Construction sites are among the most dangerous workplaces in Canada, in time lost and deaths due to on-the-job mishaps.
Canada’s construction sector has seen sharp declines in lost-time injuries since the 1960s. But falls continue to be problematic and costly.
Traumatic falls account for the lion’s share of those catastrophic construction accidents. In 2009, falls accounted for 63% of all worksite fatalities in construction. And while construction safety experts work to create environments that are safer all-around, it is fall prevention that dogs their best efforts.
“Injuries due to falls are not dropping at the same rate as other injuries,” says Enzo Garritano, vice-president technical services for Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA). “And that really says something.”
Fall-related injuries are the costliest to manage, notes Garritano. “Fractures, lower back injuries and shoulder injuries are the main area of concern. These, above everything else, cost the industry a lot of money.”
Statistics fail to differentiate between fall types – an accident where safety harness use would have been useful, versus falls resulting from a floor opening up or tumbling through a missing guard rail tend to be counted together.
Still experts agree that getting workers to be more vigilant about wearing safety harnesses for fall prevention would go a long way towards reducing injuries…
Reinforcing rules around wearing safety harnesses is a big issue in construction – as employers search for answers to creating the kind of work environment that fosters safe behavior at all costs.
Experts estimate, between 80 and 90 per cent of all accidents are attributable to ‘human factors’. But if workers are not vigilant about suiting up in safety harnesses, prior to going above ground, what is an employer to do?
Managers who face truculence and avoidance of harnesses have to confront several realities that may be contributing to reluctance.
- Is the equipment provided adequate and comfortable? Is it CSA-approved? Is it personally fitted to each employee?
- Are there consequences for non-compliance? Some owners/managers have taken to sending workers home on-the-spot for non-compliance; others to writing health and safety certification into contracts.
- What is the workplace safety “culture”? A job site that emphasizes getting the job done at any cost is more accident-prone.
- Safer sites work on building up productivity gradually with an eye towards arriving home safely every night.
- Are managers leading by example and automatically donning their own PPE on the job site?
- Are managers made aware of the costs of non-compliance, in terms of fines large enough to matter, replacement of injured workers and retraining, impact on insurance rates and damaged equipment?
- Is standard government health and safety certification, such as the Canada-wide COR (Certificate of Recognition) written into contracts?
“It can be difficult sometimes to identify situations where fall protection equipment is necessary,” says Dave Rebbitt, Corporate Health and Safety Manager for VOICE Construction, which operates in the Alberta oil sands. “Some companies request workers wear their gear at three feet, whereas regulations set the lower limit at ten feet.”
The biggest excuse for not wearing safety harnesses, says Rebbitt, Is expediency. “A worker will say, well I’m only going to be up there for a few seconds. But there are examples of workers being killed in falls from three feet in the air.”
And then there are workers who say “I’ve been doing this for so many years and haven’t had an accident yet.”
Fall protection can be expensive. But skimping on costs of safety harnesses is shortsighted. Rebbitt points to a line of counterfeited made-in-China safety harnesses that some employers unwittingly purchased. “The claim was that they were CSA-approved, although they certainly were not. They were cheap, didn’t last as long and were not as safe.”
“The financial investment in training workers to use their safety harness pays off,” he says. “By training people in fall protection, you’re telling them that they are more qualified, specialized employees and therefore more valuable.”
“The carrot always works better than the stick,” he adds
Garritano agrees. “Motivating workers is top-down. You have to look at the commitment from a manager who oversees the worksite. If the message is get the job done at any cost, guys are going to be hanging by their fingertips. If you say, look, we want you to go home at the end of the day, you’re going to build up on your productivity over a long period of time, then you are adopting a long-term approach.
“It is a systemic approach, working with the Ministry of Labour, owners, contractors and the unions to make it clear that it is not acceptable to compromise the safety of your workers. “
To that end, the IHSA recently launched a poster campaign entitled “Keep Your Promise”, reminding workers that “returning home safe to your loved ones is a promise you make every day.” http://www.ihsa.ca/news_events/index.cfm
“We want to remind workers who they really are working for,” says Garritano. People should be aiming to go home at night, thinking about who is there, depending on them.”