If you asked construction workers to compare today's safety culture and standards with those from 20 years ago, most would describe a 180 degree difference. If that’s the case in such a short amount of time, imagine how much has changed in the past 30…50…even 100 years. Thankfully, we’re far beyond the 1920s–1940s period when the simplest jobsite safety regulations were just being established—often only in response to tragedy. Significant improvements in safety didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t until 1971, when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration was established [OSHA], that the construction industry started to see a downward trend in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. Worker deaths in America are down on average, from 38 deaths/day in 1970 to 14/day in 2016. Injuries and illnesses are also down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.9 per 100 2016.
Ask anyone from the top-down at a construction firm what his or her goal is for employees and the consensus is likely “I want every single person to go home safe and healthy.” The best part of today’s safety culture? The “I am my brother’s keeper” mindset. Rules aside, construction workers look out for each other, which wasn’t always the case the last several decades.
To get perspective on the transformation in safety culture, rules, and regulations, we asked GLY employees about the biggest changes in jobsite safety during their careers.
1. Reactive to Proactive. Multiple employees cited this shift in mindset over the years as the most impactful. Way back when, they explained, we used to focus on preventing an accident from happening again, rather than preventing it in the first place. Today, instead of managing risk with a defense mentality, project teams are methodical in developing safety plans that focus on potential risks or hazards, either eliminating them up front or developing ways to work safely around them.
2. No longer complacent. Sure, there was a level of safety awareness back then, but injuries were the norm: expected and accepted. People took risks and got away with them, developing a culture of complacency. Instead of trying to eliminate injuries altogether as we do today, the goal was to simply minimize the number and severity.
“When I started in 1988," said Kevin Hartzell, a longtime GLY Foreman, "safety meant how well you could hold on with one hand and swing a hammer with the other.”
3. New order of priorities. Safety used to take a back seat to project cost and schedule. Those who once had a rudimentary knowledge and awareness of safety protocols and hazards now have a safety-first mentality. We see more and more requests for proposals that include questions about a firm’s safety record and preliminary safety plan for a project. At the same time, our crews face the challenge of meeting increasingly expedited schedules. Times are changing for the better, but schedule pressure in the field can threaten good safety judgement.
4. Team vs. individual effort. Safety was once at the discretion of the individual, resulting in unnecessary risk-taking just to get the job done. Today, safety is very much a team event from the top down and bottom up, and includes input from all parties to assess, analyze and engineer successful safety plans.
5. Safety as an Occupation. A career in safety didn’t exist several decades ago. Today, general contractors employ not only a Safety Director or Officer, but also Safety Specialists, Engineers and Safety Tradesmen. Many have corporate as well as jobsite safety committees, and seek out third-party safety consultants and educators on a regular basis. Most importantly, in just the last 5–10 years, valuable Safety team members found their place in their firms as they consistently worked to improve procedures, and project crews came to appreciate their efforts. From in-depth planning to onsite monitoring, training and documentation, it’s no surprise that some universities now offer degrees in this important field of work.
6. Receptive workforce. Safety buy-in used to be difficult, and the 'Safety Guy' was the bad cop. Today, workers are receptive to safety rules, procedures, and staff. Instead of someone who hampers their work, project teams see safety officers or specialists as teammates who assist them in going home safely. The attitude of safety personnel has evolved as well. Instead of focusing solely on reporting and reprimanding those violating safety protocols, safety staff build trust with the workforce by providing education and training, in-the-moment coaching, and positive recognition. In turn, the workforce is more willing—and wanting—to do the right thing. While these changes in attitudes remain a work in progress, the evolution is unmistakable.
“If we [Safety] do our job properly, construction workers realize that we are an asset to them. We're here to assure that they can be safe AND productive, but most importantly, that they go home safe to their families and friends.” —Bryan Johnson, Safety Specialist
7. Liability. Since the early 1990s, general contractors are liable under both OSHA and DOSH [Washington State] laws for not only for their own employees' citations and injuries, but also for sub-tier employees. With increased liability comes increased costs of insurance premiums. As even the slightest of injuries become more expensive, companies place a much higher emphasis on safety.
8. Routine fall protection. To understand the evolution of fall protection, consider the stomach-churning image, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, from the 1932 construction of Rockefeller Center. Once non-existent, even on a steel girder 840 feet above ground, fall protection is now required for anyone working six feet or more above a lower level. Conversations have shifted from whether or not to use fall protection to how to use it more effectively. In years past, you could expect to find 10–15% of workers at any given time without proper fall protection. Today, that number is closer to 2%.
“I started in a gravel pit in 2003 and they weren’t keen on OSHA/MSHA requirements. We didn’t tie off when working up on the batch plant, and I was the first guy to ever lock out the mixing drum before climbing inside it. I worked alone, at night. If I fell, it would be 3:00 a.m. before the plant manager would find me. I quickly learned to watch out for my own safety!” —Trevor Stout, Foreman
9. Habit-forming PPE. Similar to fall protection, Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] is the norm and even habit-forming for most. While boots have been required for at least 30 years, most general contractors didn't start requiring hi-visibility clothing, hard hats, and safety glasses full-time on the jobsite until the mid-1990s. Lack of the eye protection is still a common problem. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20,000 workplace eye injuries happen each year; 40% of which occur in construction, manufacturing, and mining. Shockingly, 90% of injuries could be prevented with proper eye protection.
“I was only 16 when I started my first construction job over 20 years ago! I would have been ridiculed off the site if I had worn full PPE: hard hat, glasses, gloves, and safety vest. Now you’ll get dirty looks or potentially laughed at when you forget your PPE.” —Noah Cochran, Senior Project Engineer
10. Cell phones. While there are no federal or state regulations [yet …] in regards to cell phones on the job site, some companies enforce their own policies to avoid potential accidents. Similar to talking or texting while driving, using a cell phone on the jobsite distracts workers from surrounding hazards, potentially resulting in a trip, fall, or collision with a moving object.
Although workers may grumble at times at the minutiae of following OSHA’s rules and regulations, as well as state laws [Division of Occupational Safety and Health or DOSH], overall our workforce is in a much better place today because of them. And we like it that way.