Because supervisors oversee daily activity on construction jobsites and often struggle with conflicts between safety and productivity, it has long been an article of faith among safety and health professionals that enhanced supervisor safety training is one key to improved on-the-job safety performance.

But faith is one thing…what do the facts say?

“Unfortunately,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck, “there is not a lot of data. Some companies embrace supervisor safety training; others do not. It’s not the job of construction companies to conduct research, and, in any case, it’s difficult to validly compare one company’s situation to another. Large-scale comparisons are never made.” Borck pauses. “Well, almost never. Now, we have some real evidence.”

In 2004, the major buyers of construction services in the Lambton County region of Ontario, Canada – which impose their values on local construction firms as part of the contractor selection and oversight process – decided, as an association, to require supervisor safety training throughout their operations. Already, because of previous buyer/contractor safety endeavors, the lost-time injury (LTI) rate in the county was much lower than the Ontario average.  

Catching wind of the change, researchers at the Construction Safety Association of Ontario (CSAO) got their pencils and computers ready. For the Lambert County region and, also, for the province of Ontario as a whole (a province is similar to a state in the U.S., and Ontario is Canada’s largest province), they gathered LTI rates going back to 1998. Then, they captured rates going forward from 2004 through 2007. Afterwards, they analyzed the data and, in February 2009, published the results.

“Since 2004,” say the researchers, “there has been a marked improvement in the LTI rate in Lambton County. It has exceeded the improvement rate in the rest of the province. This is notable since Lambton County was already operating with a lower LTI rate than the rest of the province and still managed to show twice the rate of improvement during a time of tremendous employment growth” (emphasis added). The researchers found this improvement all the more remarkable because “conventional wisdom suggests that employment growth would be associated with an increased risk of injury due to an increase in the number of new workers and new companies.”

Testing to see if other circumstances might explain this extraordinary advance in the more densely supervisor-trained region, the researchers conducted further interviews and analysis.

Discussions with contractors showed that the nature of work undertaken since 2004 was not significantly different from that done in prior years. Nor was there any major changes in tools, materials, equipment or processes. Indeed, the same contractors carried out the majority of work. Neither the county nor the companies had made any changes in their administrative practices, and the level of government safety enforcement remained constant throughout.

“This was a comprehensive, multi-year analysis of a very large set of construction companies,” says Borck, “and the only evident difference was the added requirement for supervisor training. The conclusion is inescapable – this training is preventing injuries and saving these companies money.”

The training consisted of a three-day, instructor-led course or a self-paced, home-study program, followed by a supervised examination. Titled the Basics of Supervising, the program addressed legal responsibilities, communications, problem-solving, health and safety programs, site emergencies and accident investigations and how to understand and prevent construction injuries and fatalities.

The OSHA 30-Hour is the American equivalent of the Canadian course, and the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund has a module for construction supervisor safety training, developed in collaboration with the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, which is part of its Supervisor Training and Education Program (STEP). For more information on STEP, contact Laborers-AGC at 860-974-0800 or the LHSFNA’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465.

“LIUNA leaders and our Fund’s OSH staff have long urged OSHA to mandate safety training for construction workers and supervisors in the U.S.,” says Borck. “Judging from the experience of their Canadian peers, American owners and contractors have much to gain from supporting this call.”

[Steve Clark]