While Northwest contractors worry that a crisis is brewing as middle-aged workers retire and take their skills with them when they leave their jobs, it may be that a partial solution to the problem is already at hand — at least for the long term.
For the past decade and more, the construction industry has been working steadily to improve safety on job sites and the ergonomic conditions connected with the construction trades. Led by industry associations plus federal and state occupation safety and health agencies, these efforts are paying off in reduced accident and injury rates, lower insurance costs (in some cases) and more productive workers.
Unfortunately, many construction workers' careers predate the increased emphasis on jobsite safety and ergonomics. According to the Laborers, Health and Safety Fund of North America, musculoskeletal (muscle, joint and bone) injuries are the most common injury problem in the construction industry. They are over one-third of all lost workday injuries and produce about half of all compensation claims.
In a recent survey, 40 percent of construction workers said "working while hurt" remains a major problem. Many Laborers end up retiring by age 55 not because they want to, but because they just can't do the work anymore, the LHSFNA reported.
But as younger workers spend their careers in a safer, more ergonomically wholesome environment, it should follow that they will be able to enjoy longer construction careers. That would relieve the industry — at least to some extent — of the experience drain it is currently experiencing.
"Ergonomics means finding ways to make the work easier so workers can work smarter, not harder," the LHSFNA says on its website. "It means asking experienced workers for their ideas on how to do the work. Usually, it ends up making the job more productive since workers are less often fatigued or hurt."
Ergonomic changes, generally, are not expensive and can be very simple. Types of ergonomic changes include improved work planning; better tools and equipment; increased cooperation on the job site; lighter weight materials; and training workers and foremen to identify ergonomic risk factors and common solutions.
Many companies are beginning to address ergonomic and safety problems because it makes business sense even in the absence of an OSHA regulation. The LHSFNA has professional staff that can help contractors and members come up with and evaluate ergonomic solutions for any work site. Laborers-AGC also has a one-hour ergonomics awareness training for members available at its training centers.
There also are consulting firms that can help construction contractors. One such company is Med-Tox Northwest, of Auburn, Wash., which has been providing industrial hygiene and health and safety solutions for more than 15 years.
The Med-Tox Northwest Construction Safety Program addresses OSHA-required topics and essential parts of effective health and safety programs for firms in the construction industry. Construction safety services include accident/incident investigation; asbestos survey verification; expert witness testimony; indoor air quality; safety program creation, review and auditing; safety training; and site compliance inspections.
Another source of help is through expositions that bring providers and contractors together for the common good. One of these, coming up early next year, is the 7th Annual Mid-Oregon Construction Safety Summit.
The Central Oregon Safety & Health Association produces the summit with the help of Associated General Contractors of Oregon, R & H Construction, CS Construction, and other safety-minded sponsors.
This summit targets the individuals who are responsible for their own well being on-the-job as well as everyone involved in the construction industry. Its goal is to provide construction workers with the tools to work safer.
The Summit will take place Jan. 28, 2008, at Eagle Crest Resort, Redmond, Ore. For more information contact Kelli Candella at the Central Oregon Safety & Health Association, (541) 322-7104.
Meanwhile, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and OSHA have formed an alliance to provide construction workers and equipment owners and operators with information, guidance and access to training resources in an effort to help foster a safer working environment.
The new AEM-OSHA alliance will target rough terrain forklifts, including telehandlers and straight-mast forklifts, with a focus on potential operating hazards including ground conditions, machine mobility, overloading, and their use in lifting personnel.