Part 4 - Safety Compliance Impedes Jobsite Productivity

Is making money more important than safety?

Everyone is familiar, and generally concurs, with the old adage: time is money. I can think of no better place to test that axiom than a construction jobsite. The entire system of building a structure is predicated on the notion that productivity determines profitability. Improve productivity...improve your profits.  Conversely, interject something that slows down the process and profits decline. That mindset is having a significant impact on contractor’s decisions to adhere to many of OSHA’s safety mandates. Many construction workers perceive that the use of safety enhancing devices adversely affects their productivity, and hence, their pocketbook. In fact, maximizing productivity is often times the opponent of working safe because in an effort to finish tasks quickly, workers expose themselves to elevated risk levels to having an accident. 

In Exploring the True Cost of Jobsite Safety, Part IV, we will concentrate on the negative impacts to jobsite productivity when crews are safety compliant. As opposed to the direct costs of safety producing activities outlined in our last two articles, this installment of our safety series will focus on an indirect cost of safety producing activities. And, while documenting indirect costs is much more difficult than the direct cost side of the equation, I am confident that through the interviews we’ve conducted with the various trade contractors, that we have been able to reasonably quantify the impact. 

Construction labor costs are inherently difficult to measure due to the many internal and external factors that are never constant and are challenging to anticipate. This leads to continuous variation in labor productivity and notoriously unpredictable labor costs, when compared to other project-cost components. So, when weather, for instance, slows down the project, everybody writes it off as an uncontrollable factor. However, when workers make a conscious decision to impede productivity by donning safety apparatus, they are making a clear choice to make less money. And while you could always argue that making less money is better than making no money if you experience a debilitating injury (or worse) from forgoing safe practices, at the end of the day, for most construction workers, making money is more important than safety. 

OSHA has even used that mentality as the impetus of their enforcement strategies. By levying large financial fines for non-compliance, it is obvious that they believe hitting contractors in their pocketbook is the most effective way of changing behavior. “There are only two reasons to comply with safety regulations,” interjects framing contractor, James Mills of Mills Builders. “Workers comply so they don’t get fined and so they don’t get hurt.  I think the fear of loss of money is a more powerful deterrent than any perceived loss of health. I think it’s sad, but true. I have seen guys who have had harnesses on, but not tied-off.  Heck, I’ve caught them with a lifeline hooked to the harness but the other end is thrown over the peak of the roof, not even tied off. They want it to look like they are fall protected to give  the appearance of safety just so they are less likely to get fined. So they are not worried about the consequences of a fall as much as they are concerned that it is costing them money, either in OSHA fines or taking more time to do their work.” 

One large framing contractor I interviewed who wished to remain anonymous, claims that a major contributing factor hindering construction worker’s jobsite safety is the inconsistent attitude towards safety compliance from residential builders themselves. “For me, the biggest issue is that many builders de-value safety to a point where they are very willing to look the other way. I know for a fact a lot of builders do that because I’ve had them say it to my face and what they’re willing to pay to have their work done says it loud and clear.” His point is shared by many trade contractors who find the capricious playing field difficult to negotiate. “I think the builders need to set an example and I will tell you safety commitment at the builder level is all over the board,” continues James Mills. “Some are very serious while others could care less – and everything in between. For example, I have builder supervisors that don’t even practice basic PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) safety but they expect my crews to comply. It just sends a really mixed message to the guys and it makes it easy for them to justify cutting corners and making conscious non-compliance decision.” 

Kevin Roberts, ex-framing contractor and current safety coordinator at Contract Lumber, has a similar take. “Part of the problem is that most builders want the house done in a hurry. They want you to be safe but they don’t fully understand that it takes longer to do a house if you are safety compliant, or they really don’t care to understand. We have builders that have a complete schedule drawn up before the first bucket goes into the dirt. Performance is measured by that schedule, regardless of weather and scheduling coordination issues. It’s the ultimate dilemma. They say they want you to be safe but the schedule is compressed to the point that it almost forces workers to cut corners. Or, if you consider adding people to the crew to go faster, there just isn’t enough money to effectively make that happen. It really can be a no-win situation for contractors who are just trying to make a buck.”

A framing carpenter wears a safety harness secured to a point above him while working on the roof. He is wearing a hardhat and shoes that have good traction for the slope of the roof.  Courtesy builderonline.com

A framing carpenter wears a safety harness secured to a point above him while working on the roof. He is wearing a hardhat and shoes that have good traction for the slope of the roof. 

Courtesy builderonline.com

Another common theme I found in interviewing residential contractors dealing with the discrepancies in various builder’s level of safety commitment, was that those discrepancies are so visible for all too see. Our anonymous contractor continues, “Don, I have seen that my entire 35-year framing career. I come onsite the same day as another crew is starting a house right next to me. We are both framing the exact same 3,200 square foot model and I know we’re both getting the same pay. Crew size is the same and we all have the same tools and equipment (with the possible exception of safety gear). I’m here with all my guys in full PPE and adhering to all fall protection requirements, guardrails, harnesses, and retractables. They are next door, not a hardhat or harness in site, scurrying around the jobsite without a safety care in the world. I see it - all my guys see it. The only ones who apparently don’t see it is the OSHA inspector and the builder. They finish the house in seven days and it takes me nine-and-a-half days and I’m telling you, they are not better and certainly not faster than my crew. They are sent directly to the next start and I have to send my crew home to wait until the next foundation comes ready. So, not only do I make less money than the guy who is non-compliant, the builder actually rewards him for not practicing basic safety. Where’s the justice in that. And over time, workers know which builders enforce safety standards and which ones look the other way. They realize they will make more money working for certain builders, not because the builder pays better, but because the builder is lax on safety, so where do you  think they go. Granted, they are still susceptible to OSHA audits but most are willing to roll the dice on that. No one ever thinks they’re going to get caught by OSHA or have an accident. I’m telling you, Don, that’s the mentality out here and until all residential builders buy in to safety, say, more like the general contractor community has, I don’t see the mindset changing. Job security is more important than job safety in today’s climate”.

So, as you can see, there are enormous challenges to improving America’s residential construction jobsite safety environment, and most of them are related to money. And while you could argue that costs should never enter into the safety equation, to think otherwise is naïve. Kevin Roberts adds, “Everybody’s here to make money – to make a living. It is a constant battle getting guys to follow through with compliance. You know when the supervisor leaves the site, they go back to their old ways, not because they don’t want to be safe, but because the system is set up that if they want to make any money, it’s all about productivity and being compliant to OSHA standards slow them down. And it’s actually a double blow,” continues Roberts, “Contractors have significant costs for equipment and safety apparatus that then slows them down so they make less money. Put yourself in their shoes?” 

After interviewing numerous framing contractors, we were able to arrive at a general consensus on the monetary impact to productivity that a 5 man crew adhering to OSHA safety standards would encounter, verses another crew ignoring safety regulations. They may measure it differently, some by the square foot, others in man-hours or days, but the numbers from all of them were eerily similar. Of course, depending on the hourly wage being paid, the numbers vary slightly, but they all agreed, the productivity hit they take for safety, costs them $1,700 - $1,900 on an average 3,000 square foot house. Several contractors calculated that it took, on average, two – three days longer to do a 3,000 SF house. Two said that it takes between 90 and 110 additional man hours to be compliant and one contractor said he calculates that it costs him sixty cents per square foot in productivity loss to adhere to OSHA standards. If we use the same case study format we have in the previous articles and take this cost range times the 25 homes the average 5-man framing crew can complete in a year, the impact becomes staggering.  Our research indicates that it costs a 5-man framing crew between $42,500 – $47,500 in lost productivity to take all the mandatory steps to be safety compliant verses his non-compliant framer counterparts. Maybe a more stunning metric is that it takes this crew two months longer to frame those 25 houses. That is a serious impediment to productivity and, since we all know - time is money - it’s easy to see why workers decide to cut-corners and not conform to OSHA standards, regardless of risky consequences. 

In conclusion, it would seem that until a more level playing field exists regarding the level of commitment and dedication to residential jobsite safety accountability, we will face an uphill battle to get workers to conform, especially when the financial consequence for compliance are so steep. How do we compensate the guys who are adhering to safe standards verses those who do not? Maybe when we answer that question, we will be on our way to changing the safety mindset on today’s residential construction jobsites.      

Our cost analysis chart below is keeping a description and running total of the documented costs associated with jobsite safety. We have concentrated on the direct and indirect costs of safety producing activities for our series.  In our final installment of Exploring the True Cost of Jobsite Safety, we will touch on the exposure potential from a lack of safety as well as discuss a new approach many are promoting to combat jobsite risks. As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact me regarding our safety series.