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Reacting to the Increase of Construction Injuries/Deaths

Expert Witness: Construction Risk Management, Inc.
Recent increases in the frequency of construction "accidents" all over the world have stirred questions of what must be done to reduce these events and stop the increase.

It seems that with the increase of construction incident, injuries, and fatalities not only in the USA but in Belgium, Singapore, Canada, and most other industrious nations, there is conflict with how contractors, unions and governments are reacting to improve or reduce these events.

Governments with agencies such as OSHA, Laboure Auditors, Laboure Ministries, and HSE Bureaus are reacting by proposing to add regulations to the already jammed packed listing of regulations put in place to regulate construction activities.

Laboure unions are demanding additional, regular, and more through site safety
inspections conducted by government agencies. While this may be good intentioned on the part of labor unions, the primary focus for these unions should be member training.

Construction companies are resisting as these entities raise concern that such measures will only result in more “red-tape”, make safety even more complicated and will do nothing to slow the frequency or severity of these occurrences.

Decades ago, the true definition of an “accident” was something that occurred without fault. An “accident” is a sudden, unforeseen, unexpected, and unplanned event. Even Merriam-Webster specifies: When negligence is claimed or proven, avoid the word accident. Until a construction incident or event is investigated, it must be called an incident, event, crash, or some other term. We all must understand that there are very few accidents in construction and a great number of events or incidents.

While no one wants to hear this brutal statistic, approximately 90% of all workplace incidents are caused by the worker – HUMAN ERROR. While many of the incidents can be classified as unintentional incidents, there are also unsafe actions, unsafe conduct and the unsafe work environment ignored by the worker and by the employer of the worker.

Since approximately 90% of all incidents are caused by human error, there is fault. Also consider when an employer fails to provide training and appropriate supervision and an employee is injured, this is not an accident. When a piece of equipment is allowed to be used when it is in poor mechanical condition, any incident that occurs with this equipment is not an accident. If employees are not allowed to speak-up and correct unsafe conditions and an injury occurs, this is not an accident.

The first issue is the lack of worker training and experience. It is impossible to be an expert at any task if there is no training and experience with the specific task. It is impossible to be proficient at any task if there is no training and experience with the task. It is likely that an error, event, or an incident will result if workers with little or no training or experience performs certain tasks.

Many if not most people believe that construction is a dangerous occupation. I am not one of these people. Why do I believe this? Because construction as an occupation can be done safely and without harm if the rules of construction are complied with. Just like any occupation, the compliance with the rules of the professional will, for the most part, result in successful and safe outcome. The more one disregards rules, and the more rules that are disregarded the more likely that bad things will happen. If the work is performed in accordance with the appropriate safety provisions, incidents will be prevented.

There are already plenty of rules governing the acts, conduct, conditions, and exposures in construction. Actually, there likely are too many rules that apply to the same acts, conduct, conditions, and exposures in construction. What needs to happen, is that the rules of construction must be simplified.

Worker experience must be synonymous with training. I staunchly recommend against internet-based training, but highly recommend actual field-based training. Specific task training is paramount to incident prevention.
Airplane pilots are required to have two years of education plus 1,500 hours of flight experience before they are allowed to receive an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. A physician must have 8 years of medical school education plus 3 to 9 years of internship and residency before receiving a license to practice medicine. A firefighter must have one or two years of firefighter education at least two years of paid service and a training certificate before they become a professional firefighter.

Interestingly enough, even highly trained airplane pilots, physicians, and firefighters commit errors in the performance of their work tasks, these errors are not nearly as frequent as the injuries and deaths sustained by construction workers. It must be noted here however, when a pilot does commit a human error, a resulting crash could be catastrophic. Is this one reason why there are so many pre-flight inspections, pre-flight checklists and a second or third set of watchful eyes in a co-pilot?

Perhaps the problem all along has been the recognition of the construction worker as a construction professional. Remember when a person Perhaps there should be a requirement that to be a construction professional, a certain amount of construction education is required along with at least one or two years of apprenticeship type training. Or perhaps at least one or two years of construction specific trade training. See the following table:

Table I. (Min. Requirements)


General Laborer
40 30 Hours
Safety 40 110

Specialty Laborer
60 30 Hours
Safety 60 150

General Carpenter 80 30 Hours
Safety 80 190

Finish Carpenter 100 30 Hours
Safety 100 230

Iron Worker 160 40 Hours
Safety 160 350

Operator 200 50 Hours
Safety 160 410

Foreman 320 130 Hours
Safety 160 610

A construction professional must understand and believe that they have the full authority to either correct a site condition, report the condition to have it corrected and not do any work related to this site condition until it is corrected. This effectively places each professional to be is charged with the task of injury and incident prevention. Prevention of injuries to themselves and others and the prevention of incidents that disrupt the work is the primary objective of this authority. And there should be no abuse of this authority.

It is essential to discuss union vs. non-union construction professionals. I happen to be a very proud member of the International Union of Operating Engineers – LOCAL 139 (Wisconsin). A fabulous group of managers and a fully experienced staff of trainers are available for all of our members to work with. This has made a difference in the safety awareness of our members.

Statistically, unions do not represent a very high percentage of construction professionals. In the USA, the construction workforce is around 10.3%, Canada – 29.4%, France – 08.9%, and Turkey – 09.9%. European countries are considerably higher: United Kingdom – 23.4%, Italy – 32.5%, Belgium – 49.1%, and Iceland – 91.4%. 1

Labor unions have a great potential of providing trained and skilled workers to contractors, however, the actual percentage of unionized workers is declining. Another issue is that many, if not most labor unions do not mandate annual training and this is a critical issue.

The biggest obstacle in construction is that contractors generally secure projects based on the bid method. Even those contractors which obtain work based on negotiations, most construction projects last a year or two at best. Once a project is complete, the contractor generally leaves the geographic area. Contractors that maintain a “local” presence may have the advantage with retaining local workers – however, the contractor must assure that all workers are appropriately trained.

We now have come full circle to addressing the issues of this article. To reduce the frequency of construction incidents, is it best to add regulations, increase governmental inspections or increase the training requirements of workers and employers? Perhaps a combination of two or three of these ideas?

Regarding the addition of regulations, there are already sufficient regulations to address nearly all hazards and exposures in construction. Adding additional regulations will only increase the complexity of the system and simply add to the number of redundant standards available to violate. Governments should not add regulations as a method to reduce incident frequency. Currently, safety has become far too complex, and the concepts of construction safety must be simplified.

Increasing the frequency of inspections by governmental agencies poses the question of competence and focus. In the USA, the Governments Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) primary focus is on the employer. This approach is fundamentally flawed as it does not allow for an independent causal analysis. Additionally, it has been my experience of over 45 years that the level of competency, education, training, and experience is generally lacking with government-based inspections. If an increase in inspections will reduce incident frequency, these inspections must be by the employer or by an experienced and knowledgeable – competent person.

It can be concluded that the real effective way to decrease the frequency of harmful construction incidents is to increase and assure that all construction workers are properly trained and receive continual training in the field of their profession. If the regulations would provide that all construction professionals shall be licensed or certified by means of education, training, and experience in the field of which they intend on practicing, incidents will be significantly reduced. This is a FOR SURE. And to add additional measures, the employer must provide and assure competent professional supervision to plan, prepare, and perform the work.

1. International Labour Organization ILOSTAT 2019, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Timothy G. Galarnyk
Timothy G. Galarnyk is a Construction Forensic Investigator, Safety Expert. National/International Expert - Construction Related Issues.

Copyright Construction Risk Management, Inc.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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