When Gregorio Rodriguez worked in construction more than 20 years ago, safety was something workers and employers hid from. When government safety inspectors dropped by the Boise area job sites where he worked, no one wanted to give the inspectors a reason to cause trouble or issue citations. So no one worked.
“You didn’t continue working until they were gone,” he says. “That’s what we were instructed to do.”
Safety regulations weren’t taken seriously. “For us it was like you didn’t really follow them,” Rodriguez says. “You just hoped you didn’t caught.”
Now Rodriguez is working to see that attitude change. He’s safety manager for the Inland Pacifi c Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. It’s his job to help train workers and make them think about being safe on construction worksites. It’s work that matters: In the state of Washington, construction work has been causing the second-highest number of fatalities (after vehicle accidents).
The idea behind consultations is that safety audits can be performed on job sites to determine what could be done to make work safer. And since Rodriguez isn’t a state inspector, employers aren’t getting fined when he finds something wrong.
“There may be a hazard that they don’t see,” he says.
When on a job site, Rodriguez looks for a number of things. But he has two priorities.
“The first thing when I’m walking in is: Are there any fall hazards?” Rodriguez says. Then, “What is the electrical looking like?”
Both of those worries are present on messy construction sites — areas with garbage and electrical cords strewn everywhere.
“That all becomes a hazard when people are walking through… carrying materials,” he says.
In the safety classes, Rodriguez teaches employers and workers how and why to comply with federal and state safety regulations. He enjoys getting his students to think.
“I had a guy that took [a safety] class, saying too much regulation, too much regulation, too much regulation,” Rodriguez says. “A couple weeks later he calls me back and says, ‘You know, I hate you, I cannot walk onto a job site [without] finding more and more potential hazards.’ And he said, ‘I thank you for that.’”
The safety work Rodriguez and others do may just be paying off. In Washington and around the country, workplace deaths in construction and other industries have been declining. In 2002, 81 Washingtonians died on the job; in 2011, 51 died, the lowest in the past decade. (Those numbers only take into account people who died at a worksite, not people who die later in life from a condition contracted during their work.)
In spite of the lingering effects of the Great Recession, which put the brakes on some of the most dangerous jobs like construction, transportation and manufacturing, there are reasons to believe workplaces are really becoming safer.
“If you were really to take a straight statistical approach, the decline in [workplace] hours doesn’t correlate with reduced deaths,” says Mandi Kime, safety director for Associated General Contractors.
Though she notes her perspective as a safety director is likely skewed, Kime says she really believes the industry is making itself safer.
Like Rodriguez, Kime conducts safety training sessions and workplace audits. Those tasks not only make workers safer but also serve as a mark of validation that contractors are reputable. That’s why Kime worries about informal contractors that operate outside both inspection programs and the law.
Renegade contractors may be unlicensed and less likely to pay attention to the standard safety practices. And since they’re often performing jobs for cash, they’re not paying into the worker’s compensation fund, according to Kime.
“Those are people who are really scary to us in the industry,” she says.
Inspecting every single job is simply beyond the reach of the department’s 114 state inspectors, according to the state’s Labor and Industries spokesman Hector Castro.
“We don’t have the manpower to literally inspect every workplace in the state,” says Castro. “The last stat I saw was that it would take 35 years to get to all of them.”
So it is mostly up to employers to pay attention to safety. And as it turns out, safer worker places are not just better for the employees — they’re better for business, too. Kime says a trend at construction sites toward pre-planning work helps improve worker safety, and at the same time, makes jobs more efficient. Pre-planning includes using computer modeling to analyze blueprints, creating a detailed list what needs to be done during a day’s work, including the steps needed to complete the tasks, and what possible hazards could crop up along the way.
“It’s starting to become a requirement to a lot of contractors,” Kime says.
Still, things can and do go wrong on job-sites. Todd Schoonover manages a federally funded accident inspection program for L&I. A portion of his work is to investigate accidents and create reports that are then sent to contractors to educate them on how to avoid a similar mishap. “It’s really developed into a broader public health program,” he says.
Schoonover cites a case where a residential carpet installer died after falling out a window. The contractor doing the work “just never really thought about fall protection. [They] thought about knives and knees,” Schoonover says.
L&I, however, isn’t just worried about fatalities. The department also has its sights set on reducing workplace injuries. In January it launched Stay at Work, a program to encourage employers to retrain their employees for light-duty tasks so they don’t have to take time off due to injury. The idea is to keep workers earning their full pay, saving the department from cutting costly worker’s compensation checks.
As of June, 63 businesses in Spokane County have used the Stay at Work program with more than a hundred injured workers, according to Castro. As part of the program, L&I reimburses employers up to $10,000 per claim to cover part of the injured worker’s pay and help cover any retraining costs. It’s cheaper for the state because it doesn’t have to pay out a full worker’s compensation claim, and the state sees it as a benefit for the employee, who stays on the job and, hopefully, recovers more quickly.
Says Castro: “One of the things we found is that when someone’s injured on the job, if they stay at home, it takes them longer to get better.”