Part 1 - Embracing a Strong Safety Ethic

Exploring the True Cost of Jobsite Safety - The Series

 Image courtesy Robert Couse Baker

Image courtesy Robert Couse Baker

There are few words that can stir more emotion within the construction community than the words jobsite safety. More accurately, one phrase in particular can serve up a range of sensations like few others, “OSHA is on site!!!” Regardless of whatever level of safety preparedness you think (or hope) your site may demonstrate, the intensity of your anxiety and distress is nearly unparalleled in our business; akin to going to the mailbox and pulling out a letter from the IRS — in March. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way. Jobsite safety was practically an afterthought as recently as twenty years ago, not because no one cared about working safe, but because safety practices were left to the discretion of those doing the work. And most of those people took care not to take undue risks because they had reason to show up the next day with all their fingers and toes so they can earn a living. Simplistic? Most definitely. Oh, to yearn for those days of simplicity. Enter the age of government oversight, and with it, complexity. Actually, the government officially entered the safety business on December 29, 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed into law the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act, which gave the Federal Government the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards for the country’s workers. OSHA was born!!! This was hardly the first effort to organized government mandated safety but it did establish the current safety hierarchal model that we know today. While the safety oversight established with Williams-Steger covered all workers - an estimated 50 million - the initiative was driven by the dangerous conditions brought on by the robust industrialization that was taking place throughout America at the time. Factories were springing up everywhere and with them dangerous and hazardous environments. Consider that in 1968, a staggering 14,000 workers were killed and 2.2 million were injured on the job. It became obvious that inadequate standards, lagging research, poor enforcement of laws, shortage of safety and health personnel, and a patchwork of ineffective state laws were gratuitously endangering the American workforce. A comprehensive effort was needed and the Federal Government obliged. Interesting enough, it was during congressional hearings on the bill that hazards within the construction industry were first documented with the suffering of construction workers who succumbed to asbestosis from applying asbestos insulation to buildings. 

Fast forward nearly a half-century and the bureaucracy that has become the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has firmly planted themselves as the Imperator of safety. And, regardless of your opinion or position regarding OSHA’s means and methods, few can argue that America’s workforce is safer now than at any time in U.S. history and that goes for construction workers as well. The question is, at what cost? It is precisely that question that I decided to use as impetus for this series. My goal is to dissect jobsite safety, attempting to articulate and quantify the costs, both hard and soft, to maintaining a compliant safety program on a construction site. You, like I, probably already see the difficulty in accomplishing such a task. The complexities and inconsistencies that surround construction safety do not lend themselves to absolute certitude. For that reason alone, writing these articles will be challenging. Take, for instance, the issue of fall protection. Of course, you are familiar with the six-foot tie-off rule adopted in 2010. It simply states that conventional fall protection is required for any worker when there is a fall potential from one level to another of six feet or more on a residential construction site. However, the same OSHA document allows a steel worker on a commercial construction site to work at heights up to 15-feet before he is required to don personal fall arrest apparatus. I find it ironic (or moronic) that a steel worker is somehow less clumsy or has better balance than our trim carpenter, or is possibly more expendable? I’m sure there is a perfectly sensible explanation, but I digress. The reality is that the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s document - 29 CFR 1926 - safety standards for the construction industry, is a behemoth. You might call it the “bible” of jobsite safety and in many ways, it is just as interpretational and mystifying as the Old and New Testaments. 

I promise, this series will not become an exercise in OSHA-bashing. The organization and their people are charged with a very important, challenging task and just like you and I, they try to do their jobs the best they can. I may take a jab or two at “the system” but how can you slam an organization whose sole purpose is to make sure that you leave your work environment and go home safe to your family at night. 

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There are many challenges to the efforts of reducing and eliminating hazards and risks on construction jobsites. There is no greater challenge our industry faces than the very culture of those the mandate is designed to protect. It is incredibly hard to break the habits of construction workers who have spent decades performing specific work tasks a certain way and repeating them job after job. Construction workers may also feel that taking risks is a part of the job and may worry about what their peers think of those who take extra precautions. They can often have an attitude of invincibility, thinking that an accident will never happen to them. Changing this type of inherent behavior is extremely difficult, almost daunting, when you consider that it demands altering basic core thinking, which essentially has to be done one person at a time. 

Equally challenging is the basic way construction trade subcontractors earn their living. The system rewards productivity. Contractors are paid on what they produce. A house or project pays a certain amount regardless of the time the crew spends doing the work. Therefore, anything that slows down productivity, negatively impacts their pay. So, when a contractor tells me that adhering to OSHA safety standards slows down his work, we’d be foolish to think that his safety decision making isn’t being impacted to some degree by productivity concerns that are costing him money.  

These are just two of the many challenges to making America’s construction jobsites safer. We will explore them and others over the next few weeks in our Exploring the True Cost of Jobsite Safety series. We will be interviewing builders and general contractors to get their perspectives on safety. We will talk with framers and roofers gathering their viewpoints, reviewing cost data and telling their stories. We will also draw from the world of safety consultants and even attempt to dialog with folks at OSHA in order to take a comprehensive look at the subject matter.

Kevin Roberts, Safety Coordinator for Contract Framing, told me that “Everyone who ventures in to the world of safety, gets overwhelmed.” I now believe that to be true, simply because that’s where I am right now…overwhelmed! Even the word ‘safety’ itself is confusing. Webster’s has safety listed as a noun, defined as the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss. Safety is not a thing or an activity, in and of itself. Safety is an outcome (a byproduct) of an activity engaged in by a person performing his or her daily work. How one goes about performing tasks can result in that person being safe from or sustaining injury. By its very nature, construction has a lot of uncertainty and variability in the project delivery process. For safety to function effectively, it has to have flexibility and agility as well as have mechanisms to enable it to succeed under varying conditions. 

Jobsite safety is a complex, multi-faceted topic, to be sure. Achieving safe outcomes requires planning, organizing, controlling and managing, just like any other aspect of the business or operations. Safety needs to be seen as an investment that provides real benefits. A safe work environment helps keep skilled workers on the job and projects on track by reducing accidents that result in injuries and schedule delays.  It also reduces the risks of litigation and regulatory action. Leadership is the key element in creating and sustaining a value-based safety culture which fosters and embraces a strong safety ethic. Is your company working diligently to create a proactive safety culture?

Please make sure you tune in for the entire safety series. Our next issue will concentrate on quantifying hard jobsite safety costs. Like all of our articles, you can check our website at www.contractlumber.com and click the blog tab to catch any posts you may have missed. Also, if you have a perspective you’d like to share on the safety topic please contact me at ddyson [at] contractlumber.com. Your contributions are greatly appreciated and are sure to add breadth and depth to our series.

 Don Dyson

Don Dyson

30 Year industry veteran, Don Dyson serves as Business Development Director for Contract Lumber. Don maintains a keen interest and focus on educational efforts while getting to know each of our customer's businesses so we can better serve each one individually. He has become “affectionately” know as the chief “turd polisher” here at Contract Lumber.