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Construction companies fight workplace injuries, deaths

photo of construction safety dummy

This is what a dummy looks like when it falls from the third floor of a building without protection. Photo by Sharon Fisher

The surge in construction is bringing on another surge: Construction deaths and injuries. Construction companies are looking for ways to reduce these incidents.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) compiles occupational injuries, and breaks them out into categories. For example, Idaho had 37 fatal work injuries in 2017, up from 30 in 2016 and 36 in 2015, the most recent years for which statistics are available. Of those, 17, or 46%, were “transportation incidents,” while 27% were “contact with objects and equipment and 11% were “falls, slips, trips.”

graph of occupational industries in idaho

Occupational injuries in Idaho. Courtesy Bureau of Labor Statistics

By industry, five in 2017 and six in 2016 were in the construction industry, with three in 2017 and all six in 2016 specifically being “construction trades workers,” but the type of injury by industry isn’t broken out.

While BLS hasn’t yet compiled statistics for 2019, there have already been a number of incidents this year, including one death in an equipment mishap in Fruitland in May, a trench injury in Eagle in April and two deaths in a trench injury in New Plymouth in April, according to reports from local media and first responders.

Other incidents since 2017 include one death due to a trench collapse in Ashton in 2018.

In addition to deaths, there are many more incidents of injury, some of which leave workers permanently disabled.

Aside from the tragedy of death and disability, these incidents take workers away from the field when unemployment is at record lows and companies are having to turn away or delay projects due to a lack of workers.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) tries to reduce this number through inspections. For example, Alta Construction was fined $106,470 in 2017 by OSHA for failing to follow safe trenching practices. But with so many construction projects going on night and day in Idaho, inspectors are stretched thin.

Another factor is that Idaho doesn’t have an OSHA-approved workplace safety and health program. According to OSHA, 22 states – including every state surrounding Idaho except Montana – have such plans, while another six states have such plans that cover only state and local government workers.

Show, don’t tell

In response, construction companies are upping their game. Earlier this spring, for the fourth year, Engineered Structures Inc. (ESI) shut down 14 construction sites for a training demonstration, and paid all of its more than 300 workers to attend, as well as feeding them free lunch.

The demonstration emphasized proper safety procedures for falls – which it said was the leading cause of death in the construction industry – by showing what happens when a crash test dummy falls out of the third floor with no harness, out of the fourth floor with an improper harness and out of the fourth floor with a proper harness.

“There were 971 construction site deaths nationwide in 2017. Just over 37% were caused by a fall,” ESI noted in a statement. “Surprisingly, more than a third of the fatal falls were from a height of 15 feet or less.”

A fall of more than 30 feet is 97% fatal, attendees were told, because people are front-heavy and tend to land head first. This was then demonstrated with a dummy, which not only landed on its head but damaged its limbs as well.

photo of construction dummy with too loose harness

Because this harness is too loose, if this dummy were a person, he’d be walking funny for a while if he didn’t bleed to death from shredding his femoral arteries. Photo by Sharon Fisher

Another demonstration, where a dummy fell from the fourth floor with a too-loose harness, likely would have resulted in severed femoral arteries, as well as neck and back injuries when the slack was taken up with a jerk that also led all the male attendees to wince.

With a properly fitted harness and a self-arresting line, a third dummy fell out of the fourth floor but appeared undamaged.

The demonstration included not only reminding workers to follow procedures, but emphasizing that workers should keep an eye on their fellow workers and speak up if they observe an unsafe procedure.

In addition, construction companies are trying another tack as well. Knowing that workers sometimes shortcut safety procedures to save time or with a macho sensibility, companies and organizations are urging workers to follow safety procedures not for themselves, but for the families they’d leave behind if they were killed or injured. Being a real man is taking appropriate precautions, one presenter said.

Turning to technology

Other organizations are turning to technology to help train workers to follow the proper safety procedures. 360 Immersive, a Boise-based virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) company, has been developing training, including in construction safety, since 2001, and has been using these technologies since 2015.

photo of david cleverdon

David Cleverdon

“Literally, people are dying,” said David Cleverdon, founder and chief technology officer, explaining why the company had chosen this strategy. “We could have gone into games or entertainment, but we feel good about knowing that we were doing something new with this technology to help people out and save a life.”

360 Immersive is training workers on the proper way to be safe in trenches.

“In the application, we can have you move around the construction scene and assess hazard that might cause an injury,” Cleverdon said. “If you walk into a trench outside the shielding, it collapses and kills you.”

photo of virtual reality trench

This virtual reality image shows the proper way to trench. Image courtesy of 360 Immersive

The virtual reality adds verisimilitude.

“The difference is the fundamental reason why VR and AR are going to make such an impact,” Cleverdon said. “If you watch a trench collapse on TV – we’ve seen disasters on TV all the time. In VR, you actually feel it. Rocks are coming down and dirt is coming down on top of you. It’s not like you’re watching in a passive mode – what’s perceived is almost from a physical standpoint.”

That results in higher retention of the training, Cleverdon said. Traditional text-based training has a retention rate of 10 to 20%, he said. Adding photos could bring it up to 30-40%. Videos add more.

“But where you get the most retention is if you do something,” Cleverdon said. “VR allows you to simulate that practice in something that feels real.”

Retention rates can go up to 70 to 80%, he said. And it lasts.

“If you talk to people after the course, six months later, what they remember is the VR simulation,” he said.

Right now, training is based just on hazard assessment, but in the future the training could be more interactive, allowing workers to go in, fill out a tag and lock out a steam valve, Cleverdon said.

In addition, 360 Immersive is helping develop a platform that would let a company develop its own video content.

“It works pretty much the same, except it’s real people, procedures and tactics,” Cleverdon said. “It’s extremely inexpensive for the organization to create.”

The company expects to release the system around the end of the summer. Pricing isn’t yet set but Cleverdon said he expects it to be on the order of $99 a month.

“We teach you how to use the camera and how to use the mount or tripod,” Cleverdon said. “You send the content to us, we do the processing and we upload it to their training application in the training room. Then you can create as much content as your organization needs.”

To be sure, even proper training and procedures can’t eliminate all construction accidents. But with luck, they can help reduce them.

Road construction is among the most dangerous occupations. File photo

Road construction sites carry own dangers

While falls are a significant concern on building sites, road construction work carries its own set of dangers.

According to The Center for Construction Research  and Training, 532 construction workers were killed on road construction projects from 2011 to 2016, an average of 89 workers each year. The Center’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that half of these fatalities occurred when a worker on foot was hit by a passing car or heavy equipment vehicle. Flaggers had the highest rate of injury and death — 41 out of every 100,000 workers killed on the job each year, the Center reported.

As roads get busier, more construction work is being scheduled at night, creating additional safety issues for workers due to poor visibility. Ground workers are also required to wear ear protection, which can prevent them from hearing vehicles approaching.

These deaths can be prevented with proper deployment of barriers and intrusion alarms to protect workers from passing vehicles, improved traffic enforcement in work zones and other interventions. One high-tech approach: Camera systems for commercial vehicles, such as Brigade Backeye 360, which eliminate blind spots and save time. A vehicle could travel 33 feet in the seconds it takes to scan four mirrors, assess and then react to hazards, Brigade reports.

To learn more, visit CPWR’s Construction Solutions database.

The complete Quarterly Data Report, Fatal Injuries at Road Construction Sites among Construction Workers, is available on the CPWR website.

About Sharon Fisher

Sharon Fisher is an Idaho Business Review staff writer, covering financial institutions, technology, and business development. She holds a bachelor of science in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a masters in public administration and graduate certificates in geographic informational analysis and in community and regional planning from Boise State University. She likes explaining things and going to meetings. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_SLFisher.