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By Jeff Wing
May 8, 2017
Ryan Provancher had found his place in the work world. For seven years, the 25 year-old had been happily working the oil fields of North Dakota, doing what was asked of him, gaining expertise and confidence, growing a skill set. He’d found his passion and looked forward to a future in the industry. That future would never arrive. Provancher and a colleague were making repairs at an oil pumping station when a pipe burst, spewing a thick cloud of hydrogen sulfide; a highly toxic, colorless gas. By the time his colleague had dragged Ryan from the building, he was unconscious and unresponsive. He died two days later in the hospital.
In 2014, the last year for which complete tabulations have been made (2015 figures will be available in December of this year) there were 899 construction workplace fatalities. As of October 2015 there had already been 1,235 workplace fatalities on the construction job site. Between 2002 and 2012, nearly 20% of workplace fatalities were construction-related. The incidence of these tragic fatalities is slightly on the rise after a couple years of holding steady, despite the healthy disincentive provided by the OSHA fine schedule. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2015 OSHA violations totaled a whopping $7,284,000 in fines paid to the safety oversight organization. As the Electronic Library of Construction Occupational Safety and Health (elcosh) astutely points out, the fatal occurrences that take place on the construction job site are not strictly speaking, “accidents”, but are “preventable deaths”. They are foreseeable and can be planned for.
From a purely financial standpoint – the savings in OSHA fines, medical expenses, and retraining, the lower worker’s comp costs––these benefits to the business bottom line are inarguable. But there is a human responsibility that makes workplace safety its own reward. As a GC you are acutely aware of how many hours your workers are putting into your project, and how much of themselves they are pouring into the daily job. One term for this is Sweat Equity––a worker’s personal investment in the project through sheer physical labor. Your workers are giving their all. It’s only right that you do the same for them.
The standard language of most work contracts seems to lay it at the feet of the GC, though unspoken tradition has the subs each looking after their own teams. The legal question, though, is almost academic. As coordinator of the job site with a constant presence there, the GC is the presumed overseer of all the critical elements of the job, and has the experience and professional know-how to understand where and how accidents typically happen, and how to prevent them. And safety affects worker morale in a big way. A worker who knows that workplace safety is the genuine concern of the GC is going to be laboring with confidence that he need only focus on the task at hand.
A construction job site must be measurably safe, in accordance with a strictly observed set of metrics. In 1970 the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA Act) was born, bringing all the differing state definitions and rules of safety under a common federal umbrella. Today, “OSHA” is well known among construction workers, and the idea of safety is hard-wired into the construction culture.
As most people in the construction realm know, all construction accidents fall into one or more of the categories of the so-called “Fatal Four”; 1. Falls, 2. Caught-Between or Caught-In, 3. Struck By, and 4. Electrocution. It’s often the case that an accident on the site is the result of carelessness or distraction on the part of the worker, so it’s very important that you give your workers the tools and resources they need to keep themselves safe on the job site.
The pre-job safety meeting is a best practice that can take several forms, but a safety meeting that is driven by discussion is a meeting that will make the most lasting impression. It’s important that the meeting cover all the legal and practical “nuts and bolts” of accident prevention on the site, and that the subject of safety start a conversation among the workers. Before a single nail is driven, hold a meeting that very specifically addresses safety rules and practices, and gets the team talking. The GC can’t be everywhere at once, but should be the project “thought leader” in the matter of personal and professional safety.
Scaffolding, ladders, trenches, electrical mishaps – when one thinks of a construction site there is a certain familiarity with the accident threat there. People plummet from scaffolding, touch live wires, distractedly walk behind trucks, and so on. It is, of course, the unexpected threat that poses the most danger. Scaffolding secured? Yes. Harnesses in use? Check. What about Respiratory Protection? OSHA’s respiratory protection standard is a detailed checklist of hazards to look for, and compliance instructions. What sorts of fumes will be generated by welding work on the site? What are the exposure levels of the workers to other toxic gases on the job site?
Are there sufficient First Aid Kits on the site, and what is their disposition? Are the kits all fully stocked, and where the First Aid compounds are perishable, have supplies been refreshed? Is there sufficient burn ointment and eyewash? Are all the critical elements of the kits in place and in good supply? Does everyone know where the kits are? Does everyone know where the fire extinguishers are and are all the workers trained in their use?
What about confined spaces (or as OSHA calls them, “permit-required confined spaces”)? The confined space issue has to do with oxygen depletion, combustibles concentrating in the enclosed atmosphere of the small space, and other factors. OSHA’s prescriptions for inspecting and testing these confined environments are specific, as is the mandatory real-time monitoring of these small work spaces while the worker is engaged in his duties there.
The Lockout-tagout practice (LOTO, or lock and tag) is a standard safety procedure which ensures that dangerous machines are properly shut off and can’t inadvertently start up again while under repair, or suddenly discharge stored energy in the course of maintenance or servicing work. In the practice, isolated power sources are literally locked down, and a red tag placed on the lock identifying the worker who locked up the machine or power source in question.
The worker in possession of the lock’s key is then the only person who can unlock (which is to say reactivate) the machine or power source. At the successful conclusion of the repair, the apparatus is “tagged out”; the employee who originally installed the lock on the device in question verifies that controls are in a neutral position, removes the locking device and re-energizes the device (switches it back on). Affected colleagues/employees are then notified that servicing is complete.
Of course the continuum of jobsite hazards is much broader than just these aspects, but these convey an idea of how carefully monitored a safety environment needs to be, and how exactingly all safety practices have been quantified in the years since OSHA arrived.
It’s common practice in the construction sector that the GC is largely responsible for overseeing jobsite safety. Despite this common practice, however, an injured construction worker will often try to attach liability to the architect or engineer of a project. That’s because the construction accident protocols prevent the injured party from suing the GC. The injured party has to submit to the workman’s comp rules for the state in question. The persistence of the injured in pursuing designers and engineers in the courts is resulting in the courts themselves taking a closer look at those arguments when they are made.
There have been instances of the courts waving aside litigation that seeks to place the blame for a site accident on the structural engineer, for instance. In those cases the court uses the “necessary exercise of control” rule on the jobsite as the defining metric of safety responsibility. Which controlling authority figure spent the most time on-site in the given time-frame, and so might reasonably be expected to have overarching responsibility? An engineer’s constant presence on a jobsite is a comparatively rare thing, while the GC has to be there all the time, generally speaking.
On the other hand, the much-cited case “Carvalho v. Toll” did place the legal blame for a fatal trench collapse on the civil engineer, absent though he was from the site at the time. The engineer’s representative was present, and furthermore, was an active participant in fateful decisions leading up to the collapse. The shorings had been removed from the trench walls to accommodate some utility pipes. The time-on-site consideration, the “necessary exercise of control,” did fall squarely on the engineer’s rep in this instance since he was effectively the trench expert in attendance, and as such was found not to have made sufficient effort to prevent the preventable. This court came to its finding against the engineer (through the inaction of the engineer’s representative) despite the presence of very specific language in the engineer’s contract absolving him of legal blame for any accident that might happen on the site.
A cloud-based construction software solution brings the collaborative power of the cloud to the matter of quality and safety audits. Through the use of Procore’s Observations and Inspections Tools, problems around the jobsite can be identified and photographed in real time, with thorough documentation attached, and shared with the project team.
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Follow-up on the safety problems can then be assigned to various team members and their scheduled progress on each assigned safety solution tracked. Over time––even many years––the aggregated data from many such inspections can be mined to look for “hazard trends”–– repeated safety missteps that clearly show a pattern of unsafe behaviors and choices.
Using this info allows predictive safety planning, as past mistakes are quantified and avoided going forward, all in the name of the ultimate goal; the elimination of all accidents on the construction site. And that is a goal everyone can agree on.
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