What’s Next for Construction Safety and Health?

By Randy Palladino

Construction safety and health have come a long way in the past 40 years. Over the past dozen years, fatality rates have fallen for construction laborers in both general industry and construction, even as the overall number of workplace fatalities has increased. Injury rates in construction are now similar to those in retail work – an achievement that seemed out of reach 15 years ago. Despite this progress, more than 930 construction workers were killed on the job in 2015 and almost 80,000 suffered serious injuries. In the past, tying worker safety to public health concerns has been a successful strategy to improve conditions for workers. Asbestos didn’t become a national issue until it was seen as a threat to children in schools. Community demands for information about what chemicals were being used at nearby plants resulted in the passage of state Right-to-Know laws, which eventually led to OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard. In light of this, how can we move forward and keep making improvements? Here’s a look at what has worked and what could be done better.

New Strategies at OSHA

The slow pace of OSHA’s standards setting is no secret and there are too few OSHA inspectors for all the workplaces where they are needed. Aware of these shortcomings, OSHA has tried several innovative strategies in the past few years.

  • Creating a “severe violators” program to go after employers who violate the law with impunity and issuing press releases to increase public awareness about companies that jeopardize worker safety
  • Requiring electronic reporting (starting in 2017) and injury logs be posted online to create an incentive for employers to improve safety
  • Using smartphone apps on heat stress, ladder safety and noise to increase outreach to workers

All of these initiatives take advantage of the power of technology to involve more than just OSHA and the employer on worker safety issues. OSHA could take this further by creating an app or online tool for workers to report unsafe conditions. Technology continues to change rapidly and sharing this or other information in real time could further improve worker safety.

The regulatory approach to improving worker safety and health is still an important one. But for OSHA to continue having the greatest positive impact, it must find more ways to go beyond the normal legislative model.

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