OSHA and Contractors Could Reduce Fatalities

Mon October 13, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Expect more construction workers to die on the job in 2015. That’s a discouraging thought, but probably an accurate prediction. If the industry gets busier next year, more people will be working and more of them will not return home at the end of a work day. What can be done about it?

Probably a lot more can be done than most general and specialty contractors will admit. The list of precautions is a long one…Better safety training. Better supervision of worksites. Total compliance with prescribed safety rules and mandatory use of safety equipment. Stiff consequences—including being fired—for any worker doing unsafe things. More drug testing to eliminate drug-induced carelessness.

Yet people in hardhats still will die. Accidents happen. According to OSHA, the four most common fatal accidents are when workers fall, get pinned, get hit by swinging or powered equipment, or are electrocuted. Until OSHA can ban all hazards from a construction area—an impossibility—people will be victimized by heavy equipment and dicey situations. Construction is a perennial leader in workplace injuries and deaths for a reason: It is an inherently dangerous work.

I suggest two attitude changes that will help. First, OSHA should lose its reputation for bureaucratic fastidiousness. It should bend over backwards to work with contractors over small things such as technical violations. In this way, it will build up goodwill so that when it does hammer contractors over big things, such as egregious safety violations, there will be little pushback.

Second, contractors should embrace, not just acknowledge, full responsibility for the lives of their employees on the job. That’s reasonable. Train workers. Provide safety equipment. Have stringent rules. The goal should be that if a worker is killed or injured, it is because the employee did something stupid and against orders. That’s not blaming the victim: It is acknowledging that contractors can only do so much to protect crews.

If OSHA and contractors can work together in this way, fewer people will die on work sites. One fatality is too many, but one less is worth the effort.