The construction industry is unique, in that — leaving aside very small projects, and some limited to upgrading one or two building systems — on most jobs, there are at least a dozen, and at times literally scores of trades, often with large regional firms working shoulder-to-shoulder with tiny “mom and pop” subcontractors, the trades frequently having wildly disparate modes of organization and management styles.
The responsibility to ensure employee safety and health is shared among the owner, the general contractor, and every employer whose employees may be exposed to unsafe conditions at the site, or who has the responsibility and authority to prevent, detect, or correct hazardous conditions.
Not only do employers on a construction site often have varying management styles, but their employees may speak an array of languages, and trades may vary greatly in the diligence and resources devoted to their health and safety programs.
Since, typically, the general contractor is formally in charge of the jobsite, if you are a general contractor, you may be in the unenviable position of having to keep a large number of employees, employed by a large number of trades, on the “straight and narrow,” in terms of safe work practices and OSHA (and state law) compliance.
Conversely, subs cannot abdicate responsibility for the safety of their employees to the general contractor, and they remain responsible for violative conditions (1) created by their own employees, and (2) to which their employees are exposed. This remains so even where a subcontractor has but a handful of employees, and little “clout” in determining how the project is managed. If the general contractor is lukewarm in its approach to employee safety, at times the small subcontractor, as a practical matter, will be hard-pressed to do more than to surveil the safety and OSHA compliance of its own workforce.
Another factor complicating the maintenance of high standards is the proliferation of staffing agencies supplying workers to the construction industry. These firms vary in how much safety training they provide, and even the better-trained workers seldom have the close relationships with company safety managers and other supervisors that foster the faithful observance of safety rules.
Communication and coordination are the key elements in ensuring effective safety practices on the multi-employer jobsite. Communication, among other things, entails study and identification — before the physical work of the project begins — of the principal hazards likely to be encountered over the life of the project, and the planning of measures to avoid or control them. It is important, also, as subcontractors (and, if applicable, staffing agencies) are added to the project, to identify and to have e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers for safety managers or key supervisory personnel from each employer. This is important, not only for the general exchange of safety-related information, but for reporting hazardous conditions, reporting incidents, and consulting when decisions affecting safety issues must be made quickly.
It is also indispensable to know the location and alternate routes to the nearest emergency room or acute care clinic, and the means to summon first responders. Since non-supervisory employees are commonly prohibited from carrying cell phones while working, make sure that procedures are in place to summon emergency personnel, without delay, in case of need. The means should also be at hand to contact the general contractor, owner, and OSHA to get information, report an injury, illness, or incident, or if a safety concern arises.
Usually, the general contractor has the leading role in devising, implementing, and maintaining the project’s health and safety program. These responsibilities may be spelled out in contract documents, and are usually addressed in pre-construction meetings. The general contractor typically sets up procedures, whereby it gathers and communicates information needed by each employer to assess and address hazards, while the subcontractors furnish information concerning injuries, illnesses, hazards or concerns reported by their respective employees (or discovered during inspections, inquiries or analyses performed by them).
Where unanticipated operations must be carried out, due to such things as defects discovered in installations, weather events, or natural disasters, it is usually the general contractor (often in collaboration with the project architects or engineers) who collects the relevant information, conducts any necessary analysis, and communicates to all interested parties what must be done to respond to the situation.
Since the complement of trades working on the project usually changes as the work progresses, membership in the “safety committee” will change correspondingly, and it will become necessary to assess from time to time (particularly as major milestones are reached) what work has been completed, what hazards are currently extant at the site, and what counter-measures are indicated, to avoid or neutralize them.
Communication includes, among other things, evaluating and resolving any potential conflicts before work starts. It is desirable that all subcontracts include express provisions requiring compliance with OSHA and all other safety laws and regulations, and cooperation with the general contractor and other subcontractors in matters affecting employee health and safety. Pre-construction meetings are additional propitious occasions to clarify key safety issues, measures indicated to combat hazards already identified, and lines of authority and communication regarding safety matters.
Another key element of “coordination” is that careful planning will often enable you to sequence or locate tasks, e.g., to reduce the numbers of employees, not needed to carry out the task in question, who will need to be working in proximity to a given hazard. You may also be able to isolate work that produces hazardous chemicals or vapors, respirable silicate, or other harmful substances, thereby limiting employee exposure.
Another thing the general contractor can do before the work is underway is to coordinate with the subcontractors, to ensure that all needed safety equipment will be onsite as needed, and that appropriate employee training (which, increasingly, is required by law) has been completed. Responsibility for “toolbox talks” and other training, as the project goes forward, should also be planned.
One of the most important aspects of coordination is discussion, especially among the primary trades, and firm leadership, to ensure that safety practices, especially regarding hazards that are perennially leading causes of fatalities and serious injuries (and those most frequently cited by OSHA) are uniform, and at the highest and best levels. Nothing undermines employees’ belief in the sincerity of management’s commitment to safety than seeing such things as supervisors looking the other way while employees work on elevated surfaces without fall protection, or do down into unshored trenches.
Finally, while strictly speaking it’s not part of health and safety practices per se, it’s an excellent idea for the general contractor to do whatever is necessary to ensure first, that its subcontracts all require the subcontractors to name the general contractor as an additional insured on its contracts of liability insurance, and, second, to verify that its own mutual insurance obligations, vis-à-vis the owner and any subcontractors, have all been complied with. The better practice is to obtain not just insurance certificates, but copies of the actual policies.
Since worker safety involves all participants in a construction project, getting it done right generally requires a difficult-to-achieve mix of patience, firmness and tact. Coordinating safety efforts among so many parties can be challenging, but most construction companies are increasingly aware of the need for it, since, after all, it’s a life-or-death task not only for your employees, but for your business as well.