According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data, 991 out of 4,693 worker fatalities in private industry during 2016 (21.1 percent) occurred in the construction sector.
While the causes of on-site accidents vary, the overarching need for better oversight pervades the industry. That’s why the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Washington, created the Safety Training Evaluation Process (STEP) program in 1989 as a way to help cut down on preventable accidents in the field. In essence, STEP is a safety benchmarking tool for construction firms to help identify and enhance safety programs that reduce job site incident rates.
According to Greg Sizemore, ABC’s vice president of environment, health, safety and workforce development, companies that leveraged the safety best practices championed by the STEP program last year achieved a 670 percent better safety record than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) industry average.
Earlier this year, ABC released its 2018 Safety Performance Report. The 2018 edition was based on data gathered from ABC STEP participants who recorded more than one billion hours of work in the construction, heavy construction, civil engineering and specialty trades.
As part of the report, participating firms documented incident rates—total recordable incident rates (TRIR) and experience modification rates (EMR)—and evaluated their safety processes and policies in 20 key weighted areas against industry averages.
According to Sizemore, the general construction industry has long evaluated safety performance based on lagging indicators such as those used in the report—statistics that measure performance based on past incidents or conditions.
The STEP model, however, aims to measure how leading indicators—proactive injury and hazard eliminations tools on the job site used to prevent incidents—improve safety performance. ABC uses six core leading indicators that it says are most impactful at helping impact safety performance: having substance abuse programs, engaging in new hire safety training, hosting site-specific safety orientation, having regular toolbox talks, conducting near-miss/near-hit analysis and forming site safety committees.
As part of the STEP program, participating companies scored their level of achievement for each component on a weighted scale of 0 points (low score) up to 12 points (high score). Companies received a recognition level of Diamond, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze or Participant based on their score.
By understanding and implementing these proactive safety practices, Sizemore says that companies were able to reduce recordable incidents by up to 85 percent.
Leading causes of on-site accidents
OSHA’s 2016 data showed that falls were the leading type of accident that resulted in death among construction workers (384 out of 991 deaths, or 38.7 percent), followed by getting struck by an object (93 deaths, or 9.4 percent), electrocutions (82 deaths, or 8.3 percent) and caught in/between accidents (72 deaths, or 7.3 percent).
Sizemore says that developing training programs that focus on educating employees on STEP’s core leading indicators can help mitigate some of these preventable accidents. He says steps such as promoting substance abuse programs, new hire safety orientation and near-miss investigations are especially critical components of the six leading indicators outlined in the STEP program that can go a long way in creating a culture of compliance.
According to STEP data, companies that preach safety at the outset of a hire often see a dramatic reduction in on-site accidents.
“Companies that conduct an in-depth indoctrination of new hires into the safety culture, systems and processes based on a documented orientation process experience nearly 50 percent lower incident rates than companies that limit their orientations to basic safety and health compliance topics,” Sizemore says.
In addition to coaching new hires, Sizemore says monitoring and promoting wellness with existing workers is a must since substance abuse is a leading factor that contributes to worker accidents.
“While one-third of all incidents on construction job sites are drug- or alcohol-related, companies with substance abuse programs in place are more than 60 percent safer than those without an implemented substance program. Substance abuse testing can also be an effective method of incident prevention if used properly,” Sizemore says.
Besides taking a proactive approach to safety training, Sizemore says companies can benefit from learning from mistakes after they occur by undertaking near-miss investigations.
“Near-miss and near-hit tracking is the quintennial leading indicator for workplace safety,” he says. “By recording observations of near-miss or near-hit scenarios that could have been potentially catastrophic but did not result in disruptive or lost lives, companies have the opportunity to track, learn and revise safety practices to mitigate future incidents. We found that ABC members that employ a near-miss and near-hit tracking program can see up to a 61 percent reduction in their total recordable incident rates and an overall positive impact on employee safety.”
Taking a top-down approach
Enforcing safety on the job starts at the top, which is why Sizemore says getting buy-in from leadership is a necessity before a company can expect to see tangible results. Leaders who insist on observing safety precautions help set a culture of compliance that trickles down throughout an organization.
“A culture of safety cannot exist without leadership taking a stand,” Sizemore says. “This includes an unwillingness to compromise safety and modeling this belief in [a company’s] every action. Challenging and transforming the status quo to create a belief that all incidents are preventable creates a culture where safety is considered a moral obligation not just for leadership, but for all employees.”
Unsurprisingly, companies with leaders who insisted on safety compliance within their organization fared much better when analyzed on the 2018 Safety Performance Report than their industry counterparts.
“ABC found that employer involvement at the highest level of company management produces a 70 percent reduction in TRIR rates,” Sizemore says. “In high-scoring ABC STEP member firms, the owner or CEO is a direct and active participant in the safety program; instills personal accountability for safety throughout the company; tracks and annually reviews safety goals and objectives; solicits feedback on the safety program and seeks way to improve it; commits resources, money, time, personnel, equipment and supplies; and integrates safety into performance appraisals and other company operations.”
Sizemore says companies that made employee participation in the program a priority also showed more favorable results on ABC’s latest safety report.
“Employee participation and commitment to safety is also a critical component of success,” Sizemore says. “High-scoring STEP firms identify and explain opportunities for employee participation in hazard reporting and accident investigation; train supervisors how to actively engage employees; identify and eliminate potential barriers to participation; and provide the necessary resources, such as money, time and staff [to promote safety].”
Moving the program forward
Sizemore says most construction companies have been receptive to participating in STEP, and since ABC makes it easy to submit company data, there is no barrier to entry.
“Most of our contractor members understand that the data we ask for is the same data that the government requires to be reported each year, so the pushback has been minimal,” Sizemore says.
However, since some contractors aren’t comfortable sharing their specific company data but are willing to provide basic injury information, ABC has been working to develop a secondary, more inclusive pilot program.
“We are currently developing a pilot program, ‘First STEP,’ which is designed for contractors that have chosen not to participate in STEP but are willing to share injury data,” Sizemore says. “We recently introduced STEP for our supplier members, such as concrete, drywall, equipment rental and other delivery and supply firms. These member firms, whose employees interact daily with our contractors, expressed a desire to evaluate and improve their safety process as well.”
According to Sizemore, the principles championed by the STEP program are transferrable throughout the industry. The key to affecting real change, however, lies in the willingness of individual companies to commit to making safety a priority each day they’re out in the field.
“STEP members prove that world-class safety is achievable with a company-wide commitment to safety as a core value,” Sizemore says. “By applying world-class processes, construction companies can dramatically improve safety performance among participants regardless of company size or type of work.”