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DJC Op-Ed: Extreme Measures Needed to Improve Safety in Construction

By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on May 14 in Buildings Bridges and Roads, and can be viewed here (subscription required).

The construction industry is booming. There are a lot of projects ready to move forward right now, and contractors are frantically looking high and low for workers to build them. Wages are some of the most competitive we have seen in years. So why is it so hard to attract workers to the industry? One common answer is that construction work is considered too hazardous.

Statistically, there are occupations more hazardous than construction. The logging, fishing and airline industries lead the nation in fatal injury rates. The construction industry has made substantial progress over the past several years as our safety culture has evolved and as owners have raised the bar on the safety expectations of their contractors.

Daily Journal of CommerceHazards still exist on construction sites, but contractors and workers have learned to identify those hazards and mitigate them. Some methods that contractors are using to reduce or eliminate safety hazards are: implementation of engineering controls and technology, use of safe operating procedures, provision of worker training, and issuance of the best personal protective equipment available.

These proven methods have had significant results in reducing OSHA recordable injuries, and that is a very good thing. However, the industry still struggles with reducing serious injuries and fatalities. In the past 15 to 20 years, injury rates in the U.S. have dropped 60 percent to 70 percent. While the OSHA total recordable injury rates (TRIR) have shown a steady decline for several years, the rates of serious injuries and fatalities have increased. 2016 saw the lowest TRIR in U.S. history at 2.9, but the highest number of worker fatalities since 2008.

When does a recordable injury become a serious injury? Some leading-edge safety think tanks that study serious injury and fatality (SIF) exposures for years have defined an SIF as an event in which the outcome is likely to lead to the death of the affected individual or result in permanent or long-term impairment or loss of use of a major internal organ, critical body function, or major body part. These are the injuries that a worker never recovers from, and will alter a person’s life and impact their family for the rest of their years. These are also the injuries that have significant costs for medical treatment, indemnity, and ongoing care. Beyond the devastating effects to workers and their families, these SIF events are extremely costly to employers and insurance carriers.

Why is this happening? Why are companies with very good safety records still having serious injury and fatality events? Have we been focused on reducing our injury rates so much that we overlook the work tasks and exposures that are going to seriously injure or kill someone? Are we managing the numbers and not the exposures? Maybe it’s a little of all of these, but the bottom line is we must manage the serious safety exposures differently than we manage the non-serious exposures.

The non-serious exposures contribute to most of the injuries in the construction industry. These incidents still need to be managed by employers. Managing the SIF exposures will require a paradigm shift, requiring contractors and safety professionals to find a new way to do business.

Managing all exposures and implementing controls to reduce or eliminate those hazards will only work on the non-SIF exposures. We now must identify the SIF exposures separately, develop new procedures to lessen them, and take appropriate measures to implement these new procedures.

Implementing a minimum of two controls for SIF exposures that cannot be eliminated is just the beginning. Potential SIF tasks must be identified and given priority during job planning and preparation discussions. A task hazard analysis discussion may need to be performed separately to provide exposed workers with all the information needed to safely perform the work. Senior management should be made aware of all potential SIF tasks and ensure that every possible step is taken to reduce worker exposures prior to performing the work.

These measures may seem extreme. That is because as we turn to cast a new focus on these safety threats, they are extreme. But to truly reduce serious injuries and fatalities, extreme measures are what it is going to take to address this problem. If we want to make the construction industry an attractive career for the workforce of the future, we must continue to make strides in injury prevention and protecting our industry’s most valuable asset: our people.

And our workers – those working today and those joining us in the future – must be confident we are serious and committed to their safety.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or


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