In an industry already in crisis—with rising jobsite deaths and injuries and now in a rush to start and complete economic stimulus projects worth many billions of dollars—where, ultimately, does responsibility for worker safety lie? Does it, as some argue, rest partly with individual workers, or should employers, project owners or even the government be held fully accountable when there is an accident on a construction site?
Earlier this year, ENR published a Viewpoint titled, “We Need Personal Safety Records,” by Peter Lupo, director of safety for T.B. Penick & Sons Inc., a San Diego-based general contractor. In it, Lupo said, “I am convinced the only way to etch safety indelibly in the hearts and minds of workers is to engage each individual in a way that he or she cannot ignore, a way that makes the worker personally accountable for the individual’s actions.”
Lupo suggested the Occupational Safety and Health Administration create and maintain personal safety records (PSRs) for workers, “similar to a driving abstract, a credit history or a criminal record,” listing safety infractions, incidents and accidents. Workers with good records would be in high demand, while a poor work history could result in “fines, demotion or other sanctions,” he said.
Lupo’s Viewpoint resonated with many readers and drew multiple comments on our Website, enr.com. That led ENR to further develop the issue with two enhanced Viewpoints arguing pro and con: another from Lupo, and one from Pete Stafford, executive director of CPWR, the Center for Construction Research and Training, Silver Spring, Md., which is union affiliated.
Unrealistic Plan Poses Many Problems And Won’t Do the Job
Everyone reading this column agrees we want workers and contractors to have safe jobsites, but a personal safety record will do nothing to improve jobsite safety and could actually impede efforts to improve it. In practice, personal safety records are unrealistic.
How will the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintain “report cards” for some 11 million people in our industry, especially as many workers move from site to site with multiple employers in different states? What about the 2.5 million people classified as “independent contractors”? Under Mr. Lupo’s system, are they “employers,” or, since many work on sites as if they were wage-and-salary employees, would they be assigned worker cards?
Before discussing the problems such a system would cause, we should look at the big picture, using Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data. Firms with fewer than 20 employees make up 90% of all U.S. construction establishments. They employ 40% of all workers, yet they suffer 55% of all fatalities. Large companies with more than 1,000 employees, usually with well-funded safety programs, have about half the rate of injuries and illnesses of companies with fewer than 50 employees.
The BLS data also holds somber statistics. Four workers, on average, die every workday on U.S. construction sites. Some 400,000 construction workers are injured annually; almost half are serious. Tens of thousands are exposed to hazardous chemicals, dust and fumes that can lead to serious, even fatal, illnesses later in life. Our work is so dangerous that we experience 22% of work-related fatalities but employ 8% of the workforce.
Yet a personal safety record puts responsibility squarely on the shoulders of those who have the least control over their situation and who will suffer the consequences of others’ actions. Workers don’t design jobs or draw up schedules. They can be sent to a site without engineering controls, personal protective equipment or a safety plan or manager. They can be assigned a task requiring training but not receive any. They can be given poorly maintained tools and equipment that fails. Under Mr. Lupo’s system, workers in these situations would be blamed if they were injured. His April 6 column describes a worker who “chose” to ignore safety rules. But he doesn’t mention companies that choose to ignore safety regulations.
In fact, personal safety records would act as a disincentive for contractors to develop and maintain a positive safety culture. Contractors would risk improbably small chances of an OSHA fine. Site personnel not directly affected by fines could push workers to meet unrealistic timetables. Meanwhile, injured workers could be laid off or blacklisted. The system would disproportionately punish them for their employers’ failings.
If incorporating a safety culture on a jobsite is our goal, then personal safety records works against it. Occupational psychology and organizational behavior research leaves little doubt that blaming victims who step forward and marking their permanent records for future disciplinary purposes is unlikely to result in the kind of change and risk reduction we all want.
What’s more, personal safety records could easily exacerbate the problem of underreported injuries. Recent research determined injuries among Hispanic workers are likely to be underreported to government sources. Our researchers found occupational deaths among Hispanic construction workers almost tripled from 1992 to 2006, but nonfatal injuries increased only by 92%. Oddly enough, nonfatal injury rates for Hispanic construction workers are lower than that of all other construction workers, yet Hispanic workers have higher fatality rates. The reason? Perhaps it’s because jobsite fatalities almost always are reported, but injuries aren’t. We know, anecdotally, workers on too many jobsites are encouraged to look the other way.
Workers who suffer injuries in silence or contractors who ignore injury reporting would make data reporting problems worse. Researchers already must allow for limitations in data collection. Unreported injuries would make data used to determine causes of injuries and illnesses less reliable, which would hamper our ability to develop useful interventions and evaluate their effectiveness.
If the problems generated by these scenarios aren’t enough, personal safety records would create a nightmare of record keeping, paperwork and waste of taxpayer dollars. There are 10.8 million people in the U.S. construction workforce. OSHA is already short-staffed and overburdened; in Florida, there is a ratio of one inspector per 176,000 employees. Do taxpayers really want to see OSHA’s budget expand for this kind of record keeping? Shouldn’t OSHA’s priorities be enforcement of current laws and regulations and building safety cultures on worksites?
Consider the ramifications of this idea on the Occupational Health and Safety Act as written. Would personal safety records force a re-opening of the OSH Act? If so, that would consume the time of OSHA officials, who should be focused on protecting workers’ health and safety, as well as Congress, which should be handling critically important issues affecting us all.
I can see how, in frustration, Mr. Lupo devised the personal safety record. In his original column, he profiled the incident of a worker who had been trained three times in fall protection and was wearing a harness. The worker “disconnected his lanyard to climb across some formwork that was being stripped. He fell 14 ft and severely injured his knee.” He then notes, “The incident will cost the company over $130,000 in workers’ compensation cost claims alone,” plus lost productivity on the site and among managers.
But this account gives no root-cause analysis of the incident and many facts are not known. Did the worker disconnect because he needed a tool out of his reach? Did a piece of the form give way? Was he being rushed on an assigned task? Did a foreman see him and fail to correct his behavior? Was he distracted, perhaps by a live load overhead? Since there was a recognized fall hazard, were passive controls considered? Learning safety practices requires feedback that is frequent, immediate and relevant to the work.
We believe many, if not almost all, workers’ fatalities, injuries and illnesses are not self-induced. For example, one-third of workers killed by crane loads were not even involved in crane work, according to our research. Mobile cranes, which are often rented, were involved in 78% of deaths. Does that mean workers or even their supervisors were not properly trained in their operation?
What about workers who have career-ending illnesses and injuries, despite their efforts to work safely? Punishing physical work takes its toll: Back injuries result in more days away from work than any other type of injury. Repetitive-motion damage is one of hundreds of problems that also include contact dermatitis, silicosis, cancer and other conditions and illnesses not in a worker’s control.
So when a well-trained worker abandons safety procedures, contractors should establish a process of progressive discipline rather than reach for personal safety records. Even better, contractors could use safety programs to focus on mentoring and encouraging workers and foremen to share near-misses to raise safety awareness on the job. A group of our researchers developed such a program, which has shown promising results of more reported safety behaviors and less pain and injuries.
While I disagree with Mr. Lupo’s solution, I commend his desire to see construction injuries and fatalities reduced. He essentially poses the question, “Just who is responsible for jobsite safety and health?” The short answer is that we all are, beginning with the owner, project manager, architects, engineers, designers, general contractor, subcontractors, safety managers, foremen and yes, of course, the worker.
Just as well-trained, competent workers should shoulder their responsibility, the owner must start the process by requiring architects to identify safety hazards in their drawings, managers to designate safety personnel to build in safety systems, pre-project planning to identify hazards and plan for specific controls, contractors to be prequalified based on metrics indicating both past safety performance and the adequacy of planned safety practices prior to awarding contracts, along with the subs. They can ask if safety has been designed into the job by matching manpower and scheduling, and deliberately not stacking trades, by establishing safety committees, by encouraging managers, foremen and superintendents to engage workers in reporting unsafe working conditions and enable them to stop work without reprimand if they perceive a dangerous condition they cannot control. They could use safety programs with positive feedback that encourages everyone to maintain a safe jobsite.
By law, the employer is responsible for providing a safe and healthy jobsite. While workers must take responsibility for safety on the job, those responsibilities come with rights. Owners and contractors also have rights and responsibilities, one of which is to engineer safety into their jobs and factor those costs into their bids and bottom lines.
Accident Prevention Is Everyone’s Responsibility
The reaction from readers to my article “We Need Personal Safety Records,” which suggested the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration create and maintain personal safety records for individual workers, was a wide-ranging display of emotion and opinion. Reactions varied from enthusiastic to cautious to indignation at the idea individual workers should be held accountable for working safely.
I was pleased by the spectrum of responses and hope this suggestion will launch an open dialogue about accountability for workplace safety. The issue cries out for input from stakeholders representing labor and management, and a viable plan will have to address all parties’ opinions and concerns.
Looking at the feedback, there is evidently general agreement that the current record of three deaths per day at construction jobsites is abysmal and unacceptable. This is the starting point at which to craft a just and effective plan.
First, I would like to clarify a few points that were misunderstood or misinterpreted by some readers. I am not suggesting employers relinquish their accountability for the safety, health and well-being of their workers. I believe the current requirements should remain intact and be vigorously enforced. Contractors must continue to be responsible for safety training, ensuring safe and healthy workplaces and fostering a culture of safety throughout their organizations and worksites. I also support the existing method of regulating by statute safety engineering of materials and equipment.
However, the current system of regulating workplace safety is not wrong, but incomplete, because a critical component is missing: worker accountability. We need to make workers part of the safety infrastructure so all stakeholders are motivated and incentivized to achieve the same safety outcomes. My proposal is not about finding a scapegoat; it is about strengthening the overall safety infrastructure.
The intent is not to punish wrongdoing or point fingers. Rather, it is to allocate responsibility for safe practices to all parties, including workers who have the most at stake and are in the best position to ensure safe practices. I look for an outcome that will give workers a seat at the table and involve them proactively in training, transparency and safe practices.
Several readers expressed concern OSHA may not be the appropriate agency to administer a personal safety record system. If it is not, an independent board, possibly from labor organizations, apprenticeship programs or training and accreditation groups, could step up to the plate and take on this role.
One reader suggested employers engage independent consultants to review accident reports and provide verification of the number of accidents and the cause or responsibility for them.
Other readers proposed a starter plan, perhaps some sort of voluntary system. One idea specified a voluntary safety scorecard, a wallet-sized card containing a record of an individual’s safety history. Participation in this sort of voluntary program could be a first step toward a nationwide change in practices.
Many wrote to point out ways in which personal safety records might benefit safety-conscious trades, potentially making them eligible for bonuses, awards, special projects or other incentives. A clean safety record also could be used to gauge wage increases or other employment perks.
Clearly one of the greatest benefits of personal safety records is giving employers a tool to evaluate the safety history of prospective employees. Just as they currently review traffic abstracts for drivers and operators, employers would have access to objective data about past incidents and injuries and how these relate to the tradesperson’s ability to do the job.
To those who fret this might be considered a form of profiling, I respond: Yes, that is the point! A program of personal safety records could enable employers to hire safe crews and make workers confident in their co-workers. More importantly, it would have a proactive influence, motivating and incentivizing careful, safety-conscious tradespeople to use best practices.
Several readers asked how the program might be implemented. How would employees’ work records be measured? What if an employee failed to report an injury in order to protect his or her safety record? What if a worker was involved but not responsible for an incident? Of course, issues like these will have to be worked out. This is where industry experts will help develop solutions. In fact, several readers pointed out precedents. For instance, Canada has a personal safety accountability system that could serve as a model, and the U.S. Federal Rail Road Administration allows for fines to individuals from $500 to $22,000 for violating rules.
Even more daunting than executing a plan, political pressure was seen as an obstacle to implementation. Several writers mentioned potential push-back from recalcitrant employers who do not have a strong safety ethic, and others pointed out entrenched labor interests may resist change and try to doom any meaningful effort to hold employees accountable for safety. Ultimately, it is workers who stand to benefit most from an effective system of personal safety records. With tools such as anonymous calls to a site’s general contractor or to OSHA, employees can exert leverage over their employers in the interest of their safety. Furthermore, any labor or civil rights leader willing to “protect” employees by allowing them to kill or maim themselves or others on a jobsite needs to rethink their position.
I believe all construction trades have ample access to the resources, equipment and information necessary to enable them to take an active role in worksite safety. All apprenticeship programs teach safety, and apprentices are exposed to OSHA rules and procedures as well as Web-based resources and local experts. They also receive additional safety instruction through “journeyman upgrades” and other advanced trainings.
I believe all workers want to work safely in a safe environment. If I had told you back in 1990 that workers at a site would not be permitted to work more than six feet off the ground without 100% fall protection, you probably would have responded with disbelief. Today it is the law.
Many important and challenging issues have been raised in response to my proposal to establish a system of personal safety accountability in the construction industry. I acknowledge the devil is always in the details, and I agree it is imperative all stakeholders take part in the resolution of this issue.
Yet I remain convinced that, in our industry safety is everyone’s business and everyone’s responsibility. I repeat: Safety consciousness is possibly the most vital professional qualification for any construction-related tradesperson. With so many lives at stake, a worker’s professional reputation seems reasonable collateral to ensure accountability for safety includes those whose very lives are on the line.