Risk happens in construction, but accidents don’t have to.

Accidents will happen” are words that ought to make a sensible person cringe. It’s a form of defeatism and I suspect that people who mutter those words are more accident-prone than most.

Construction is notorious as one of the most dangerous industries to work in, every year ranking near the top in occupational fatalities and injuries. So you hear a lot of “accidents will happen” verbal gas passing from people who didn’t do enough to prevent jobsite accidents.

Let’s get this straight. Risk is inherent to the construction industry, and there’s little you can do about that. Construction workers have to contend with heights, confined spaces, hazardous materials, slippery surfaces, sharp edges, power tools, heavy equipment, electricity, adverse weather and various other dangers that could - but don’t necessarily have to - lead to injury.

While risks indeed “will happen,” that’s different than assuming accidents are inevitable. Eliminating or at least drastically reducing accidents is something over which every contractor has a great deal of control. You can find mechanical contractors who go years without lost-time injuries. They are rewarded with insurance premiums and worker comp claims that are far below those of competitors. What do these companies do that others don’t to prevent accidents?

A complete answer would entail a detailed analysis of company safety programs. Not enough room for that here. Insurance carriers and trade associations can assist you in this regard. What we can zero in on is that every construction safety expert alive tends to agree on one factor above all else.

That is, safety is mostly a matter of attitude, and it starts at the top. Unless the CEO and others in the top management team embrace a safety culture, it will mostly amount to lip service and not achieve meaningful results.

Here are some other insights that I picked up after attending this year’s Construction Safety Conference put on by the Construction Safety Council in suburban Chicago:

  • The person put in charge of a company’s safety program needs to report directly to top management, not to HR or anyone in the financial or production departments. It’s important to separate the safety officer from production considerations, although production supervisors need to take charge of safety enforcement.

  • Safety instructions need to be communicated both verbally and in writing. Written communications sometimes suffer from poor writing and lack clarity, and some construction workers are poor readers - especially those who are not native English speakers.

  • Have sign-in sheets or other documents attesting to the fact that workers have received safety training. In court, truth doesn’t matter, proof does.

  • Nearly 67 percent of all accidents occur to people with less than two years of experience.

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the chance of an accident occurring rises 50 percent when construction workers put in more than eight hours in a day.

  • Unsafe actions cause 90 percent of accidents, unsafe conditions 9 percent, with only 1 percent attributable to “acts of God.”

  • “Baby steps” will result in greater safety improvement than wholesale changes. Focus on two to three items at a time, rather than presenting a laundry list of 15-20 items needing attention. The following week, turn attention to two or three other areas.

  • Insurance carriers place greater emphasis on accident frequency than severity in calculating EMR. This makes it worthwhile for most companies to pay out-of-pocket for losses under $1,000, which comprise 80-90 percent of losses. This must be agreed to upfront with your insurance carrier.

    Here are some common safety myths that are widely held throughout the industry.

    Myth: Safety is mostly common sense. Wrong. If it were common sense, then most people would work safely. Hidden dangers are common, and people must be educated about them.

    Myth: Safety is everyone’s responsibility. If everyone is responsible for something, then nobody in particular is responsible. Safety can be best achieved by putting someone in charge of it and holding that person accountable.

    Myth: Most accidents are caused by carelessness. The truth of the matter is most accidents are caused by problems that go unrecognized and/or unaddressed.

    Myth: Safety slows you down. Studies have shown that workers actually are more productive when they follow specified safety procedures, because they don’t have to take excessive precautions while working amid hazards.

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