Amid heightened scrutiny of safety violations and increased penalties, construction safety training has begun to change. Live demonstrations and hands-on exercises are replacing passive learning, and the instruction is not necessarily occurring at training facilities.
“Most (clients) want us to come to their conference room or to their construction site or to their location where they’ve got their tools, their equipment, their fall-protection (system), their rigging stuff right there in their warehouse,” says Charlie York, owner of York Safety Solutions Inc., a Rochester-based safety training and consulting firm.
Platforms for teaching construction safety online have not yet matured, York adds.
“The student can’t ask the instructor questions; the student doesn’t participate in any dialogue between other people in the classroom,” York says. “The student can’t come up and touch the fall-protection (system) or the rigging equipment.”
Live demonstrations inject a dose of reality into jobsite safety that handouts and videos cannot, York notes.
“I’ve hung myself from harnesses out on the construction site using the structural steel that was there to show these guys how to use a fall-protection system, because sitting in a classroom is really not an ideal setting” for safety training, he says. “It’s best to get these guys who work with their hands on their feet.”
Providing real-world experiences, such as supervising trainees as they use actual gas-powered cut-off saws, has meant getting professional liability insurance for his company, York adds.
Fire safety training also lends itself to active learning, says Anthony Salemme, sales manager at Monroe Extinguisher Co. Under the watchful eye of the instructor and a nearby technician, trainees in the company’s extinguisher-training class get the chance to snuff out live fires.
Monroe Extinguisher also offers an extinguisher-training class that uses the Bullex BullsEye, a digital system with simulated fire.
“It looks like a flat-screen TV, and it has all these receptors in it,” Salemme says. “And you can set the level of fire—the intensity, the heat, the magnitude.”
The system then senses where the user aims and sweeps the digital extinguisher and varies the digital flames in response. It will put out the fire only when the extinguisher is used correctly.
Though the Bullex BullsEye can be used indoors and does not create the mess associated with expelling real extinguishers, construction companies tend to choose the training option that involves live fire “because they are really more apt to run into a fire on the jobsite,” Salemme says.
Construction firms cannot afford to take chances with fire safety, Salemme adds.
“Even if you just looked at the value of an average project these days, I don’t think there are many projects at all that aren’t into the millions anymore,” he says.
New regulations also have made safety training more imperative for construction firms. Perhaps the most pressing example of late involves legislation passed in 2015 that directed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to increase its civil monetary penalties for serious workplace safety and health violations by up to 78 percent as of Aug. 1, 2016, marking the first time the agency had raised the maximum fines since 1990.
OSHA increased the civil penalties again in January, meaning that the current maximum fine for a willful or repeated health or safety violation is $126,749. A serious violation not repeated or considered willful now costs employers up to $12,675, compared to $7,000 prior to August 2016.
Mineral particles that the U.S. Department of Labor recognized as a health hazard more than 80 years ago have prompted another new OSHA rule directly affecting the construction industry.
Slated to come into force on Sept. 23, OSHA’s new standard on respirable crystalline silica decreases the level of exposure that construction workers may have to particles generated from sawing, grinding, crushing or otherwise altering stone, concrete, brick and other building materials. Extensive exposure to silica dust is believed to cause increased risk for lung cancer, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease and other illnesses.
The new rule lowers the silica exposure limit for the first time since 1971 and requires employers to monitor the particles’ presence in the workplace and take steps to mitigate workers’ exposure.
OSHA’s decision in April to move the new rule’s enforcement date from June 23 to Sept. 23 has led some construction firms to delay doing the safety training needed to be in compliance with the changes, York says. Thus far, clients that York Safety Solutions serves in Rochester have been more proactive about scheduling the training than clients in Tennessee, where the company has a second office, York adds.
If construction companies continue to procrastinate, York says he expects to get phone calls “after September because OSHA showed up, and some guy is running a cut-off saw, and his eyelashes and beard are covered with silica dust.”
He adds: “In some cases, (a task) as simple as drilling a couple holes to put a fastener on a wall could bring a contractor into violation, and contractors have to prove that that little bit of dust coming out of the wall is not hazardous, as far as the volume goes.”
Other rules directly affecting jobsite safety have come down the pike recently.
In 2015, OSHA issued a new rule aimed at increasing protections for workers in manholes, attics, crawl spaces, tanks and other confined spaces not intended for continuous occupancy. On the drawing board since the mid-1990s, the rule requires employers to provide training for employees performing duties in confined spaces, have trained personnel maintain communication while the spaces are occupied and have breathing apparatuses on-site to prevent confined-space asphyxiation.
To keep pace with the ever-changing regulatory environment, Rochester-based Taylor, the Builders now requires employees to take OSHA’s 30-hour safety course so that they get a “broader understanding of the hazards on the job,” says Taylor President Karl Schuler. “Really, it’s about taking care of yourself so that you don’t get hurt.”
Taylor also has developed its own grading system that entails doing weekly safety inspections at jobsites, reviewing the results with the company’s own superintendents and subcontractors and setting deadlines for corrections.
Advances in building equipment have made construction sites generally safer, Schuler notes.
“It used to be that everything that was done at heights was done with ladders,” he says. “Now ladders are still used but only when nothing else can be used. You’re using lifts with cages and things like that.”
Still, even with cutting-edge technology and top-shelf training, construction safety requires commitment and self-awareness on the worker’s part.
“Safety begins on a personal level,” Schuler says.
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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