Injury and death rates in the construction industry are declining dramatically, said Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials, with the exception of one subcategory: Hispanic workers. That rising demographic is something with which OSHA struggles.
In general, however, serious workplace accidents are declining, and OSHA attributes it to the agency doing a better job of policing the industry.
The department is protecting workers better “by targeting enforcement at bad actors and providing tools to employers that help them better comply with the law,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao in a November news release.
Statistically, the linkage looks like this:
• OSHA cited employers 83,760 times in the last fiscal year, an 8 percent increase;
• During that period, the rates of workplace injuries and fatalities fell to the lowest point ever.
Those conclusions reflect OSHA’s involvement in a variety of workplaces, of which construction is just one. An isolated look at construction shows a similar picture.
Construction work, by its nature, is especially dangerous. Some 51 percent of all fatalities occurring in the American workplace happen on construction sites. OSHA’s four major categories of construction hazards self-describe the dangers:
• Caught in/between
• Struck by
Between October 2002 and September 2003, OSHA investigated 55 fatal falls on job sites in the Southeast.
Even so, rates of injuries and deaths are going down on construction jobs, too. That is true in the eight Southeastern states in OSHA’s Region 4 –– Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina and Tennessee.
“As a whole, fatalities and injuries are declining,” reported Benjamin Ross, who is the assistant regional administrator of enforcement in the region’s Atlanta office. “We are very instrumental in the decline.”
Ross believes, as does Chao, that the reduction in serious accidents is a consequence of (1) strong enforcement by OSHA inspectors and administrators and (2) outreach programs that encourage cooperation between the agency and the industry.
Ross has been working at OSHA since 1977. In his 26 years, construction equipment has grown bigger, with greater load capacities and reach. The human form has shrunk compared to the machines and become even more vulnerable.
Yet statistically, construction job sites grow safer for man and woman. How can that be?
Ross said it is a not solely a consequence of OSHA’s pressure on “bad actors” in the industry. He believes there also has been a change in thinking among contractors and manufacturers, a change that embraces the view that employee “safety and health have a value.”
Bringing Safety to the Table
“Our employees are our greatest asset and their safety and well-being is of primary concern,” said Lasse Petterson, AMEC Construction Management’s chief operating officer for the Americas, during a Thanksgiving banquet. Petterson was not just dispensing goodwill and platitudes. Rather, AMEC had just signed a formal partnership agreement with OSHA to reduce workplace hazards.
The words were backed by action. Beside being humane, however, a company policy of keeping employees safe brings bottom line rewards. Reduced worker compensation payments is one reward. Reduced OSHA penalties is another.
When an OSHA inspector discovered an unsafe construction trench last month in Florida, the contractor on the job suddenly faced penalties of $77,000.
Equipment manufacturers also are contributing to workplace safety by designing it into their machines.
Ross noted that the back-up horns on heavy equipment that routinely sound at job sites are a safety innovation of recent decades. The newest generation of equipment might be even better: They have reverse gear-activated “voices” that warn of backing equipment.
For all the new thinking and safer equipment, however, workplace fatalities and injuries generally are on the rise among Hispanic workers. The numbers are a little unreliable at this point because OSHA has just been able to codify the problem in its data in the last year, Ross said.
Still, the problem is not just statistical and blame for it apparently lies with both employers and their Hispanic employees.
“They are hard-working and dedicated,” he said of Spanish-speaking workers who have become much more numerous in the last decade. Among OSHA’s responses to the problem are safety videos and more bilingual inspectors to “make sure they [Hispanics] understand their rights.”
Florida is a hot spot for serious accidents among workers for whom English is a second language, most of them Spanish-speaking. But Florida is a dangerous spot generally for construction workers, primarily because the state has so much construction under way.
“Fort Lauderdale has the highest number of fatalities within the Southeast region –– period,” Ross said, though he quickly added that even there the trend is downward.
Still, in a recent reporting period, Ross noted the number of serious accidents in Fort Lauderdale was 52 and in Columbia, SC, was 1.
It is no wonder then that Florida has the largest concentration of OSHA employees, with the Tampa office being home to nearly 40 inspectors and administrators. Most of the Southeast states have one OSHA office. Florida and Georgia have three apiece.
Four Southeastern states have federally approved state agencies that function independent of OSHA — Tennessee, Kentucky and North and South Carolina. Federal offices still function in those states to monitor the workplaces of people not covered by state jurisdictions, such as military and maritime employees.
Eddie Cotten is survey manager for North Carolina’s occupational safety and health unit in the state Department of Labor. He said rates generally are coming down in North Carolina, too, and credits increased public awareness and fixed penalties for violators.
In the category of “days away from a construction site because of accidents,” the rate dropped in 2001 from 2000. That was true for both white, non-Hispanic workers and Hispanic workers. The rate for 2002 wasn’t available at press time.
That the death-and-injury rate is dropping for Hispanic workers seems to be something of an anomaly in the region, yet it is not by chance. The department began a few years ago to emphasize elimination of hazards on bilingual work sites and clearing up of miscommunication. The need for intervention was obvious: North Carolina experienced over the last decade the highest influx of Hispanic immigrants of any Southeastern state, according to U.S. Census officials.
To get out the word, the department purchased a training van. A crew travels the state in it training employers and employees on how to work more safely on construction projects. The department also increased its bilingual staff.
Sharing the Workload
OSHA also is leaning more on cooperative agreements to win compliance.
Three types of relationships are sought. One is called a partnership, such as the ones signed in November with AMEC Construction Management and the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. In a partnership, OSHA helps a partner identify programs that will make the workplace safer and then provides technical support to that end.
A second type of agreement is an alliance, in which a company or a segment of the construction industry recognizes it has a problem and seeks OSHA’s help. The Construction Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers allied itself with OSHA in November, for instance, especially seeking help in crane operation safety.
A third approach is the “voluntary protection program,” which recognizes companies with a health record better than the industry average and steadily improving. VPP recognizes true commitment to employee safety by management, Ross said.
A key component in the outreach programs is a training institute and seminar. Educators on college campuses are used to make these effective. Ross specifically cited Georgia Tech University, the University of South Florida and the University of Alabama-Birmingham as active participants in OSHA education programs.