The Safety Net

Since the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was formed in the 1970s, the manufacturing industry has made tremendous improvements when it comes to safety. Despite years of new rules and regulations, the same cannot be said for construction. Statistics tell us that incident rates are on the rise, and so are fatalities. 

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries revealed that construction worker fatalities increased by 6% from 2015 to 2016. Exerts anticipate a similar surge for 2017. The four major causes of these fatalities include what OSHA has dubbed the “Fatal Four.” These include falls, struck-by incidents, electrocutions and caught-in/between accidents. Year in and year out, falls are the leading cause of these tragedies.

At Balfour Beatty, we don’t need to crunch the numbers to confirm this sad reality. Despite dedicated efforts, we know falls are increasing on construction sites across the U.S., often with catastrophic consequences. The recent market boom, which has stretched trades beyond peak capacity, has revealed a troubling truth: as an industry, we weren’t as good as we thought we were. 

Many falls occur because workers fail to wear proper fall protection equipment or don’t tie off 100% of the time when exposed to a fall hazard. Failure to follow proper procedures can be a result of inexperience, but the bigger challenge we face is complacency, or in other words, workers becoming accustomed to risks and believing they can beat the odds. Spur-of-the-moment decisions can prove deadly for someone with three decades or three days on the job. If a worker follows every protocol in accordance with the pre-task plan, wears his harness and lanyard and then unclips for just one second, it could very well be his last.

When it comes to falls, the only statistic Balfour Beatty finds acceptable is zero. That’s why we have adopted an approach to fall prevention aimed at mitigating the risks themselves. Across our business, we have expanded the use of outrigger nets, cocoon systems and catch platforms. Many of our safety standards are more stringent than OSHA’s, for example, requiring all work over six feet to have fall prevention and/or fall arrest measures in place. 

One of the key tools in our arsenal is a campaign we debuted in 2017 known as “See Something, Say Something.” In the aftermath of a fatality, one of the most difficult discoveries often made is that one or more workers directly witnessed that individual take unnecessary risks and had the opportunity to stop them. The “what ifs” linger for a lifetime. Balfour Beatty encourages every worker to speak up whenever a situation doesn’t look or feel right. Without exception, we will stop work to have meaningful conversations about safety. 

According to Steve Smithgall, senior vice president of operations and safety, this “See Something, Say Something” principle must become so ingrained in the industry that it’s comparable to how ordinary citizens treat potential terrorist threats post 9/11. “If you see a suspicious package in an airport, you’re going to say something. We’re a long way from approaching construction safety the same way, but I know it can happen,” he affirms. Key to achieving that mentality, Steve says, is to engage with the workforce and make it safe for them to speak up.  

Statistics are helpful, because they tell us if we’re moving in the right or wrong direction. When it comes to workers’ health and safety, they warn us we must reverse course. And together, we can. Balfour Beatty is committed to taking those steps, because Zero Harm isn’t just our safety mantra. It’s at the core of how we believe a business should operate. It’s in the DNA of our people. Behind each figure is a person, a family and a future cut far too short. 

Join us on the journey to ensure no life ever ends in a statistic.