as well. Here is a shot I took showing frost that set overnight that would have caused a slip—but cannot. Like I say, "If the condition does not exist, the accident does not occur."

Shear for strut and rod. A consistent injury source is our tendency to cut Uni-strut using a saw and a pipe vice. During a conversation with Rosendin Electric, one of the best in the industry, I suggested they move away from bandsaws (that like to cut hands and legs) and try a Greenlee 30T shearing station. You insert the strut or threaded rod and push a button. Done. They bought one … then they bought more as they discovered they cut their fabrication of strut cuts from 56 seconds (and the need to file those sharp edges off) to 11 seconds with the shear with no sharp edges. You will find there are no blades to replace, no saws to service, no pipe-stands to ship and store, and no way to cut off fingers.


Use smart hand protection. I once came upon a surveyor and his partner in the middle of an open field in March in New York State. It was well below freezing. Their first complaint was they could not feel their hands in their rubber-coated cut level-4 gloves, and the wind was blowing through their vented hard hats. Our safety systems made these two wear the wrong protection.

I took a trip to a nearby hardware store and bought some lined gloves and wool caps for them to wear. There was no need for hand or head protection; there was a serious need for common sense. If there is no hazard, then protection is not needed—the construction industry finds that difficult to advocate (e.g., carpet-layers wearing hard hats or tying-off in a scissor lift designed with rails to protect you).

Clean windshields on buggies. On frosty mornings, you can't see out the windshield of the buggies that dot our site. Most don't have heaters or defrosters, so we take out our credit cards and scrape the frost off the soft plastic material. When the sun comes out, you can't see clearly from the scratches we created. From de-icing materials to parking these buggies in the sun, we witnessed little improvement. One of the buggies with a scratched windshield speeding across the site before sunrise struck a worker when the area lighting caused glare. This occurred just as the victim was walking across a parking lot, dressed in black, head in a hoodie, and on his phone. One contributor, of course, was inadequate vision for the driver, so we removed the windshields. "If the condition does not exist, the accident does not occur." With clear visibility, pedestrians were safer, and the operators slowed to keep the breeze down.


Take the time to look at problems on your construction site. Revisit what's being done to "solve" these problems. Do your research to learn about new approaches—innovations that will reduce injuries and allow work to be conducted more safely and efficiently with the diminishing workforce we have. Fewer people will get hurt, and that makes everyone happier.

One of our more significant, repeating barriers in construction is we protect the workers from harm rather than eliminating what harms them.

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