Health and safety in US construction

27 February 2019

Tackling health and safety in the construction industry’s supply chains in the US.

As in many construction markets, health and safety (H&S) remains an ongoing concern for the US construction industry.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), of 5,147 fatal workplace injuries reported for 2017, 971 of these (18.9 per cent) were in construction – a marginal reduction on the 19.1 per cent registered in 2016.

According to Turner and Townsend’s International Construction Market Survey 2018, 27 construction markets registered skills shortages this year – compared to 24 last year.

The US is not immune to such shortages and the report notes a number of US construction markets – including New York City, Seattle and San Francisco – currently suffering from a lack of available skilled labour.

Impact to changing landscape

Considering the shifting industry landscape, it may become necessary to explore what implications changes to construction industry practices may have for current US approaches to H&S management, given new technologies, increasingly complex works and supply chain pressures.

As OSHA statistics demonstrate, the US construction industry would appear to struggle in its ability to proactively manage and reduce H&S risks, with the proportion of fatal construction workplace injuries hovering between 18 and 20 per cent over the last five years as a percentage of all fatal workplace injuries.

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It has been suggested that a liability-avoiding business culture tends to blame accidents on human error rather than addressing the cultural shifts in attitude necessary to proactively reduce the likelihood and occurrence of risk.

The construction industry’s fragmented structure and roving workforce make this blame game easy, but it is still critical for construction companies and their clients to manage, embed and integrate H&S practices into working life rather than taking reactionary, rule setting approaches.

A failure to do so can impact a number of project stakeholders. Non-fatal injury, for example, can lead to lost workdays, resulting in reduced contractor income.

Fatalities, quite aside from the immediate personal impact to those close to the involved party, can have even wider effects on principal project stakeholders’ brand and reputation, as well as reducing supply chain productivity.

Overcoming language barriers

There are pockets of progress across the industry that should be applauded, however. One New York contracting business has (like many of its peers) a largely Spanish-speaking Latino workforce with an English-speaking management.

The language barrier posed great risk when relaying H&S procedures, leading to the company giving their dual-speaking construction supervisors more freedom in translating information.

This empowered staff to drive cultural change, with positive results immediately apparent.

Elsewhere, while the effectiveness of alternative delivery options remains to be seen, systems such as offsite assembly would appear to offer a solution – as offsite requires less intensive labour resources.

What’s more, with some operations offsite, time spent working in uncontrolled environments, where injuries can often occur, could be reduced.

By investigating such avenues, US construction companies could go some way to addressing H&S concerns associated with construction in US cities such as New York, which has seen significant recent construction, in dense neighbourhoods, involving complex logistics.

Ultimately, construction companies must focus on driving cultural change from the ground up. In so doing, they could develop H&S systems that emphasise proactive H&S policies over more traditional reactive methods, lessening the likelihood of costly delays and hefty payouts.

However, to drive wholesale change, US construction companies need to adopt a more holistic approach to H&S practices.

This means delegating more responsibility to staff as well as giving greater autonomy to supply chain partners.

In doing this, these companies can further complement existing methodologies, building ever stronger, more resilient capabilities to challenge a traditional H&S mindset that does not currently appear to work as efficiently as it might.


For more information please contact Ray Master, Director, Construction Risk Partners (a JLT Group company) on +1 646-625-7090.