Smart Business: Our Age of Safety Enlightenment
After graduating high school more than four decades ago, I went to work in a factory for a little over a year. Despite the passage of so much time, one co-worker remains etched in memory as a grotesque reminder that the good old days weren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Little Joe was a diminutive, jovial Polish immigrant who worked as a welder. He’d often fill lunch breaks with a stream of dirty jokes that made his working buddies laugh as much at his thick accent and skewed punch lines as the crude humor. I laughed less than most. That’s because when Little Joe held court I tended to fixate on his hands or what was left of them.
Only half of his 10 fingers were fully intact. The rest had been completely or partially severed in a series of industrial accidents. I recall one conversation that made me cringe as Joe casually described how each digit got crushed, pinned, sliced or diced. Many other workers at that factory also bore mutilations as souvenirs of years of mind-numbing work around churning machinery but Joe’s injuries lapped the field.
Little Joe never sued or even blamed anyone for his pain and suffering. His was the mindset of pre-OSHA America, particularly among folks like him who came from much harsher societies. They viewed excruciating pain and disfigurement as merely occupational hazards one had no choice but to put up with in return for the privilege of earning a living in this great land of ours. Sure, there were things the bosses might do and sometimes did to reduce accidents but only if those things didn’t cost more than occasionally rushing someone to the hospital.
Those attitudes turned around when the outpouring of social legislation during the ’60s included the creation of OSHA. As regular readers well know, I’m no fan of government bureaucracy but it would be churlish not to acknowledge significant improvement in worker safety following the creation of OSHA. Let’s not give the bureaucrats more credit than they deserve, however. OSHA’s frequently nitpicky rules arose as part of an evolution in social values about the value of human flesh and blood.
Construction remains year after year one of the most dangerous industries to work in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction accounted for 1,226 work fatalities in 2006, the latest data available at this writing. That was the most of any industry sector and an increase of 3 percent over 2005.
Construction accidents tend to correlate with the level of activity within the industry, both in the actual numbers and the rate of accidents as measured in relation to man-hours worked. When the work load is high, safety tends to get overtaken by production imperatives. Because of the housing slump, I expect to see at least a little decline when the 2007 data appears sometime in August.
Numbers aside, there’s little doubt more attention is being paid to safety throughout the construction industry nowadays than in days of old. OSHA regulations have something to do with it, but economic incentives may be having an even larger impact.
Most insurance companies have cracked down on construction companies with a high experience modification ratio-a measure of how one firm stacks up against others of its kind in workplace accidents. Accident-prone contractors face sky-high premiums and frequently find themselves shut out of large jobs whose owners and GCs also are cracking down, in order to lower their own insurance costs.
Higher insurance and worker’s comp premiums are just part of the expense associated with unsafe job sites. You also have to account for lost working hours of an injured employee, material and equipment damages and rescheduling costs. And don’t overlook the emotional impact on other workers besides the injured person. Productivity decreases as everyone slows down to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. Morale plummets if an injury is perceived as resulting from management cracking the productivity whip.
There are so many hazards inherent to construction work, it’s likely to always remain among the most perilous occupations but that doesn’t mean accidents cannot be prevented. Contractors have a moral, economic and legal motivation to do all they can to avoid workplace accidents. Larger companies should have a high-ranking supervisor assigned as safety officer, responsible for devising and implementing safety policies and training. Most insurers can guide you through establishing a formal safety program, because it’s a win-win for them and their clients. Mostly it is a matter of raising consciousness about jobsite safety issues through consistent training, and enforcing rules pertaining to safety wear and practices.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive While Calling
While we’re on the subject of safety, let’s address an aspect that applies to both blue and white-collar workers-the latter even more. It has to do with letting your employees have a few belts while making their jobsite runs. It would help their working days go by faster!
I’m kidding, of course. Nobody in his right mind would grant permission for employees to consume alcohol while driving on company time. Yet, most of us turn a blind eye to a practice that’s just as dangerous.
A 1997 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that drivers who talk on a cell phone are four times more likely to get into an accident than drivers who don’t. That’s about the same ratio racked up by drunk vs. sober drivers. Research coming out of the University of Utah found that when motorists age 18 to 25 talk on cell phones, their reaction times slow down to that of people in the 65-74 age group-but without a half-century of driving experience to help compensate. Numerous other studies verify a correlation between cell phones and vehicle accidents.
Academic studies aside, common sense tells us that phone conversations reduce concentration on the road ahead. Think of how many times you’ve observed a motorist doing something stupid while gabbing away. Furthermore, highway safety officials are stumped to explain why road fatalities have inched upward in recent times after decades of steady decline due to better roads, safer vehicles and DUI crackdowns. Cell phones are a likely culprit.
Let’s fess up. Almost all of us have talked on the phone while driving, haven’t we? Some of us do it on a daily basis.
I suspect construction contractors are among the worst offenders. You folks never seem to be without a phone within arm’s reach, and it’s hard to spend more than a few minutes in your presence without it ringing. Contractors are about the busiest people I know in the business world, and with all the time pressure and traffic congestion you face, it seems such a waste not to make productive use of windshield time.
I’ve done it myself way too many times, although I’m making a conscious effort to stop. It’s not easy to break the habit. When your phone rings, the urge is powerful to answer then and there, even if you’re above the speed limit in heavy traffic. If something crosses the mind while driving, it’s instinctive to communicate it before it slips away.
Everything seems urgent in today’s hectic business world. We just need to get it through our heads that it wasn’t so long ago when cell phones didn’t exist, yet our work still got done.
Also making it harder to quit is the fact that yakking while driving isn’t against the law in most places. Some jurisdictions have passed laws against cell phone use while driving, but most haven’t and even where the laws exist, they rarely get enforced.
Some of these laws permit hands-free phone operation, which the wireless industry heavily promotes. While this sounds like a reasonable compromise, many safety experts think hands-free chit-chat may actually make things worse. The physical act of dialing and receiving calls takes only a few seconds and probably is associated with a tiny percentage of accidents. The main trouble comes with loss of concentration during extended and sometimes emotional phone conversations. This doesn’t change with hands-free phones, and the danger may even increase because people get a false sense of security while their minds wander from the road.
The American Automobile Association estimates that about half of the six million annual car crashes in this country are related to driving distractions. It’s hard to say how many of those are due to phone calls as opposed to eating, grooming, fiddling with the radio and so on, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently found that 8 percent of drivers were using cell phones during daylight hours, or about one out of every 12 motorists at any given time.
Some large companies have begun to address these dangers. Exxon Mobil pioneered a safety policy that prohibits employees and contract workers from using cellular phones while driving on company time. Many other major corporations are coming around to cell policies that require personnel to pull over and stop before making or receiving calls.
Cell phone restrictions have been slow to take hold in the business world because their use is not widely perceived as dangerous, or if so, only when someone else is doing it. You and I, of course, have mastered the manual and mental dexterity required to simultaneously talk on the phone and steer tons of metal through countless hazards while zooming fast enough to turn human flesh into goo. It’s always the other guy who doesn’t have his act together.
This cavalier mentality about cell phones resembles that of an earlier era when bars were filled with yokels bragging about how much liquor they could consume and still steer their cars home. A rising toll of highway mayhem led to a change in cultural attitudes. Now, in most social circles it is distinctly unfashionable to get behind a wheel while smashed. “Friends don’t let friends drink and drive,” goes the familiar slogan of a national ad campaign, and many friends take it seriously.
It’s time for a similar social revolution that looks down on mixing phone calls with driving. Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to ban cell phones in transit entirely, just to insist that drivers pull off the road and park before using the phone. I’m doing my tiny part with this article to bring about such a revolution. How about doing yours with a company policy that prohibits cell phone use while behind the wheel of one of your moving vehicles? W&C
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