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SAFETY IN PHOTOGRAPHY
Safety’s Many Colors
Photos can serve as a springboard for meaningful discussion
By Tudor Hampton
Photographer and Submitter: Elizabeth O’Brien, EIO photo, Somerville, Mass.
An untethered ironworker “walks the line” on the frame of a condominium garage in Boston. While the activity looks like an “apparent” safety violation, steel connectors can work up to 30 ft high without fall protection.

All good contests recognize excellence, not only because excellence deserves to be recognized, but also because great work demands recognition. Such accomplishments should stand far above others and give professionals a benchmark for their actions. And so it is with ENR’s contest winners.

Recognizing photographs that demonstrate excellent camera skills but depict substandard building practices offends those who safeguard the lives of the work force and the public. Construction photographers should encourage industry to improve “by taking a photograph of people doing it the right way,” says Tom Rehkemper, safety director for the Associated General Contractors of America’s St. Louis chapter.

But showing unsafe practices also can be healthy for the construction industry to view. As difficult as they are to look at, such photos can and do serve as springboards for meaningful discussions between management and labor. ENR’s challenge is to strike a reasonable balance between the two.

Related Links:
Images of the Year in Construction
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  • Submitting a contest photo that is shot by means of an unsafe act is not recommended. Posing workers in unsafe situations to get the attention of a contest judge is even worse. Those photos end up on the cutting room floor.

    In the spirit of a good contest, the methodology for choosing the images in this year's competition now includes safety as a consideration. Bob Magee, a Manhattan-based safety specialist for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, joined this year’s panel of judges. Magee is trained to identify acts that violate federal safety and health regulations. He reviews dozens of fatalities, accidents and other cases every year. During his career, he has inspected more than 1,000 work sites.

    (Illustration by Guy Lawrence for ENR)

    Rather than focusing on aesthetics, as did the other judges, Magee’s job was to flag safety violations. Surprisingly, few photos were rejected solely because of safety concerns. A few winning pictures still illustrate questionable safety practices. Sometimes, the safety issues were murky and the artistic merit was clear.

    The contest was a potent illustration that photography can trick the mind into seeing things that may not exist. For example, the worker in the winning photo above does not appear to be wearing fall gear, but that requirement depends on how high up he is. How high up is he?

    By addressing concerns in these pages, the editorial team hopes to raise awareness and provide another venue for readers to discuss the important subjects of safety and health. Over the years, several ENR covers have prompted readers to question why unsafe practices were put on display. One cover, taken high up in the cab of a tower crane, showed what looked like a beer bottle near the operator’s seat. A similar photo taken the same day, shot from another angle, showed that it was clearly a soda bottle. Still, the letters poured in. A worker inside but near a steep drop prompted a similar storm of letters.

    Unfit to Print? Workers pour concrete near uncapped rebar. This image was considered for a cover but rejected.

    The cover of last year’s photo contest showed a dramatic view of ironworkers taken by artist and former boilermaker Joseph Blum. The cover sparked a heated debate on safety in the “letters” section of the magazine. It is interesting to note that OSHA judge Magee found nothing “citable” in that particular image.

    Reader concerns about last year’s cover show that industry is starting to supplant minimum levels of protection and is ratcheting up best practices. ENR is reponding to reader sensitivity and tuning its approach to selecting artwork. Earlier this month, art directors considered a cover photo that raised safety concerns and later rejected it. Because the image was being used for artistic purposes, the safety issue prevailed. For news and project photos, however, we still will “show it like it is.”

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