Strategies for Safety in Construction
A strong housing and construction market are key indicators of economic wellbeing as they are reflective of healthy levels of employment and consumer confidence. Growth in the construction market drives additional demand for workers and materials, further reinforcing the strength of the economy in the process.
Construction sites are a beacon of investment and improvement but they are also a great source of risk for workers and the general public if safety precautions are not in place or adhered to. Over the years, safety on construction sites has come a long way, much to the credit of the efforts and personal sacrifices of past workers.
Though great gains in safety and wellbeing on construction sites have been achieved over time, much work remains to be done. One worker fatality is too many and unfortunately, construction is one of the riskiest industries in this regard. Improved safety in the construction industry will require a change in approach and a transformation of culture in order to achieve improved safety industry-wide.
Construction accounts for a significant number of worker fatalities, behind only transportation and warehousing. Though the number of fatalities has decreased over the years, so too has the number of people employed in the industry.
Safety on construction sites is also of utmost importance to the neighbourhoods and communities in which they are located. Public safety must be guaranteed at and around the worksite. Recently, a wall toppled onto scaffolding and collapsed into rubble in a busy midtown Toronto neighbourhood, injuring seven people including a baby in a stroller. These instances are all too common.
A strong safety program can make or break a company’s reputation; it can spell the difference between being a first and second rate construction firm. Beyond compliance with government rules and regulations pertaining to health and safety in the workplace, a strong internal safety program, policies and professionals are great ways to reinforce and support a strong culture of health and safety.
In a market that has recently recovered from an economic downturn, construction companies are trying to remain conservative, finding ways to improve the company’s bottom line while maximizing ROI. While cost savings can be identified company-wide, safety has great long-term payoffs and should not be sacrificed for short-term cost saving. Investing in safety is far less costly than losing a life.
Many companies have evolved from compliance-driven safety programs to a more holistic approach to safety and wellbeing in the workplace. The industry, for the most part, is shifting the focus from reactive to proactive approaches to safety. There is a move to incentive-based, worker-focused programs of safety and wellness.
These changes are having a positive impact on safety, productivity, and worker morale, and have resulted in lower rates of absenteeism, improved overall wellbeing and worker engagement. When individuals company-wide are engaged in the creation of a safer and healthier workplace, collectively working toward the same goals and targets, the rate of success is multiplied.
The adoption of a culture of safety is of paramount importance for the successful integration of health and safety, as well as wellness programs. By replacing the traditional enforcement and compliance mentality, workers are empowered using the resources made available to them by way of proactive policies, training programs and incentives, which could come in the form of pay or bonuses.
This change in culture is necessary, especially in the construction industry, where risk is assumed the moment someone enters the profession. Though construction is inherently risky, many things can be done and many efforts can be made to mitigate these risks to ensure that worker injuries and fatalities are no longer common, accepted instances in the industry.
There are multiple sources of risk on the construction site. It is important to identify them and be cognizant of them when on the worksite. Operating in compact spaces, working with heavy equipment such as cranes, scaffolding and forklifts, dealing with hazardous materials and climbing to extreme heights can all pose a risk for a worker at a construction site. Fires on the worksite are common and are often linked to unsafe storage practices on site. Other common threats are carbon monoxide poisoning and electric shock. The greatest number of worker fatalities is caused by falls, which is why many companies place such a great emphasis on fall prevention training. Workers must be sure that scaffolding, ladders, lifts, and even trenches are secure.
Beyond the issues that arise on the construction site, safety is also heavily weather dependent. Once again, the importance of identifying and communicating any potential hazards, including weather patterns, can mitigate much of the risk being incurred.
It is important for signage on the worksite to be clear, indicating the site rules and notifying of site dangers and risks. Site security can help to enforce safety on site, ensuring someone is always present and attentive. Sites must be properly fenced not only for the safety of the worker but also for that of the general public.
Many workers are also faced with the threat of occupational health issues and diseases. Exposure to asbestos is a common problem for workers in many industries, while task repetition, overwork and exertion over the years in physically demanding occupations can also result in chronic body aches and pain, arm vibration syndrome, certain cancers, and anything in between. Great efforts have been made to improve worker safety and occupational disease in the workplace over the years, especially in the developed world. Much progress remains in the developing world, where workers rights and employment standards lag far behind in this regard.
Accidents cost a great deal of time, money, human sacrifice, headaches related to insurance deductibles, and many other issues depending on the frequency and severity of the accident. Investing in stronger in-house safety programs reduces accidents as well as costs and liabilities, while improving overall performance.
Strong safety programs and performance records not only help to reduce insurance claims and costs; a less than desirable safety record could cost a construction firm both clients and employees. A strong safety program and reputation helps to attract and retain clients and employees, which further reinforces the company’s ability to deliver results.
There are many ways in which safety can be encouraged and hazards can be mitigated on construction sites. Safe practices can be adopted on both an individual and an organizational level and in fact, safety programs are most effective when everyone on the construction site is an active participant in safe practices. It is important for contractors to work with reputable subcontractors who share common values. Safety must be accepted as one of the company’s core values and those values should permeate throughout the company, from the top down, creating a culture of safety that is not only adopted but believed in.
On an individual level, workers can conduct personal risk assessments while also maintaining a focus on site-level risks. By understanding safety policies and procedures in place, being attentive to one’s surroundings and the activities occurring on site, and by using regularly inspected industry-approved personal protective equipment (PPE), employees can empower themselves to remain safe on site.
Many companies form a health and safety committee, create designated health and safety departments, or add health and safety professionals such as life coaches, wellness coaches, and health and safety personnel into the company’s operations at the site level.
Safety requires consistent focus to ensure that policies and procedures are not just being implemented, but enforced. In order for safety culture to take root in a company, resources must be dedicated and made accessible and accountability needs to be reinforced. Effective safety programs require extensive follow-through. In order for safety to be achieved and maintained, safety programs should be strongly evaluated and re-evaluated over time to ensure relevance and up to date standards. Safety checklists can be provided in a number of scenarios to ensure safety at every phase of a project.
One key element of safety is training. In addition to government mandated training requirements, many companies have invested in their employees by creating internal training programs to ensure greater degrees of worker and site safety. Employees require the right gear, the right skills, and the right knowledge in order to bring safety, and thus value, to a project or a company.
Other ways to improve safety are through stringent hiring practices and extensive worker screening, a difficult feat in an industry experiencing skilled labour shortages. The construction industry is known for having one of the highest rates of substance abuse and illicit drug use of all industries, so drug testing and counselling services could have a significant impact on overall industry safety.
Safety needs to be an everyday topic and must remain a company’s foremost priority. Unsafe jobs or workplace injuries ensure a project is never seen through to completion. Daily, weekly and monthly safety meetings can help to keep expectations clear and site communication even clearer. Accidents and near misses should be recorded in order to identify and understand their root causes in order to avoid similar instances in the future. All of these elements are important to developing and implementing a strong and successful safety program.
Workplace deaths and injuries can happen for any number of reasons. The principle behind safety programs is to reduce and mitigate these risks, reducing the number of worker fatalities and injuries in the process. By identifying areas of weakness and reinforcing a company’s strengths through policies, procedures, training and a culture of safety, risks can be avoided.
One worker death is too many and for the high-risk construction industry many of these unfortunate circumstances can be avoided through the adoption of a few simple strategies. By adopting a safety program or by committing to more stringent safety standards and enforcement, companies are making an investment that they can’t afford to do without.