No Such Thing as Accidents

A Brief History of Construction Safety

Rarely are television commercials so shocking that they remain etched in our memories, but that is exactly what happened with a series of workplace safety spots over a decade ago. Part of a campaign from the Ontario government’s Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB), the Prevent-It workplace accident advertisements were controversial because they were so brutally upfront and graphic.

Instead of the usual voiceover, each spot is narrated by the victim, creating an even greater impact. One depicts an aspiring female chef working in a restaurant, saying she is about to be married – a joyful event which will never happen after she slips on grease, a massive pot of scalding water flying into her face.

Another shows a young welder high atop a building. Facing the camera, he says, “I’m working overtime because I want to take my family on a nice vacation. Soon, they’ll get a call telling them I was killed in an ‘accident.’ But hey, I’m wearing a busted harness here, and the company should have checked those tanks, but…” his last word is cut-off by a thunderous explosion, as the welder flies off the building, his corpse landing on a truck.

Perhaps the most visceral of all is the Prevent-It commercial set in a funeral home. Standing at a podium next to a closed coffin, a boss is eulogizing ‘James,’ an electrical worker with the company for ten years before his “tragic accident.”

Suddenly the coffin lid flies open, and the badly burned corpse sits up. “Accident? What are you talking about? Your company never fully trained me to deal with high voltage wires. And the way they were insulated? It was obvious someone wanted to get home in a hurry,” he says, staring at what is left of his blackened hands. “What was I thinking, not wearing all my safety equipment?”

The tagline in all the commercials was the same: “There really are no accidents.”

Legislation and guidelines fostering safer working conditions have come a long way. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) sets and enforces workplace health and safety standards. In Canada, organizations promoting construction health and safety include the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations (CFCSA), the Government of Canada’s Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), and provincial agencies.

The message is the same: safety first. Despite educating employees and promoting safe work practices on construction sites, that message is not always heard, or in the worst cases, it is ignored, with the most marginalized workers becoming statistics.

The United States Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that the top ten most frequently cited safety violations for the 2018 fiscal year October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018, involved fall protection, scaffolding, ladders, and eye and face protection. Of the 4,674 worker fatalities for 2017, over one in five were in the construction sector, with the so-called ‘Fatal Four’ leading causes being falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, and being caught in or between hazards.

“These ‘Fatal Four’ were responsible for more than half (59.9 percent) of construction worker deaths in 2017,” says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “Eliminating the Fatal Four would save 582 workers’ lives in America every year.”

Organizations like OSHA are making a positive difference, as it reports that workplace deaths across America have been declining from approximately thirty-eight a day in 1970 to fourteen a day in 2017, and worker injuries and illnesses dropping from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 per 100 in 2017. However, more needs to be done at all levels, from enforcing government standards to job site safety checks.

For many in the construction sector, it comes as no surprise recent immigrants are an at-risk group for workplace injuries and deaths. A ranking carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted that many countries fail miserably in protecting worker rights, particularly China, Egypt, Greece, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar with high death tolls and a lack of job security and labour mobility.

In the U.S. and Canada, foreign workers are also often at risk of injury or death. All too often we hear of workers – usually untrained for the job and without the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) – being crushed by tons of earth while digging a trench that is poorly braced, electrocuted, or falling to their deaths.

In Toronto, Canada, a 2018 coroner’s inquest was called in the deaths of four men almost a decade earlier. The men, ranging in age from twenty-four to forty, died “from multiple injuries sustained when they fell from scaffolding at a construction site,” stated a news release from the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Court of Appeal for Ontario documents filed against the construction company stated that all four men were originally from East-Central Europe; two had only been in Canada a short time, one of them on an expired student visa with no work permit. “The workers and their families were of limited financial means. None had life insurance,” said the document.

According to the document, the men “boarded a swing stage that collapsed as it descended from the exterior of the fourteenth floor of a high-rise construction site. The respondent pleaded guilty to one count of criminal negligence causing death and was sentenced to a fine of $200,000. The Crown seeks leave to appeal this sentence on the grounds that it is manifestly unfit.”

We may look at old photos of workers high atop buildings and bridges decades ago with a certain degree of nostalgia, yet be amazed at the complete absence of a harness or other safety gear. In the early 1900s and even later, getting the job done took priority over safety, and it was not unusual or even unexpected that dozens of workers would lose their lives during construction.

By the time of its opening in 1883, twenty to thirty workers died during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. And by the time it opened in 1936, the world-famous Hoover Dam claimed ninety-six lives from causes ranging from rock slides to drowning. The 1940s then saw the advent of PPE like gloves, masks, and goggles.

In the future, one of the biggest tools to boost construction site safety will be technology. While hard hats, reflective yellow vests, hearing protection, and work boots will remain worksite staples, they will be joined by wearable technology and tools like drones used to photograph worksites and quickly identify potential hazards.

Other tools, such as augmented reality (AR), enable project managers, architects, and others to incorporate data which can reduce risks. Often used in tandem with drones, artificial intelligence creates computer models of sites as they change and evolve.

Using technology carried by everyone, the StaySafe app is designed to protect lone workers. This app and wearable technology such as hard hats outfitted with carbon monoxide detectors, global positioning systems (GPS), and even ‘smart’ clothing able to detect a workers’ body temperature, respiration, and heart rate to detect if the employee is in distress, can send messages to supervisors and others before an accident can occur.

From construction company owners to workers in the field, workplace safety is everyone’s business. Even with new safety tools, the greatest tool of all remains our sense of self-awareness, with everyone working together to make construction-related illnesses and deaths a thing of the past.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 22, 2019, 7:47 AM EST