On-the-job injuries and illnesses cause pain and suffering for Laborers and slash the bottom line for companies, but much of this can be avoided with carefully constructed and persistently implemented company safety programs.

For instance, over the last dozen years, with concerted effort, the member companies of the Construction Industry Institute reduced their recordable incident rate (RIR) 85.8 percent, from 7.19 to 1.02, according to data provided by John J. Mathis of the Bechtel Corporation (see Lessons from Success, this issue). By comparison, the industry as a whole dropped its RIR 49 percent, from 14.3 to 7.28.

As Steve Williams, Safety Coordinator and Operations Manager for Illinois signatory contractor P.J. Hoerr, Inc. says,“Get involved. That’s the best advice I can offer. In our company, the owners embrace safety as a top concern, and they regularly participate in safety meetings with our employees. We constantly educate on safety issues, and we drug test to help ensure a responsible workforce. We pay close attention when someone is injured. We help with workers’ comp claims and monitor their progress. We encourage quick returns to work. Case management – get involved and stay involved. You’ll see the results in your bottom line.”

“Sustained safety focus is the key to saving lives, limiting suffering and boosting the bottom line,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider. “Improved safety performance leads directly to lower medical expenditures and fewer lost work days. For each dollar of direct savings, there’s another three to five dollars in indirect savings (see Table 1). In addition, sustained improvements in safety performance result in lower workers’ compensation premiums.”

Most Common Incidents: Sprains and Strains

Construction is dangerous work, and more than 1200 construction workers are killed each year. Yet, catastrophic incidents are a small percentage of total injury and illness incidents.
There is no way to know in advance what incident may turn catastrophic; nor is it possible to know the extent of medical costs and lost work time associated with any particular incident.

Thus, the appropriate goal of safety programs is the limitation of injury and illness incidents, not the control of their severity.

The first step in limiting injury and illness incidents is to know which are the most common.

Because about half of all incidents with medical costs do not have any lost work time, the measure that most completely represents the quality of a company’s safety performance is incidents with associated medical costs, that is, all entries required for the OSHA 300 Log.

However, because construction-specific data on the nature of OSHA 300 Log injuries and illnesses is lacking, evaluation of more general data sets is necessary.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Sprains and strains (in 2001, the year for which the most recent data is available)…continued to be the leading nature, or physical effect, of injury and illness in every major industry division” (emphasis added). The BLS publishes all-industry, aggregate data for the U.S. (see Table 2). “As in the previous ten years, more than four out of ten injuries and illnesses resulting in days away from work in 2001 were sprains and strains, most often involving the back” (Lost-worktime Injuries and Illnesses: Characteristics and Resulting Days Away from Work, 2001, BLS, March 27, 2002).

Liberty Mutual publishes an annual Workplace Safety Index that summarizes the ten disabling injuries and illnesses that result in the greatest direct costs for American employers (see Table 3). The top cause, overexertion – defined as excessive lifting, pushing, pulling, carrying or throwing of an object – produced more than twice the amount of direct costs as the next two causes.

This is consistent with another portion of the Index that focused on 35,790 construction industry compensation claims in 2001.

That study indicates that the most frequently occurring disabling condition in construction is low back pain. This accounts for 15 percent of all construction industry workers’ compensation claims. The next most common disabling conditions are foreign body eye injuries (8.5%) and finger lacerations (4.8%). A disabling injury is one with five or more days off work (in most states a workers’ compensation claim cannot be filed until a worker has missed five days).

Back injuries also account for the greatest percent of disability days (25.5%) and the greatest percentage of claim costs (21.3%). According to BLS data, strain and sprain injuries result in a median (the number which half the claims exceed and half do not) of ten days away from work. The average disability duration in construction is 46 days (median of zero); it is driven so high by far less frequent but much longer enduring sudden on-set injuries – fractures of the ankle (55 days median), foot (42 days) and wrist (38 days).

Leading Causes Of Workplace Injury and Illness (all industries) By Direct Cost (2000)
CauseDirect Cost
Overexertion$11.9 billion
Falls on same level$5.4 billion
Bodily reaction$4.4 billion
Falls to lower level$3.6 billion
Struck by an object$3.5 billion
Repetitive motion$2.8 billion
Highway accidents$2.3 billion
Caught by equipment$1.8 billion
Struck against an object$1.7 billion
Assaults & violent acts$0.5 billion
All causes$42.5 billion
Source: Workplace Safety Index, 2003, Liberty Mutual

The results of all these analyses – taken together and combined with what is known anecdotally of the nature of construction work – indicate that sprains and strains are the major cause of injury and illness incidents in construction.

Thus, according the Liberty Mutual analysts, any company that wishes to improve its safety performance should concentrate its main attention on “increasing primary prevention resources for slips and falls and exposures related to sudden on-set injuries and by reducing manual materials handling and other exposures associated with more gradual on-set injuries.”

“The concentration on sprains and strains in construction,” adds Schneider, “will produce the greatest improvement in quality of life for Laborers, not only in the short run but over the duration of their working careers and retirements.”

Costs and Commitments of Effective Safety Programs

Because many safety dividends – employee morale or company reputation, for instance – are intangible, some industry forces used to question safety’s impact on the bottom line, pitting the cost of safety against production goals and timelines.

Today, after a mountain of study and research by a wide range of investigators, it is incontestable that safety saves money and improves profitability (see Table 4).

Nevertheless, improving safety performance involves some real expense.

The greatest expense is the leadership and staff time that must be devoted to safety management. As the Construction Industry Institute analysis makes clear, demonstrated management commitment and staffing for safety are the most important elements driving a successful program. Often, this boils down to the direction and training of company supervisors.

The key to successful control of injuries and illnesses on the jobsite is the safety outlook and practices of supervisors. Too often, these supervisors focus on churning out the work to the detriment of proper safety.

Well aware of this possibility, Liberty Mutual, for the past three years, has studied the issue by implementing supervisor training at various industrial sites while tracking compensation claims before and after training and conducting surveys with supervisors and employees. Last year, the study was conducted at a food processing plant. In the seven months following training, the selected departments experienced a 47 percent reduction in claims and a 25 percent reduction in lost-time claims (as compared with untrained departments that experienced a 27 percent reduction in claims and zero reductions in lost-time claims).

The importance of senior management focusing its safety message and training on supervisory personnel cannot be stressed enough.

Although companies hire and train their own supervisors, Laborers-AGC initiated the Supervisor Training and Education Program (STEP) to prepare Laborers for careers as construction supervisors. Recently, the health and safety portion of that program, developed by the LHSFNA, was adapted to provide safety officer training for associations of LIUNA signatory contractors.

Preaching to the Choir?
Liberty Mutual’s Executive Survey of Workplace Safety

  • 95% of business executives report that workplace safety has a positive impact on their company’s financial performance.
  • 61% believe returns on safety investment are three to one or greater.
  • 93% recognize a relationship between direct and indirect costs of poor safety performance.
  • 40% rate indirect costs as three to five times direct costs.
  • 25% see employee training as the most important element of an effective safety program.
  • 22% see management commitment as the most important element of an effective safety program.

Aside from workforce training, the other costs of safety are relatively minor.

Improving Safety Performance with Help from the LHSFNA

Beyond supervisor training, the most basic necessity for improving safety performance is a trained workforce. Companies that work union, of course, have a trained workforce so these costs are kept to a minimum – chiefly, on-site toolbox talks and site-specific orientations (an outstanding proof is offered by the two million hours worked without a lost workday at the Spallation Neutron Source project in Tennessee; see story, this issue).

New construction workers need broad, general training not only in the skills of construction but, especially, in safety and health. The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) has a mandatory apprenticeship program so that all its new members systematically acquire the skills necessary to be safe and productive on the job. This training, as well as training for veteran Laborers, is conducted by the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund at 70 LIUNA training centers across the continent. Safety is stressed in every class.The LHSFNA provides train-the-trainer instruction for the safety and health portion of the curriculum.

In addition to a trained workforce, companies need written safety programs. Company-wide or site-specific, written safety programs ensure safety accountability throughout the organization. These programs should include safety rules, periodic jobsite inspections and regular toolbox talks to review the hazards of current and upcoming operations.

The LHSFNA has a developed series of model safety programs designed for adaptation to the specific needs of various signatory contractors and their jobsites. If requested, professional staff from the LHSFNA will visit signatory jobsites to provide consultation and technical assistance in the development and implementation of safety programs. The Fund also has an extensive series of publications that address many of the most common, serious hazards on jobsites and a full complement of “Health Alert” cards that are designed for dissemination at toolbox talks or in pay envelopes.

A company also needs designated safety officers, an accident investigation procedure and efforts to minimize hazards through “upstream” consideration and planning.

The latter, in particular, is useful in controlling sprain and strain injuries and illness. By planning when and exactly where various materials will be needed on-site, they can be delivered and unloaded to minimize unnecessary storage and handling.

Drug-free workplace programs also may be part of an effective, all-round safety program. The LHSFNA helps signatory employers design programs that are effective while also addressing the needs of workers for privacy and assistance. The Fund also helps contractors secure safety discounts on workers’ compensation insurance in states that provide such discounts, and it assess options in states that allow alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs that can help control legal costs for employers while improving health service for Laborers.

Safety Saves

Safety saves pain and suffering, but improved safety performance also will help every company be more profitable. However, success requires a sustained effort. The LHSFNA is a powerful resource for signatory contractors who want to make the commitment.