ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) Not so long ago, a construction site in New Mexico was a scary place to be.
Workers sporting little protection scaled heights on wobbly scaffolding, rode the booms of giant cranes, climbed shaky ladders, walked beams, crossed paths with heavy machinery, handled sharp tools, saws and hot wire, and breathed dust, paint and solvents.
The danger was reflected in a high rate of injuries.
“Getting hurt was considered part of the trade,” said Dennis Roberts, of the New Mexico Building Branch of the Associated General Contractors of America.
As recently as 1995, New Mexico had one of the higher rates of construction-related injuries in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s injury and illness rate in the category of general building contractors was 10.6 per 100 full-time workers in 1995. The national average that year was 9.8.
Cutting Injuries in Half
It’s a negative distinction New Mexico no longer holds. The state has cut its rate in half and become one of the safest places in the nation to work in construction.
“The culture has changed significantly in the past 15 years,” said Troy Beall, co-owner and president of B&D Electric in Albuquerque. “It used to be that injuries and death were accepted. Now not even minor injuries are accepted.”
The injury rate in New Mexico dropped from 10.6 in 1995 to 4.7 in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available — well below the national average of 6.9 in 2001.
The remarkable improvement in safety has been attributed to several factors, not least of which is safety’s effect on a company’s bottom line.
“A contractor can save money by running a safe job,” Roberts said. “The money spent up front for safety equipment and training comes back in terms of fewer workers comp claims, lost-time injuries and lower insurance rates. Safety, productivity and quality tend to go hand in hand.”
New Mexico had a workers compensation crisis in the early 1990s, when rates soared to among the highest in the country. Construction companies particularly felt the pinch. For example, Western Drywall, which employed 230 people in Albuquerque, closed saying it couldn’t afford its annual $750,000 premium.
“Workers comp was ready to shut down industry in this state,” said Tom Padilla, who writes workers’ comp insurance policies for the Manuel Lujan Agency in Albuquerque.
He said the situation was turned around by legislative reform that moved workers comp disputes out of the courts and into an administrative system. And contractors further drove down rates by becoming “extremely safety conscious,” he said.
Padilla said a company’s safety record is a key factor in determining its workers comp rate.
“Low claims and good safety are rewarded substantially, and the opposite is penalized substantially,” Padilla said.
He said a good safety record can lower a company’s payment by 30 to 50 percent of the published rate, and a company with a bad rating could pay three to four times the standard rate.
Padilla said a contractor with a good safety record can choose among carriers while those without have a hard time finding coverage.
Another factor driving the safety movement is competition.
The Bottom Line
A low injury rate keeps a contractor competitive, said David Edwards, environmental health and safety director for J.B. Henderson Construction Co. in Albuquerque.
Big customers, like Intel Corp., the University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories, have begun to required contractors to have written safety programs and a low injury rate.
“When you go to bid work, you’re at a huge competitive disadvantage if your injury rate is high. A lot of bids are hard-dollar bids, where the owner is looking for the best possible deal, and a company with a good safety record will be able to do a job with fewer interruptions than one without a good record,” Edwards said. “Owners look at that.”
Even a minor injury can result in 24 hours of lost manpower — the time it takes for a foreman to use a company car to take the worker to a health care center and later investigate and document the injury.
“Our customers don’t want to bear the liability of unsafe contractors,” Beall said. “If you have an unsafe record, you don’t work for large corporations. They’re at risk too if an unsafe contractor is working on their property.”
Safety is expensive. Big contractors spend upwards of $100,000 a year on safety programs and equipment.
But it’s “no longer a cost of doing business, but a way of doing business. It’s a good business investment,” Edwards said.
Roberts said construction workers were afforded little protection before 1971, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act ( OSHA) setting rules and standards — backed by enforcement — for employers to provide safe workplaces.
Construction was always one of the most hazardous professions.
William “Gator” Makarski, a pipefitter and welder for Henderson, said safety was lax when he entered the profession 12 years ago.
“I saw a lot of injuries —lacerations, twisted ankles, burns,” he said. “A lot weren’t recorded or brought to anybody’s attention. People were scared of losing their jobs.”
Other hazards were un-shored open trenches that could collapse, live electrical wires, falling objects, exposed metals and concrete, heavy machinery, skimpy and rolling scaffolding, and welding sparks.
Makarski said the tide really began to turn approximately 10 years ago.
“It happened fast,” he said. “People wanted to prevent the injuries.”
Now at construction sites, trenches are shored, scaffolds have three levels of guardrails, and heavy equipment is routed. There are standards for ladders and cranes, electrical wires are grounded with circuit interrupters and double-insulated cords, and floor openings are marked and covered. People working above 15 ft. must have fall protection, usually a body harness or lanyard.Workers wear hard hats, eye protection, gloves and hard-toed shoes.
Some contractors hire safety consulting firms.
Brock Carter, owner of Safety Counseling Inc., which is based in Albuquerque and has an office in Virginia, said his business boomed around six years ago. He has more than 200 clients, including 70 contractors, in the public and private sectors.
“Thirty years ago, I couldn’t give away a safety meeting,” he said. “There’s been a whole change in the environment. We’re a more sensitive society. I think the owners understand that. They don’t want people to get hurt, and they don’t want to get sued.”