Decisions made before construction work starts are key to shaping the health and safety of workers, writes RMIT University professor of construction occupational health and safety HELEN LINGARD.
According to SafeWork Australia, 211 construction workers died from work-related injuries in the five years from 2007–08 to 2011–12. Over the same time, construction accounted for 11 percent of all serious workers’ compensation claims, with an average of 39 claims requiring one or more weeks off work because of work-related injury or disease, every day.
Construction projects are delivered in complex networks of activity. Multiple project participants and stakeholders are involved. Many of these stakeholders have an impact on, or influence, construction workers’ safety, including those who procure construction projects and those who make or influence significant design decisions.
Recent research undertaken at RMIT shows that decisions made early in a project lifecycle — before construction work commences — can shape the health and safety of construction workers. Yet the people who make these decisions may not fully consider this safety impact.
The research was part of an international benchmarking study of construction health and safety. Data were collected from 288 interviews taken from 23 construction projects — 10 in Australia and New Zealand, and 13 in the United States. In each project, 43 specific elements or components of the building (or other facility) were selected, including roof structures, sewerage systems, retaining walls, a pedestrian bridge and foundation systems.
Interviews explored the way construction decisions were made, how hazards were controlled, and the timing and sequence of key decisions as well as other influences at play as project decisions were made.
There is a well-established hierarchy used in the construction industry for controlling workplace safety hazards. At the top of the hierarchy is eliminating the hazard altogether. The second level is substituting something that produces a hazard with something less hazardous. Further down are engineering controls that isolate people from hazards.
These three may be classed as ‘technological controls’ because they change the physical work environment.
In contrast, the lower layers in the hierarchy represent ‘behavioural controls’ in that they seek to change the way people work — such as implementing a job rotation scheme to limit exposure to hazards. At the bottom of the hierarchy is personal protective equipment, regarded as the least reliable of the measures.
The research showed a significant positive relationship between the percentage of hazards identified and controlled before construction commenced and the implementation of upper level (or technological) control measures in the Australian, New Zealand and US projects.
The research also found that the effectiveness of control measures relied on people with knowledge about construction materials, methods and processes being involved in making decisions in the planning and design stages of projects, known as the pre-construction phase, rather than decisions happening on-site.
So when construction contractors and specialist subcontractors were central to decisions made before construction work commenced, more effective upper-level controls were implemented.
To a lay-person, this seems obvious: but the construction supply chain is disjointed and complex. Depending on the delivery mechanisms selected for construction projects and the resulting contractual arrangements entered into, the extent to which construction process knowledge is available in early project decision-making may be limited.
The fact that the design and construction of projects are often carried out by different firms further reduces the possibility of free-flowing communication between constructors and designers.
The situation is made even more challenging due to the complexity of the construction industry’s product, which means that many components of a building or facility will be designed and delivered by specialist sub-contractors, who may not be engaged when key decisions are being made. This is a problem for the design of upper-level hazard controls, because communication is critical to the effective performance of construction project teams.
The research provides evidence that early consideration of construction workers’ safety in project decision-making and the involvement of people with appropriate knowledge of construction processes can make construction workplaces safer.
Enabling this to occur within current market structures and mechanisms may have cost implications, but ultimately clients of the construction industry may need to re-consider the value that they place on construction workers’ safety.