Off-the-Wall Events

Steven Ferry

April 2006

We started this article looking for examples from safety directors of wild departures from safety regulations, off-the-wall events (pun intended) they had witnessed on the job site or heard about that an employee should not do if he expects to keep his job and go home alive every night. It’s a credit to the members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and those that have safety officers appointed, that little was offered in answer to the question, over and above employees arriving to work without a safety hat and the brakes not being used on mobile scaffolding. No doubt, asking those in the trade who are not AWCI members could come up with some real horror stories.

Whether the members of AWCI have a relatively good report card or not, the fact is that construction sites have a high percentage of work-related accidents, injuries and deaths. When we examined the top 15 OSHA safety violations most pertinent to our industry for October 2004 through September 2005—looking first at totals for all industries, total for the construction industry, and finally, plastering, drywall, acoustical and insulation work (PDAI)—we found some interesting areas of focus.

The construction industry paid $25,864,000 for the top 15 citation classifications during this one-year period. The construction industry’s share of that was $1,878,000.

These statistics show some interesting points.

Apart from Hazard Communication, for which it generated 22 percent of the citations, the construction industry was responsible for most of the citations in all the other key categories.

Our industry as represented by the plastering, drywall, acoustical and insulation category, received 2,313 out of the 33,812 citations, or 6.8 percent. We were levied 7.3 percent of the dollars as penalties.

The penalties assigned to our industry were, in some cases, up to $50 more per citation than those levied against other industries for the same offense, and sometimes up to $50 less per same offense category. However, there were some categories where the differences were marked:

■ Stairway citations cost us an average of $853 compared with the construction industry average of $515, or 60 percent more.
■ Head protection violations cost us $650 on average, or $123 more than the construction industry average.
■ Electrical wiring, design and protection cost us $117 more than the average construction citation penalty.
■ Additional requirements applicable to specific types of scaffolds cost us $625 on average, or $85 more than the rest of the construction industry.

On the other side of the ledger:

■ Construction, general safety and fall provision violations cost us $163 less per citation than our colleagues in the other construction trades.
■ Fall protection citation penalties cost us on average $130 less.

Looking at the numbers, fall protection violations cost the most, at $1,139 per citation, closely followed by the two scaffolding categories at $970 and $968 each. OSHA seems to be sending a message. If we add all the scaffolding, fall-related and ladder category fines together, we find they total $1,678,860, or 89 percent of the fines levied against our industry.

Perhaps what is driving this is the fact that (according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), at least 17,000 construction workers died from injuries suffered on the job from 1980 through 1995 (15.2 deaths per 100,000 workers), more than any other major industrial sector during this time period. The leading cause of death being falls from elevations (accounting for nearly 10 percent [3,491 of 36,210] of all traumatic occupational deaths for which a cause was identified from 1980 to 1985). Fatal falls from scaffolds during this period accounted for 17 percent of all falls from elevations (461 of 2,705).

Approximately 100,000 of the half million construction site accidents each year are scaffold-related, and almost always the result of negligence—improper construction, maintenance or procedures. Figures like these might make you think you have to be on the ground to be safe and sound. Despite strict OSHA regulations, contractors or their employees think some of the steps are unnecessary and overlook them. The fact that one usually gets away with it in terms of not being caught by OSHA or not being injured, tends to encourage the practice of short-cutting. But the 100,000 accidents happened to people who followed that philosophy. They very rarely happen to those who stick to the rules.

As notes Don Smith, director of technical services for AWCI, "I see across the boards people mis-using ladders and scaffolding, especially Baker scaffolding. They need to move 2 feet, so they rock it or propel themselves along the ceiling grid, instead of climbing down, unlocking the brakes, moving the scaffolding, resetting the brakes and climbing back up. Many of them work without the brakes locked for reasons of increased production, and hope they are not caught. But safety and production are not necessarily at odds with one another. Some workers look on the safety guys as a pain, walking around telling people to follow the safety directives, but that is for everyone’s good in the short and long term, including in the making of production targets.”

Rocking the scaffolding may save minutes that add up to hours, but it wastes hundreds of dollars in fines, days or weeks off the job when injury results, or the end of the road when a life is lost. If personal injury lawyers are to be believed, there were 1,040 deaths and 350,000 disabling injuries among the 6,500,000 construction workers in the United States in 1995. That’s one in 20 injured. By 2000, there were twice as many fatalities (2,118) among construction workers, more than any other occupational group.

Our industry, however, is not doing too poorly if we measure citations. As a percentage of the citations received by the entire construction field, we received only 1.3 percent of ladder citations, 2.6 percent of fall protection, and several other categories were only in the 2.8 to 6 percent range.

Where we had greater numbers as a percentage of construction industry citations were in areas involving

■ Scaffolding (13.3 percent).
■ Scaffolding training requirements (10.8 percent).
■ Additional requirements applicable to specific types of scaffolds (10.6 percent).
■ Manually propelled mobile ladder stands and scaffolds (8.3 percent).

The "we,” of course, includes a lot of contractors who have not signed on to AWCI and the standards upheld by its members.

Holding the Line

Perhaps a gauge of how AWCI members are doing is that when a bunch of safety directors were asked to provide information on egregious safety violations, they could only come up with violations and the occasional citation, not any significant injuries or deaths.

With information coming in from the AWCI membership around the world, Smith has an overview of the more common safety issues. "Employees showing up without PPE, hard hats, is a problem. ‘I forgot it,’ is usually the excuse. One of our members handled it by telling them, ‘You can borrow this pink hard hat, or you can go home, without pay, and get your hard hat.’ That worked, and other safety officers are picking up on it. It only has to happen to you once, and you never forget you hard hat again.

"Another subject that came up recently was soft tissue damage. Men customarily turn up each morning, sit on a mud bucket drinking a coffee, and then start work. Only when it’s cold, they’d pull muscles, so one AWCI member started a stretching program before the men began work each morning. They caught a lot of flack from other guys on the site making fun of them, but pulled muscle injuries became rare. The majority of safety directors in the business try to be proactive like that, because they don’t want to receive a call that OSHA is on the job site.”

Here are some of the responses received from the safety directors in the field:

"While on a jobsite inspection 12 years ago,” recalls Jim Dunn of Baker Drywall in Mesquite, Texas, "I found a set of scaffolds set up in a stairwell. Our drywall foreman had set them up so four men could hang the gypsum board on the walls. The scaffolds were atrocious, a hodgepodge of three brands of frame scaffolds, a couple of Perry frames, and some boards salvaged from the concrete man’s trash pile and some other parts borrowed from the brick mason. When I ask the foreman why he had allowed such a mess he replied, ‘We didn’t have any scaffold money in the budget.’ It was then that I realized the difficulties of a safety director career. After rectifying that particular scaffold problem and ‘communicating’ with the general superintendent, foreman and the project manager, I met with the company owner. After our goals were established his instructions were to ‘Take the bull by the horns.’ I embarked on the establishment of a value-based safety program, the core values being ‘safety and quality, on time.’ A couple of years ago one of my foremen called me and calmly announced that OSHA was on the job site and reviewing everyone’s paperwork in preparation for the opening conference. He assured me everything was in good order and he was comfortable accompanying them on the inspection. All we got from OSHA was a congratulations and a handshake. That was a good day, one of many.”

Another safety director, this one from California, reports that "Nearing the completion of one job, we suddenly began receiving reports of injuries occurring to knees, wrists and elbows the week or month before—it was an epidemic. One of the injured workers told me, ‘Everybody gets hurt on this job, we have to work hard and get it done fast.’ He was a young, relatively healthy, person who had worked on that job only 40 hours. I contacted our WC [Workers’ Compensation] carrier, explained the events, requested surveillance on the job site and an expert to educate these people on fraud and their responsibility to work safely. We showed the workers the undercover video taken earlier that day revealing how easy it was to observe their actions. We hung up posters regarding fraud and penalties for filing bogus claims. We received no other reports of injuries after that.”

In terms of actual accidents, she recalls, "A forklift operator’s load shifted one time and dropped five stories to the ground, landing on a truck. We were lucky nobody was injured, but the truck sustained about $8,000 in damage. I have noticed that working at an overly fast pace and taking short cuts is surefire way to be hurt on the job.”

"During jobsite inspections, I see so many not wearing eye protection, yet the ones who get something in their eye always had their glasses on: yeah, right! And I am not saying all employees are guilty of this, but I know for a fact that rolling on scaffolds is a common practice: It is time consuming to climb off, relocate and get back on.”

Jackie Clark of Daley’s Drywall in Campbell, Calif., is the safety director who came up with the idea of the pink hard hats, a strategy that "has worked very well,” according to Clark.

As with her fellow safety director from California quoted above, Clark was running across "framers experiencing many lacerations. So we mandated fingertip-less gloves. This policy was met initially with many complaints, but now it is second nature because it reduced laceration injuries dramatically.

"We have had only one really bad incident as a result of the employee not following our policies. The six employees on a job last year were told if they went up in the scissor lift, to stay in the basket and to wear fall protection if they had to lean out for any reason. Well, OSHA showed up and one of our guys had climbed out of the basket onto a ledge without wearing PPE.

"We received a serious citation for non-use of PPE by an employee in a hazardous condition. The citation was reversed recently because we could prove the individual had been trained by the union, given specific directions by the foreman, and we had PPE available for everyone.”

As painful as each construction-site injury and gruesome as each subsequent death is in the United States, when compared with the rest of the world, they paint a picture that validates OSHA and the culture of safety we have built up and enforced in the workplace. U.S. construction site fatalities make up 3 percent of the total construction site fatalities around the world, while U.S. citizens make up 4.6 percent of the population. According to the International Labor Organization, of the 350,000 fatal accidents in work places around the world each year, at least 60,000 are on construction sites—one every 10 minutes. This represents 17 percent of all fatal work-related accidents.

Um, Aren’t We Missing Something?

While OSHA and safety directors in the United States have brought about a slight lowering, ratio-wise, of accidents in this country, they have not eradicated them at all. The focus all the time has been on training in, and enforcement of, techniques and procedures to reduce the likelihood of accidents. There is no question that this needs to be done and has had some success. But it has not plumbed the source of the problem when it comes to accidents, which invariably result from a failure to follow regulations in some way. The question to ask then is this: "How come some people, the accident prone, do not follow the regulations when it results in lost production, medical bills, higher insurance, fines, court cases and deaths?”

The truth is that any effort to make known and enforce safety regulations only works on those who are not accident prone, because only they are listening to what the safety officers or OSHA say, or reading what they’ve written. Only they stay focused on the job, even when the pressure is on. The other guys are spaced out, not tracking, caught up in some other issue. It’s a bit like the laws of the land. They are enforced on and restrict everybody, but the only people listening and following are the guys who don’t need the laws in the first place. Those who need the laws are paying no attention whatsoever, except scheming how to circumvent the laws.

Maybe there is a way to have an accident-free work place, the stated goal of every company’s safety director. It’s possible. Just like it was at one time possible that someone had worked out how to transport huge stone blocks great distances to build the pyramids and other such structures. Until one saw the blocks in motion, one would not believe it possible.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.