Despite 37 years of research and problem-solving by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the number of construction injuries, illnesses and fatalities remains high (ABC News). The number of construction fatalities rose 8.4 percent between 2003 and 2006. Serious injuries force workers to miss time and, too frequently, end their careers. A large number lose their hearing, suffer with lung disease or endure painful dermatitis from concrete exposures.

“With support from NIOSH, researchers have already identified effective solutions for many of these problems,” say LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “The question is why aren’t these solutions more widely used and what can be done about it?”

That question is the focus of the draft NORA Construction Agenda (otherwise known as the National Occupational Safety and Health Research and Practice Agenda for the U.S. Construction Industry) that NIOSH is currently developing to guide construction safety and health research for the next decade.

“It became clear,” says Borck, “that broad gains in construction safety and health can come only from looking into bigger issues that cut across the industry. For instance, how can we revise the low-bid contract system so that health and safety are not shortchanged? What is the effect of workers’ compensation systems on health and safety? How does the extensive use of subcontractors rather than direct-hires affect safety and health? What is the impact of an increasingly immigrant construction workforce? Why are architects and engineers so uninvolved in safe design efforts?”

Top Ten Topics
Proposed in NORA Construction Research Agenda

Each topic is elaborated in the Draft. Examples of specific research needs are listed as well as research-to-practice (R2P) programs that could be implemented. NIOSH will use stakeholder input to refocus topics as necessary and to more fully specify research needs and R2P possibilities. Outcome Topics

  1. How can we better prevent traumatic injuries, especially falls, electrocutions and being hit by objects?
  2. How can we prevent exposures to health hazards such as welding fumes, noise and silica?
  3. How can we prevent sprains and strains (musculoskeletal injuries)?

Contributing Factor Topics

  1. How can we improve safety culture on jobsites?
  2. How can we integrate safety into the regular operations of contractors (safety management)?
  3. How can we change the way the industry is structured to encourage (and avoid disincentives for) safety?
  4. How can we improve the effectiveness of safety training?
  5. How do we ensure adequate protection for “vulnerable workers” – such as non-English-speaking immigrants and young apprentices?
  6. How do we move safety “upstream,” incorporated from the start into designs created by architects and engineers?
  7. How do we collect better data on injuries and illnesses so we fully understand the scope of the problem and can better focus our research efforts?

After 18 months of preliminary work by the NORA Construction Sector Council, NIOSH will present its draft research agenda for public comment in a one-day forum on February 14, the last day of the 18th annual Construction Safety Conference and Exposition in Rosemont, IL. Those not attending the Conference can comment on the agenda through the NIOSH website. The forum will focus on the ten key topics identified in the draft agenda (see box). The first three aim at specific outcomes while the last seven deal with ways to have more safety and health impact across the industry. The latter “contributing factor topics” are the result of input from the array of industry representatives – construction companies, associations, unions, safety professionals, equipment manufacturers, public health professionals, researchers, academics, government agencies and the LHSFNA – who participate in the Construction Sector Council.

Borck praises the new approach. “NIOSH is asking better and more significant questions. I’m hopeful that the answers will enable a much bigger impact on injuries and illnesses in construction over the next decade. As an industry, we have to do a better job. This new focus is a big step in the right direction.”

Interested readers can subscribe to the NORA Construction Sector News, a free monthly web-based publication.

[Scott Schneider and Steve Clark]