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May 10, 2013
Uptick in construction requires vigilance

Don’t even consider cutting corners, experts advise

Construction job growth is up, a welcome sign of an improving economy. That means more people are working at heights, digging trenches, operating equipment, and performing other dangerous tasks.

As deadlines mount and pressures rise, how do you keep these employees safe on the job? What does a successful construction safety program look like? And what are the biggest compliance challenges facing contractors these days?

Get solid guidance and best practices from a construction consultant, the safety director of a national trade organization, and a contractor who’s doing it right.

Persistent challenge

Construction consistently has one of the highest injury rates of any occupation. Of about 4,100 worker fatalities in private industry in 2011, nearly 18 percent were in construction, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The “fatal four” (falls, electrocutions, struck by, and caught in/between accidents) were responsible for three out of five deaths. The fatality rate was down in 2011, which may in part reflect lower employment numbers. The hope is that even as construction employment rises, the numbers will continue downward, but it’s going to take a serious effort.

The problem is money

Greg Santo is vice president of operations for the Occupational Safety and Environmental Association (OSEA). The Buffalo-based consulting firm has been in business since 1991, serving clients in construction, service, manufacturing, and other sectors.

The challenge to sustaining a strong safety program often comes down to dollars, says Santo. Most construction projects are decided by low bid. And most project owners want the best product for the least expensive price. The resulting pressure can result in shortcuts and compromises on safety.

He offers the example of a general contractor (GC) who hires a roofer. “The roof is usually one of the last things to go up, so by that time the contractor has spent a lot of money on unforeseen circumstances, and he ends up having to slash the budget for the roofing contractor.”

Instead of the quality roofing company he had originally planned on, the GC “hires a guy with a truck and three other guys in the back who says he can meet the budget.”

Invariably an accident happens and—no surprise—the roofer was not carrying workers’ comp insurance. That’s when things start to seriously unravel, says Santo. His firm works to help clients strike the balance between budget demands and the need to work safely.

Large contractors frequently operate very differently, with strong safety programs and low injury numbers. But they’ve got lots of personnel and cushy budgets. How do the 2-, 10-, and 50-person organizations get and stay safe?

The key, says Santo, is to recognize that an investment in safety will pay off. “It will if you have a good safety program, a good set of standard operating procedures, and a good HR program that puts people in jobs they’re qualified for.” Unfortunately, he acknowledges that this is not universally understood.

Santo and his colleagues help clients become self-sufficient, identify hazards, and conduct internal audits that reveal potential hazards.

Manage the risk




The University of California, San Diego’s International Safety Education Institute (ISEI) recommends four safety objectives for international construction companies. We think they’re equally valuable for domestic and local contractors as well.

The recommended objectives are:

  • Reduce the rate of injury, illness, and death in a workplace that is often unaware of the dangers associated with jobs;
  • Provide a more positive work environment by demonstrating and promoting management concern for worker safety;
  • Provide a better-prepared local workforce for international organizations with development projects in foreign countries; and
  • Promote a positive attitude toward safety on the job and encourage workers to identify and report hazards and prevent accidents.

Says ISEI’s Scott MacKay, “Not only is there great value from a humanitarian standpoint for safety and health but also from a fiscal standpoint. It costs companies substantial sums to pay for injuries on the job.”

The institute offers train-the-trainer courses, as well as 10- and 30-hour outreach classes for construction, general industry, and maritime workers. The website is

Santo believes that if you properly manage the risk, compliance will take care of itself. Managing the risk might mean installing a system that permits a horizontal lifeline to be used for roof work. Or building in an anchorage point for scaffolding on a multistory building to permit window washers and others to work safely from heights.

What does an effective contractor safety program look like? The most essential element is a written, site-specific safety plan (SSSP). It’s a safe-work roadmap that describes everything from the specific hazards of the job to emergency plans and the location of the nearest hospital or urgent care clinic. Referring to Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it will), Santo says the purpose of the SSSP is “to anticipate Murphy.”

Even during the recent lean years, safety-conscious builders found a way to continue to focus on worker protection. For example, they would reduce—but not eliminate—the number of visits from their safety consultant. Santo says another best practice is having all employees trained as OSHA-competent persons.

He also recommends that contractors empower all workers to halt work if they believe it is unsafe to continue. “You want people to watch what’s going on and comment if they see that something got bumped, broken, or knocked out of place by a forklift, for example.”

Santo is a strong believer in job safety analysis (JSA). “Make the JSA part of your morning toolbox talk. It’s basically a grocery list of what must be done to do the job safely.” Each task is broken into steps, with specific procedures and equipment listed. Employees must read and sign off on the document daily.

When it comes to training, Santo urges contractors to put all employees through the OSHA 10-hour construction safety course. He also advocates a tag program to ensure that any unsafe equipment is promptly removed from service. Use a perforated tag (like a raffle ticket) with one part attached to the faulty equipment and the other portion entered into a daily report.

Ensuring that subcontractors share your commitment to safety is essential to a successful program. Vet subcontractors thoroughly, Santo advises. If a sub hands you a certificate of insurance, don’t stop there. Make sure the certificate is not fraudulent or issued by a defunct insurance carrier. Research the vendor on the OSHA website to review its compliance history.

“If you don’t do your due diligence you’ll be held to task by OSHA, DOT, EPA, or, heaven forbid, a third-party attorney representing the injured party.” Santo concludes, “You want to keep everything on the up and up.”

Get ’em involved

The Ruhlin Company uses many of the best practices that consultants like Greg Santo encourage contractors to adopt. The business is currently under the leadership of Jim Ruhlin, grandson of the company’s founder. Headquartered near Akron, Ohio, Ruhlin employs about 350 people who work on a variety of civil/highway, structural, and industrial projects.

A 2006 fatality led to some soul-searching, which sparked a reinvigorated safety program. Safety director Ryan Nicholson says it is built around employee involvement. “They have to feel some kind of ownership in the program—they want their voice to be heard.”

One strategy for achieving that ownership is an incentive program. But, unlike programs that reward days worked without an accident (which can lead to hiding injuries), this program rewards involvement. Nicholson explains, “Every month we give away a first place prize of $100 and a second place prize of $50, which can be won by people who submit safety suggestions or report hazards.”

One winning employee took the initiative to lay caution tape in an area where he feared that unstable overhead rock might harm coworkers. Another employee identified a bad wire rope choker (part of a rigging apparatus) hanging in such a way that someone could grab it and sustain an injury.

The names of those who submit are placed into a drawing and winners are chosen at random. Quarterly, the stakes are even higher. The names are re-entered into a quarterly drawing with an attractive kitty of $1,000. Management encourages all winners to spend their prize money on a vacation or time spent with family.

“We don’t want to just give them a gift card for their own use,” says Nicholson. “Our employees work long, hard hours and their family members make sacrifices, too.”

Nicholson says about 90 percent of the hazards are eliminated on the spot by the individual who identifies them. Others are brought to the attention of a supervisor and/or someone who can fix the problem. The suggestions are shared companywide in a monthly print and e-mail safety update.

He believes the program helps engage workers by making them more aware of hazards that lurk everywhere, including at home.

Getting a safe start

Another tool in the Ruhlin safety toolbox is a program known as SafeStart. Developed by a Canadian company in 1975, the safety training system has been used by diverse industries across the world.

It is based on studies that found that 85 percent to 95 percent of accidental acute injuries were caused by people making one or more of four critical errors:

  • Mind not on task;
  • Eyes not on task;
  • Being in, or getting in, the line of fire; or
  • Losing balance, traction, or grip.

When they made these critical errors people were in one of four states:

  • Rushing;
  • Frustration;
  • Fatigue; or
  • Complacency.

SafeStart teaches techniques to help reduce the risk of injury in any situation—at work, at home, or on the road.  “We started in 2011 and I think it has made an impact on how people think,” Nicholson says. “It goes back to encouraging safety no matter where you are.”

The company supports the training with a SafeStart employee committee. It sponsors competitions and incentives to keep workers engaged and focused on the training lessons.

Tough-love approach

Employees have responded positively to many of the safety practices at The Ruhlin Co. One that’s attracted some controversy is the practice of sending home a letter if a family member has been written up for a safety violation. “We let them know that their loved one was acting unsafely today, and we wanted them to know,” says Nicholson.

Although the letters have led to some grumbling, he believes they serve an important purpose—getting employees to think hard about their behavior and avoid unsafe acts.

Nicholson sums up the company’s approach to safety by quoting his boss. “Jim Ruhlin tells our employees, ‘We pay you to work safely. We don’t pay you to get the job done faster and cheaper.’”




As the thermometer rises, the chance of heat-related illness for construction workers goes up as well. The risk is especially high when hot weather arrives suddenly, before workers have had a chance to adapt.


How hot we feel is a function of air temperature and humidity. The “heat index” is a single number that takes both into account. According to OSHA, the heat index is a better measure than air temperature alone in estimating the risk to workers.

While federal OSHA does not have a standard that covers working in hot environments, employers are required to protect workers from recognized serious hazards. (Cal/OSHA introduced a heat illness prevention standard in 2006.)

Workers new to outdoor jobs are most at risk for heat-related illnesses. That’s why it’s important to gradually increase the workload, or allow more frequent breaks to build up a tolerance for hot conditions.

Acclimatizing workers takes about 5 to 7 days. During that time the body goes through a series of changes that make continued exposure to heat more endurable. But, OSHA warns, it can take up to several weeks for the body to fully acclimatize.

On the first day of work in a hot environment, the body temperature, pulse rate, and general discomfort will be higher. With each succeeding day, these will decrease as the sweat rate increases. Heat disorders are more likely among workers who have not been given time to adjust or who return to work after a vacation or illness. In these situations, the worker should be reacclimatized to the hot environment.

Those who have not worked in hot weather for a week or more need time to adjust. They should take more breaks and limit strenuous work during their first weeks on the job.

Learn more about heat illness and OSHA’s recommended water, rest, and shade formula at You can also download the agency’s smart phone app for working safely in the heat. It’s available for Android, Blackberry, or iPhone.

Best of the best

How does your construction safety program compare with those that have won national awards? The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) recently announced winners of its 2012 Construction Safety and Excellence Awards. Opp Construction of Grand Forks, North Dakota, was the grand prize winner; 51 other companies also made the list.

Opp was honored for its exceptional safety leadership. The commitment to safety is clearly stated on the company website: “Opp Construction’s mission is to successfully serve our customers while providing our employees a safe environment and an opportunity for personal growth.”

AGC judges were impressed by the contractor’s safety and loss prevention programs, training, hazard identification and control, and spirit of innovation.

Kevin Cannon, AGC director of safety and health services, says this was the fourteenth year of the awards program, a partnership between AGC and Willis Insurance. Applications are reviewed by a panel of volunteer judges from diverse backgrounds. “It’s more than an application,” Cannon explains. Each finalist makes a live presentation and answers questions from the judges.

“Our finalists view OSHA compliance as the minimum standards and many go well above and beyond what’s required,” he adds. He sees strong and visible upper management support as a hallmark of the best programs. In these organizations, the chief executive officer and/or chief operating officer are actively involved in safety. Often, incidents must be reported to top leaders.

Foremen participate in training, incident investigation, and jobsite audits. And safety performance is one of the elements assessed in managers’ job evaluations. The safest contractors use engagement strategies like a safety stand down—a half day or longer when all work stops and everyone focuses on training and awareness.

Among other 2012 AGC winners: Sundt Construction Company of Tempe, Arizona; BN Builders, Inc., of Seattle, Washington; Herzog Contracting Corporation of St. Joseph, Missouri; Dynalectric Company of San Diego, California; and Cajun Constructors, Inc., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

If you think your program can stand with the best, visit the AGC website ( for information about the Construction Safety Excellence and other AGC awards programs.

Build a safer workplace

Whether your employees drive forklifts, erect towers, or make auto parts, it’s your duty to protect them on the job. Encouraging involvement, demonstrating leader commitment, and emphasizing mindfulness are techniques that can bring value to any industry.

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