Projects need to be completed within the budget and on time. That pressure can contribute to overlooking risks and a failure to recognize or correct unsafe conditions. The consequences of succumbing to that pressure are real and can sometimes be catastrophic to the lives of workers and their families. Fatalities in construction occupations rose six percent in 2019 — the highest gain since 2007. Occupational injuries claimed the lives of 5,333 and injured or sickened 2.8 million workers in 2019. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimated the 2019 economic loss of work-related deaths and injuries was approximately $171 billion.
In addition to the pain and suffering of those involved, accidents, injuries and near misses result in direct costs, delays and reduced productivity. Given these sobering statistics, adhering to the popular motto, “Safety First”, is imperative for preventing injuries to workers and in so doing, saving lives, time and money.
5 Commonly Overlooked Construction Safety Blind Spots
Below are five blind spots construction managers commonly miss in their safe workplace strategy. This is not an exhaustive list. It is meant to encourage every construction worker, manager, and owner to look deeper at their own safety practices and strategies. Awareness and education are the first steps to effective action.
- Inadequate respiratory protection: FACS teams often observe that protective gear worn by workers is inadequate or improperly used for the hazard. For example, workers who use methylene chloride, a potential carcinogen, to strip paint mistakenly believe that wearing respirators with organic vapor cartridges provides adequate protection. Actually, OSHA specifies that supplied air respirators, not air purifying respirators, should be worn when working with methylene chloride, since the vapors are not adequately filtered by organic vapor cartridges.
- Lack of respiratory protection: Two of the more toxic metal fume exposures that can occur when welding are hexavalent chromium and manganese. Hexavalent chromium is a systemic toxin that can spur cancers of the nasal passages and lungs. Manganese, a component of welding flux, is a neurotoxin. Despite the serious health risks posed by these and other metals in fumes, some welders often do not wear respiratory protection because they mistakenly believe a welding hood or local ventilation provide protection from inhalation of the fumes. Years of inadequately controlled exposures to welding fumes can ultimately result in the development of irreversible illnesses.
- Confined Spaces: Worker safety isn’t the place to apply the “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” maxim. What you don’t know can hurt you, and unseen hazards can be deadly. For example, statistics from 2011-2018 show that 1,030 workers died from occupational injuries involving a confined space during that seven-year period. Many of these deaths occurred due to hazards that are undetectable to human senses. Confined spaces should be assessed and identified at all work sites, permit procedures developed, and only properly trained personnel allowed to enter those spaces. Atmospheric testing must be performed both prior to entry and during occupancy. It is critical to inform all workers that under no circumstances should unauthorized or untrained personnel enter a confined space.
- Lack of hazard awareness training for workers: The better educated your crew is about potential hazards and how to spot them, the more likely those hazards are to be recognized and the more likely the workers will take the situation seriously. Workers performing jobs in soils must receive training on the hazardous substances that may be present in the soil and how to use engineering controls (e.g., wetting soils to suppress dust aerosolization). They must also wear adequate personal protective equipment to reduce exposure from inhalation, ingestion, and direct skin contact.
- Failure to protect against naturally occurring asbestos: Cal/OSHA regulates exposures to asbestos when the asbestos in soil content at construction sites is greater than one percent. Consequently, many contractors believe that asbestos in soil at concentrations less than one percent pose no health hazard, which is wrong. The EPA says that soils containing significantly less than a one percent concentration of asbestos can release unacceptable concentrations of asbestos fibers. In fact, with respect to developing mesothelioma, there is no safe exposure for asbestos, and the amount found in the soil does not necessarily correlate with airborne asbestos.
Never forget that the crew’s attitude towards job site safety is always influenced by how seriously the company takes safety. Managers and supervisors lead by example when they demonstrate their own commitment to an accident-free job site and uphold the company’s safety strategies. Workers in those organizations are more apt to feel valued by the company, more likely to remain employed by the firm long-term, and are less likely to be killed or injured on the job. FACS can assist with job safety assessments, respiratory protection program development, onsite exposure monitoring, and other health and safety-related services.