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How To Avoid Construction Accidents

Safety consultant Bruce Morton loves to prevent accidents. It's why he chose a career in construction safety. After a few years of experience as a construction worker, Morton chose to further his education, becoming a certified construction health and safety technician (CHST). He is now a consultant with Platt Safety Services, Franklin, Wis.

March 03, 2008

Safety consultant Bruce Morton loves to prevent accidents. It's why he chose a career in construction safety.

After a few years of experience as a construction worker, Morton chose to further his education, becoming a certified construction health and safety technician (CHST). He is now a consultant with Platt Safety Services, Franklin, Wis.

A subsidiary of Platt Construction, Platt Safety Services acts as the safety department for its parent company.

It also provides safety services to a wide variety of construction projects and companies as notable as Gilbane Construction, Lambeau Field and Marquette Constructors.

Platt's range of services includes advising clients about how to set up and manage a safety system, educating workers and management about safety practices, acting as a contractor's safety department, investigating accidents, and performing safety audits.

Says Morton, "Accidents are bad for everyone: the victims, their families, co-workers, the contractor, the project owner, insurance companies, and even the public. In construction safety, an ounce of prevention is worth 10 pounds of cure, not just one."

The costs of victims' suffering, lost work time, equipment and material replacement, accident investigation, possible fines, litigation, and damage to a company's reputation can easily total hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's much more than the cost of a solid safety program aimed at minimizing or eliminating accidents.

"Being named in an accident story in the mass media is not the kind of publicity a contractor needs," says Morton.

Safety Program Key To Eliminating Injuries

Undoubtedly, heavy construction work carries more inherent risk of injury than less active careers like sales, accounting, law, publishing, and even most manufacturing.

Working three stories above the ground, or three stories under it, right next to powerful equipment whose weight is measured in tons, and working with tools that cut, burn, grind, and pound, carries more potential for injury than tapping on a computer keyboard or talking on a phone in an office.

Despite the industry's inherent risks, says Morton, a well designed safety program, diligently followed, can minimize or eliminate injuries.

One shining example is Milwaukee's Marquette Interchange. To date, crews building the largest highway project in state history, with its intertwined ramps and interchanges stacked in layers reaching up to 120 feet high, have worked through all seasons for about four years without a lost-time accident.

Avoiding accidents requires a company to develop and emphasize a solid culture of safety, starting from the top down. "The policies that a company's top management supports and reinforces," says Morton, "are the ones most likely to become ingrained and followed company-wide."

Fatal Accidents Are Just Tip Of Iceberg

One key component of a culture of safety, says Morton, is a focus on vigilantly investigating every potential accident, from close calls through those that require first aid, those that require medical attention, and those that involve fatalities.

To describe the escalating severity of accidents, Morton uses the analogy of an iceberg.

At the visible tip are accidents that involve fatalities. Those accidents are highly visible, attract a lot of attention, and are always investigated.

Unfortunately, says Morton, investigations of this type of accident focus largely on the circumstances immediately surrounding the accident, such as energy sources, hazardous materials, unsafe acts, and unsafe conditions.

For example, investigators will check the circumstances immediately preceding the event to see what was different and what happened. Were procedures not followed? Did someone not wear a harness or tie off properly? Did a sling break or soft ground give way?

To help prevent future accidents, investigations must also look closely at underlying causes, such as management policies, personal factors, and environmental factors, which are often less obvious but equally important.

Real Key To Prevention: Examine "Iceberg's" Underwater Mass

But the real key to preventing major accidents, says Morton, is in diligently investigating the three lesser categories of accidents that make up the overwhelming mass of the "incident iceberg" that lies, overlooked, under water.

"Fatal accidents don't tend to just happen out of the blue," he says. "Looking in hindsight after the incident, thorough investigators often find there were close calls, followed by similar incidents that needed first aid, then maybe an incident that required medical attention or hospitalization."

If the close calls, incidents involving first aid, or the incidents requiring medical attention had been investigated and their underlying causes corrected, says Morton, the fatal accident could have been avoided.

"Frequency breeds severity," he says, is a well-established principle in the safety industry. That means uncorrected situations tend to repeat and move up the scale of severity over time.

That's why the key to avoiding major accidents is to investigate every close call, determine its underlying cause, and take corrective action right away.

"Correcting problems at the close-call stage is the most desirable and low-cost way to avoid accidents that are more severe and expensive," advises Morton.

"It simply requires a company culture that encourages reporting and investigation of close calls, as well as an effective system for consistently using that information to improve procedures."

Editor's Note: Morton is also chairman of the safety committee of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association (WUCA), an organization of 170 member companies serving the sewer, water, utility, and pipeline industries.

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