By: Geoffrey S. Pope Published: December 2019

Whither Construction Safety in an Era of Massive Technological Change?

This series dates back about 14 years, and has always had OSHA compliance as a primary focus.  While the OSH Act, soon to be fifty years old, has never quite reached its stated goal of providing all workers in America with workplaces free from health and safety hazards, it has achieved much in reducing on-the-job mayhem.

If you are a construction company owner, executive, or field superintendent, you probably view OSHA as a welter of rules, some simple, but many of them complicated, and so numerous that few — if any — employers truly fulfill the mandate to train field employees, not only in all the OSHA rules that pertain closely to your company’s trade, but, in addition, hazards they might encounter, due to work being performed on the site by other trades.

While, increasingly, owners (and government bodies) are requiring OSHA cards for construction workers, I recall reading, just a few years ago, of a study at Tulane University, in which graduate students of engineering were given the OSHA 10-hour course and then (with dispiriting results) quizzed on how much of the material they had retained.  OSHA training is rich in jargon, buzzwords and acronyms.  Few of your rank-and-file workers have engineering degrees, and many have a first language other than English.  They may understand English poorly, or scarcely at all.

Supposedly, all are entitled to receive safety training in a language they understand.  Safety manuals are widely available in Spanish, but written materials (or competent construction trainers) can be hard to come by in Albanian, Somali, Gujurati, the dozens of African dialects widely spoken in the Bronx, or most of the 140 or so languages spoken in Queens County.

In short:  OSHA courses don’t hurt, and may be mandatory, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that OHSA 10- or 30-hour courses guarantee more than a rudimentary level of OSHA literacy in your workforce.

We have come to see construction safety as a set of rules, many of them supplied by OSHA, but others coming from New York’s Industrial Code and other sources.  In recent years, however — and this trend is likely to continue its sharp acceleration — sweeping changes in construction technology and practices have changed tremendously how projects, large and small, are carried out.

Here’s a partial list of things that have become widespread in just the last few years:

  • Onsite robots;
  • Drones, including drones integrated with software and hand-held devices to monitor workers, detect problems, and allow instantaneous communications, and on-the-fly changes;
  • 3-D printing technology;
  • Augmented and virtual reality;
  • “Green” technologies and materials (notably, “greener” asphalt);
  • Solar installations in roadways;
  • Modular construction, including very large projects.

While no doubt it’s thrilling, and potentially hugely profitable, if you happen to be on the bleeding edge of bringing these new technologies to construction sites, it should be sobering that, even as many tasks are, increasingly, being performed by smaller crews (and robots) the construction sector continues, alas, to account for approximately one-fifth of all occupational fatalities in the United States.

Tech changes bring both opportunities and challenges in terms of construction safety, but in years to come, the checking-off-boxes approach will likely be insufficient to get the job done, as additional, as-yet-unheard of technologies arrive on the scene and gain acceptance,

OSHA has resource (funding) as well as technical challenges facing it, but isn’t about to close up shop.  You will continue to have a legal duty to train and to enforce safety standards, even if the latter may struggle to keep pace with the sweeping technological changes in the industry.

Consider, as a basis for comparison, how in most localities in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world, roadway fatalities fell steadily for half a century, due to enforcement and other efforts to curb drunk driving, the required use of seat belts and child safety seats, better-designed cars, roads, lighting and signage systems, driver’s education programs, etc.

As you’re probably aware from daily alarms in the media, however, distracted drivers texting and talking on cell phones have given back a significant part of the gains realized over decades in reducing roadway fatalities.

Surviving the Interstate is, I believe, relatively easy, compared with going from ground-breaking to final completion on a large construction project.  Such projects typically involve multiple employers, diverse operations being carried out simultaneously, and rapid changes in tasks being performed as the project unfolds.

Construction operations involve tremendous numbers of moving parts, people working in trenches and hundreds of feet above grade, the use of heavy equipment and cranes, and delivery and other vehicles coming and going.  You drive your car in heated and air-conditioned comfort, but construction work may be performed in blistering heat, and sub-freezing temperatures.  Many projects — consider, for example, the construction, or the rehabilitation, of bridges, dams and other infrastructure — present tremendous public safety implications.  Work on highways and bridges is carried out in close proximity to traffic, often during nighttime hours.

  For years after the advent of cell phones, many construction employers forbade their use on the job.  Today, however, hand-held devices are increasingly indispensable for purposes of monitoring, transmitting images, and instantaneous communication, but not without risk of being a distraction.

How to confront the oncoming wave of safety challenges?

There isn’t a simple answer.  I do believe it’s going to require leadership, a collaborative and nimble approach, and — while you probably can’t give your workers a Ph.D. in construction safety, or OSHA compliance — you can give them the beginnings of wisdom, including that construction work is a fast-changing environment, and safety a shared responsibility.  You can demonstrate top-down commitment to avoiding injuries, and — this, I think, is critical — establish lines of communication (with workers, other trades, and vendors of new technologies).  When practical changes become desirable, in light of changes in technology, solutions must be devised and implemented among all stakeholders.

While new technologies often require fresh approaches, when knowing what to do to avoid perennial dangers such as falls is well-known, you’ve just got to do it.  Supervisors shouldn’t look the other way when, for example, if someone isn’t tied off while working on an elevated surface, or is working too close to live wires, or in an unshored trench.

Today, career success is not so much based on credentials, but increasingly a matter of flexibility, self-confidence, resilience, and a collaborative spirit.  Similarly, ensuring the safety of your workers, and the success of your business, will likely depend on attentiveness, persistence in communications, and doing whatever is needed to create a safe working environment.

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