Persistent problems prompt OSHA to issue new safety guide

On the rise: As business conditions improve, so are the number of construction injuries and fatalities, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Safety still counts, but the numbers aren’t encouraging.

Construction remains private industry’s most perilous enterprise and, on a percentage basis, accounted for 20.6 percent of all such deaths in 2014, according to the most recent annual data available from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2009, construction contributed to 20 percent of private-industry deaths, suggesting that, despite programs and protocols some builders have adopted, conditions haven’t improved.

In actual numbers, the problem has worsened due to larger volumes of projects that have accompanied improving business conditions. From 2009 to 2014, construction-related fatalities rose from 816 to 899.

Causes vary. In 2014, the so-called “fatal four” — falls (39.95 percent), electrocutions (8.2 percent), strikes by objects (8.1 percent), and compression by equipment and crushes by collapsing structures or materials (4.3 percent) — resulted in 545 fatalities, BLS data indicate.

Among the most vulnerable workers have been Hispanic immigrants employed by small businesses with fewer than 20 employees and young workers under age 25, according to a 2015 joint study performed by the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.


— American Society of Safety Engineers and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Don’t react: OSHA’s new safety guide places special emphasis on adopting a proactive approach to safety on-site.

To assist firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in December issued “Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs in Construction,” a guide it says may be of particular value to small and medium-size enterprises that lack safety and health specialists to develop proactive programs that keep workplaces safe.

The guide outlines “simple steps” including training crews to identify and control hazards, inspect job sites to identify problems with equipment and materials, and develop responses to emergencies. “The recommendations outlined in this document will help contractors prevent injuries and illnesses on their construction sites and make their companies more profitable,” Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels indicated in a statement.

Best of the best: The OSHA guide’s practices “reflect the best-in-class programs and what makes them effective.” — Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health

“The recommended practices emphasize a proactive approach to managing occupational safety and health,” OSHA elaborated in the guide. “Traditional practices are often reactive — that is, actions taken only after a worker is injured or becomes sick, a new standard or regulation is published, or an outside inspection firm finds a problem that must be fixed. Finding and fixing hazards before they cause injury or illness is a far more effective approach. Doing so avoids the direct and indirect costs of worker injuries and illnesses and promotes a positive work environment.”

The guide outlines nine simple steps to launch a safety program:

  • Set safety and health as a top priority
  • Lead by example
  • Implement a reporting system
  • Provide training
  • Conduct inspections
  • Collect hazard-control ideas
  • Implement hazard controls
  • Address emergencies
  • Make improvements

Much of the guide involves core elements “best viewed as part of an integrated system and … tailored to the needs of each construction company or job.”

Among them:

  • Management leadership
  • Worker participation
  • Hazard identification and assessment
  • Hazard prevention and control
  • Education and training
  • Program evaluation and improvement
  • Communication and coordination for employers on multiemployer worksites

“Small employers may find they can best accomplish the actions outlined in these recommended practices using informal communications and procedures,” OSHA noted. “Larger employers, who have more complex work processes and hazards, may require a more formal and detailed program.”

OSHA emphasized the guide is advisory in nature and doesn’t create new protocols or alter existing ones promulgated by the agency. Rather, recommendations were derived from “best-in-class” programs that place special emphasis on worker participation and continuous improvement.

OSHA, has, however, raised the ante for safety violations by a whopping 78 percent, thanks to regulations enacted in August. The increase, OSHA’s first in 26 years, was implemented as part of a “one-time catch” deriving from the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015. Prior to the legislation, OSHA was exempted from a law requiring federal agencies to raise their fines in accordance with inflation. In the future, OSHA will adjust the amounts annually based on the Consumer Price Index.