The biggest safety and health hazard in construction is the structure of the industry itself. In recent years, the industry has become more fragmented and more competitive while pressure to cut corners and costs has risen sharply. Without attacking the larger problem of how the industry is organized, can we ever make major strides in preventing injuries and illnesses in construction?
This problem was highlighted in the NORA Construction Sector Research Agenda in 2008. Strategic Goal 10 is to research the organization of construction to see how it affects safety and to explore ways to reorganize the industry to provide stronger safety and health incentives. Below, we examine some problematic aspects of the industry’s structure and what could be done to address these concerns.
Low Bid Contracting
Pressure on budgets, especially for publically-funded construction, encourages the use of low-bid contracting. Invariably, the result is substandard work and lots of injuries. The antidote to this is “responsible contractor” or “responsible bidder” laws that establish a safety floor for bidders by setting workforce training and safety standards and, sometimes, requiring bidders to document past performance. With such laws, the lowest bid among those contractors that meet the minimum requirements is accepted. Use of responsible bidder rules is spreading. Congress now mandates a separate line item in highway construction bids to indicate how much will be spent on safety (23 CFR section 630.1012 (d)), enabling a level playing field. Guidance on this requirement has recently been published by LHSFNA and the Roadway Safety Consortium.
The important role of the supervisor in creating a safe jobsite is long recognized. Yet, the construction industry has not institutionalized a system of safety prequalifications for supervisors. In recent years, a certification has developed for “safety-certified supervisors,” and some large construction companies now require it.
We live in a world of accelerated construction. Projects have to get completed on time or earlier, and incentives are given for early completion (with penalties for late projects). These huge financial incentives create enormous production pressures that lead to improved job planning (e.g., using BIM computer modeling), but they also create incentives for less scrupulous contractors to cut corners on safety. Even large, sophisticated projects may suffer. The CityCenter project in Las Vegas had numerous fatalities, in large part due to production pressures and tight time schedules, but after several deaths and OSHA intervention, incorporation of safety into the planning process corrected the situation. The new A10.1 ANSI standard on planning for safety and health in construction is an attempt to push the industry in this direction.
More and more work in construction is being subcontracted. Some large companies subcontract the more dangerous work to firms so that any subsequent injuries will be off their books. Even subcontractors are subbing out work to multiple layers of smaller subcontractors. In some cases, the general contractor has devolved into a “construction manager” (CM) that has few if any actual construction workers on its payroll. One correction for this problem might be to self-perform more work and do less subcontracting, but the more common response has been to prequalify subcontractors based on their safety record and to provide careful oversight of their safety performance, holding them to a standard equivalent to that of the general contractor or owner.
Design for Safety
Recent studies have shown that 40 percent of injuries and fatalities in construction are caused by poor design and could be prevented by using “design for construction safety” principles. Yet, designers have shown little interest in designing in ways that make it safer to build because they fear liability if someone gets hurt using an included safety design (e.g., fall anchors), and the design for safety movement has not made a lot of headway despite years of trying. A few developments indicate directions for the future. Design-Build firms both design the project and build it; they have a true incentive to incorporate design-for-safety elements. In addition, as more facilities are required to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, some progress is evident in incorporating safety design elements in LEED credits.
With profit margins low and workers’ compensation costs high, contractors have incentives to reduce their insurance costs by making safety improvements. Unfortunately, however, some irresponsible contractors choose instead to “misclassify” workers, taking adavantage of the fact that, for instance, workers’ compensation for a carpenter costs less than the same coverage for an ironworker. Even worse, some workers are claimed as “independent contractors,”– not employees at all – and, thus, no workers’ compensation is paid. This also means that these workers have no OSHA protections whatsoever (since OSHA only covers employers and their employees). This is a particular problem in residential construction. Both types of misclassification fraud hurt workers and make construction less safe, and many states are cracking down. Maryland, for example, passed the Workplace Fraud Act in 2009 that gives the state new powers to crack down on misclassification and allows workers to sue if they have been wrongly treated as independent contractors.
Construction work is dangerous, but it is much more dangerous than it has to be because of the way the industry is organized. These problems are harder to solve than, say, reducing the noise level from a piece of equipment, but they are not impossible. They need our attention and efforts.
[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]