Making Safety Simple

Whether you’ve worked in construction for forty years or four months, you’ve probably seen a safety poster that reads, “Safety is as simple as ABC – always be careful.” Given the complex and dangerous nature of construction work, this message may seem elementary. But at Balfour Beatty, we believe safety can indeed be simple if we strive to eliminate rather than mitigate risk. 

Take, for example, OSHA’s “Fatal Four.” In 2016, 631 people lost their lives due to falls, struck by hazards, electrocutions and caught-in/between accidents. Sadly, these tragedies could have been avoided. Because the construction industry has historically viewed safety primarily as a compliance issue, all too often, our focus has been on rule enforcement to the exclusion of risk prevention. Rules are important and help save countless lives on jobsites every day. If we want that statistic to fall to zero, it’s also vital that we view safety through a proactive lens.

Falls from height are the leading cause of construction fatalities, but a mind shift could help change that. Many workers default to putting on their harness and attaching it to a fall arrest device without thinking about ways to eliminate the need for a harness in the first place. 

Across the US, our teams are helping trade partners strategically examine their work to develop safer plans. The use of fixed scaffolding and hydrolifts are just two ways we can prevent trades like window installers from working on suspended platforms or unprotected slab edges where it’s necessary to tie off. 

In the aftermath of a fall, contractors often discover that workers weren’t using their fall arrest devices properly or unhooked at the time of the fall. Others were using a retractable device located too far away from an anchorage point. With both fall restraint or fall arrest systems, there is a potential for human error. And where there’s the potential for mistakes, there’s also the potential for injuries.

Heights are equally dangerous when it comes to construction tools and materials. Several years ago, a tape measure fell from another contractor’s high-rise project in New Jersey, killing a pedestrian below. It may sound simple, but struck by injuries can be prevented if trades are vigilant in their awareness about work occurring both over and underneath them. We can eliminate struck by risks by always tethering loose tools and materials, using outrigger nets or cocoon systems or providing overhead protection. 

Preventative measures can also eliminate the risk of electrocution, which has two primary causes: contacting energized systems and utility strikes. An electrician may decide not to kill the power before installing a new breaker, because he or she has become desensitized to the danger. An excavator may put a dozer at half throttle rather than performing hand work around a marked utility line. Both choices could severely injure these workers, or worse, result in the loss of life.  

Although electrical risks are prevalent on construction sites, generally, they can be eliminated. Before performing work on any system that could become energized, trades should follow lockout/tagout protocols to ensure hazardous energy sources are rendered inoperative. The final step of any LOTO procedure is the verification of zero energy; missing this step could have devastating results. 

Power lines, both underground and overhead, pose threats to workers due to extremely high voltage levels. Balfour Beatty teams follow procedures to ensure workers and equipment never come into contact with live electrical currents. Prior to beginning work, project teams must locate all underground utility lines. If there is any uncertainty after permitting, teams can safely pinpoint exact power line locations by potholing. We also plan our work to eliminate the possibility of crossing underneath or in the proximity of overhead power lines. 

Just as workers can become complacent about other risks, they can easily overlook the dangers of working around the heavy equipment and machinery they see and hear day in and day out. This is the root cause of many caught-in or caught-between accidents, which occur when someone is caught, crushed, squeezed, compressed or pinched between two or more objects. 

The same goes for equipment operators, who often contend with large blind spots. Our first line of defense is planning site logistics in a way that greatly minimizes the interface between people and moving equipment. Communication between equipment operators and workers on the ground is critical. This can be as simple as making eye contact with an operator before approaching equipment. Suspended loads pose a similar risk, and picks must be planned. Providing cameras on crane blocks for blind picks is just one way to reduce this risk. 

Construction sites will always present dangers, but simple best practices can be used to complement OSHA standards, creating safer environments for our people and partners. Perhaps the most basic form of risk prevention is the creation of environments in which workers feel comfortable speaking up when they observe an unsafe condition or behavior. At Balfour Beatty, we call this “See Something, Say Something.”

Always be careful: on its surface, the message may seem elementary, but as we’ve seen through reexamining the Fatal Four hazards, in many ways, it’s also revolutionary.