When he was just starting out in the construction industry, Karl Schuler witnessed a job fatality.
The incident had a profound impact on him, and its lingering memory reminds Schuler about the importance of safety in the construction field.
“Safety has been a big issue to me right from the start,” says Schuler, president of Taylor, the Builders.
Schuler is far from alone when it comes to advocating for construction safety.
Out of 4,386 worker fatalities in private industry in 2014, 899, or 20 percent, were in construction, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reported.
The national organization lists the four leading causes of preventable fatalities in the construction industry as falls, electrocution, struck by an object and caught in between objects.
The four were responsible for nearly 58 percent of construction deaths in 2014, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In response, OSHA has launched a hazard awareness campaign to call attention to these four categories. The campaign, coupled with the efforts of employees, safety and health professionals, unions and advocates, has had a positive effect on workplace safety, OSHA notes.
These statistics show an encouraging trend:
Worker deaths in America are down, on average, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 13 a day in 2014.
Worker injuries and illnesses also are down, from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.3 per 100 in 2014.
The job injuries can also impact a firm’s bottom line.
In the 2016 Upstate New York Contractors State of the Industry Study, released earlier this month by the Bonadio Group, it shows safety and risk management have never been as important as they are now.
The study found that 54 percent of contractors surveyed have said safety and risk management are important to overall profitability because, by reducing liabilities related to employee safety and risk, contractors can ensure the viability of their businesses.
Because of the risks, local builders are taking a number of steps to help keep their employees safe. Initial and ongoing safety training are in place at local firms as employees meet required OSHA training hours for construction work and companies extend training beyond that.
As at many firms, the employees who work at Taylor eventually become more of a family than mere co-workers.
“The last thing you want is to see someone in your family get hurt,” Schuler says. “I don’t want to have to call someone and tell them their family member has been hurt or killed.”
To keep safety at the forefront of every job, a focus on ongoing training has been implemented at Taylor. Project safety plans are developed for each job, and the firm contracts with an outside safety consultant who can provide an objective view of a job site.
“They can be harder on us than we would be on ourselves,” he says.
Management encourages workers to call out anything they may think is unsafe on the job site, he adds.
Schuler notes that job site safety can be related to factors beyond the firm’s control, such as the weather. For example, Taylor suspended operations for the first time some two years ago because it was too cold for workers to do their jobs.
At LeChase Construction Services LLC, the importance of safety led to hiring A.B. Robinson in 2011 as vice president of environmental, health and safety.
Prior to that, Robinson had implemented safety approaches such as creating, revamping and managing environmental, health and safety development programs for several Fortune 500 companies.
Using what he calls a “Zero Incidents” model to help drive injury and illness rates down, Robinson has saved the firms he has worked with millions of dollars in compensation costs, while building the mindset that zero incidents is an attainable goal. It is now a model in the engineering and construction industry.
Robinson has grown the safety team since coming to work at LeChase and now has roughly a dozen staffers on job sites and at company locations whose sole focus is on safety.
He believes safety is a mindset and a philosophy that not only applies to LeChase employees but also to subcontractors.
“Safety is not a destination, it’s a continuous journey,” Robinson says, noting it is a focus that begins for employees immediately upon hire. “From day one, employees know safety is our No. 1 priority.”
The LeChase Life Saving Commitments Program—a component of LeChase’s Zero Incidents initiative—covers topics such as stored energy, fall protection, cranes and rigging, confined spaces, excavation, mobile equipment, caught-in/struck-by hazards and drug and alcohol awareness.
LeChase provides safety manuals and hands-on training for staff. Supervisors have huddle sessions a couple of times each day and complete weekly questionnaires as well, he says.
Robinson also puts an emphasis on empowering employees and making them take ownership of their safety on the job. Anyone who thinks a situation may be unsafe can authorise a stop-work order.
The work has caused a dramatic reduction in the injury rate, Robinson says. He estimates that over the last five years, the injury rate has dropped nearly 70 percent across the company.
Robinson describes construction workers as the ultimate agents of change, since their work environment is constantly changing depending on the job. Different work sites have different safety challenges, he says.
When an incident does occur, Robinson and his team, along with company leaders, look at what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
Safety is the highest priority at LeChase, he says.
“If we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it at all,” he said.
Matt Squires, vice president of Manning Squires Hennig Co. Inc. in Batavia, learned early on the importance of construction safety from his father, Gary Squires, the firm’s president.
“My dad has always said there’s nothing more important than making sure our employees get home to their families every night,” Squires says. “We plan as best as we can do to that.”
There are training sessions at the business, and new hires are taken under the wing of more experienced staffers for the first few weeks, he explains.
There is also a lot of pre-planning before a job starts, Squires adds, with a site-specific safety plan developed for each one. Supervisors continue to monitor the sites throughout the length of the project.
Like Taylor, Manning Squires Hennig uses an outside safety consultant to go on job sites and look for unsafe environments. The inspector tries to visit two to three job sites weekly.
Hennig says the Manning Squires safety policy is constantly evolving. For example, the firm recently adopted a mandatory set of six basic bend-and-stretch exercises to limber up after they found it greatly reduced injuries on one work site.
While safeguards are in place, Squires believes there is no time to be lax when it comes to construction safety.
“Construction is dangerous work,” Squires says. “If you don’t respect it, you can get gravely hurt.”
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