Residential construction projects are populated by a variety of contractors who come and go, but who may not share the same view on safety.
So the work is residential construction, is it? Well, measures will need to be in place to guard against falls, then. Also, steps must be taken to prevent slips and trips. And, of course, there’s the potential for excavation cave-ins, electrical contacts, entrainments, strikes by moving vehicles, sprains, strains and exposure to hazardous substances and chemicals. Oh, yeah, what about the…
And the list goes on and on. It is all residential construction, it all remains a challenge, regardless of the jurisdiction, and it all deserves mention, notice and maybe a bit of concern.
Residential construction sites present a mixed bag of contractors, all with different work experiences, accident histories and views on safety. Sometimes, though, how “quickly,” not how “safely,” seems to take the lead.
Just as varied are the fuels that drive potentially hazardous conditions: poor communication, inadequate planning, a lack of supervision, insufficient or ineffective worker training and far too little enforcement, suggests “Safe Work Practices for House Construction,” released by WorkSafeBC in Richmond, British Columbia in 2005.
And all this can spell bad news for occupational health and safety. Consider the following examples:
-a Saskatchewan firm was recently fined $480 for failing to ensure that workers who could fall three metres or more used protective gear;
-an Ontario worker, 19, was fatally injured last year when he was crushed between a bulldozer bucket and the counterweights of a crane;
-two workers at a project in Alberta sustained minor injuries last August when a skid-steer loader back filling a hole toppled, pinning them;
-an employee working on the siding of an Ottawa townhouse suffered injuries, including paralysis, when his ladder slid and he fell, spurring a $120,000 fine for his employer; and,
-a worker in Ontario received an 8,000-volt electrical shock in 2007 after touching a flatbed truck that had contacted an overhead live wire.
OLD IS NEW
As far as John Fuke is concerned, it all comes down to choice. “Choices, bad decisions, period,” says Fuke, global I-Safe manager at Capital Safety in Mississauga, Ontario. “There is nothing worse than what’s been going on here with the choice of putting people in the air without fall protection on.”
Of course, none of this is new. Pick a province — any province — and some warning, caution or advice about residential construction has likely been dispensed in past. For example, Nova Scotia released a statement in May of 2005, reminding stakeholders to take site safety seriously. “It is still early in the construction season, and already this year we’ve had to deal with a number of complaints and accidents related to falls at construction work sites,” then labour minister Kerry Morash said.
As part of an associated awareness campaign, provincial staff conducted 49 inspections of residential construction sites in and around Halifax. In all, 95 orders were issued for violations mostly relating to fall protection, scaffolding and first aid. “There’s still a mentality that injuries and fatalities happen to other people. But the statistics tell a different story,” Morash said at the time.
Five years later, Nova Scotia’s Department of Labour and Workforce Development was considering the findings of a recent review of the root causes noted in about 700 accident investigations. Some of the conclusions reached, says Jim LeBlanc, director of the department’s Occupational Health and Safety Division, stick out. Either “safety just wasn’t considered when they undertook to do the work” or “there wasn’t the commitment in the organization to do the work safely,” LeBlanc reports.
The message relayed (or not) looks to influence behaviour. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL), for example, points out that in many cases of fall-related deaths in residential construction, “the victim was wearing a fall arrest harness, but it was not secured.”
In Nova Scotia, the labour department currently has one figure for all construction injuries, but plans to tease out residential construction numbers in the future. With regard to fatalities, there has been one residential construction death in 2010 (heart attack), one in 2009 as a result of a fall, and one in 2008 (another heart attack), LeBlanc notes.
Historically, he says, about a quarter of oh&s compliance orders, in general, revolved around breaches of the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act — relating mostly to administrative demands. Beyond that, 11 per cent of orders were for fall protection; 10 per cent for first aid; 36 per cent for obli gations under the oh&s general regulations (which cover things like guarding, ladder use and excavation); and seven per cent for workplace hazardous materials information system requirements. “My expectation is that you’re going to see a similar pattern in residential construction: fall protection, scaffolding, personal protective equipment, guarding and first aid,” says LeBlanc.
In Saskatchewan, 39 per cent of work inspections conducted in 2010 have been at construction sites, notes the Ministry of Advanced Education, Employment and Labour in Regina.
The MOL reports that residential construction in Ontario is characterized by multiple contractors and independent operators. From 2006 to 2008, ministry staff conducted 40,961 field visits to these sites and issued 112,166 orders. (This compares to 36,200 field visits and 78,423 orders in the industrial/commercial/institutional construction sectors.)
Although the number of work-related deaths in construction overall decreased from 27 in 2006 to 20 in 2008, the ministry notes, “residential construction was responsible for the largest number of fatalities.”
And falls continue to be a major cause of traumatic fatalities and critical injuries, accounting for 11 of the deaths and 99 of the aforementioned injuries in 2008. Of the latter, 28 were falls from ladders, 14 from scaffolds and work platforms, and 57 from roofs and floors.
A LASTING REVIEW
The high-profile deaths of four immigrant workers in Toronto last December, coupled with the ongoing toll of construction fatalities, spurred a call by the Toronto-based Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario to appoint an investigator to look into the relationship between industry business practices and current legislation.
“Our health and safety laws need to adapt to our changing workplaces and emerging technologies,” Patrick Dillon, business manager of the council, said in a statement. “We need to make sure that our safety, training, monitoring and enforcement provisions and structures are up to date and able to address a changing workplace,” Dillon later added.
The trades council did not receive exactly what it asked for — but it may, in the end, have gotten more. Ontario labour minister Peter Fonseca has named Tony Dean, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance and a former deputy labour minister, to head up a new expert advisory panel. The panel is charged with carrying out a comprehensive review of the province’s oh&s prevention and enforcement system.
By setting a critical eye on Ontario’s OH&S Act, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act and any other related acts, Dillon says he is hopeful necessary changes will be made to ensure laws reflect construction’s current work force. The use of independent operators and the size of crews today, for example, may not reflect what was the norm when the various pieces of legislation were enacted, he suggests.
Ontario is not alone in exploring ways to bolster safety. Research funded by Nova Scotia’s labour department, the Nova Scotia Construction Association and the Workers’ Compensation Board — and conducted by Saint Mary’s University in Halifax — recently got under way, says LeBlanc.
looking “at a cross-section of companies in the construction industry that are performing well and have good accident experience,” he reports, others can learn and benefit from “what they’re doing right.”
Not only will companies get a peek at successful measures, the department will be able to access valuable information. “When we’re visiting the companies that are poor performers or even the ones that are average performers, we can certainly focus in on the things to make them better,” LeBlanc says.
So far, he says that researchers have a list of best performers and are now identifying “why they’re successful in terms of preventing accidents and keeping costs under control.”
Being in the know is never a bad thing. To help Prince Edward Island’s workers, employers, joint health and safety committee members and safety representatives better understand hazards and legislated requirements related to residential construction, the provincial Workers’ Compensation Board released a guide in April of 2009.
The guide offers tips on topics ranging from personal apparel (such as head, eye, face, foot and hand protection) to stairways, ladders, scaffolds and work platforms. Below are a few details:
-personal apparel — an employer must ensure a worker’s apparel is of a type and condition that will not expose that person to unnecessary and avoidable hazards, and the gear must be approved by the Canadian Standards Association;
-stairways and ladders– obligations include installing permanent or temporary guardrails on stairs before they are used for general access between levels, correcting any slippery conditions on stairways before use, inspecting ladders for defects before use, and securing ladders near the top or at the bottom to prevent slippage;
-scaffolds and work platforms– provide safe access to get on and off scaffolds and work platforms, erect scaffolds on firm and level foundations, do not work from any part of the scaffold other than the platform, and do not put more weight on a scaffold than it is designed to hold; and,
-roof work– inspect for and remove frost and other slipping hazards before getting onto roofs, stop roofing work when storms, high winds or other adverse conditions create an unsafe working environment, and wear slip-resistant footwear.
Slippery roofs can be deadly, WorkSafeBC notes in a 2008 alert issued after a worker fatality. Workers had been installing a bracket system on the roof of a four-storey building, but postponed the task after arriving one morning to find that heavy frost had formed on the plywood sheathing. The idea was to wait until the sun melted some of the frost.
A fall protection lifeline system had been installed and inspected, and the worker tied off when work later began. While moving metal bars for the bracket system, though, he unhooked his lanyard. He then found two bars frozen together, prompting him to strike them on the roof to break them apart, which caused one of the bars to slide toward the roof’s edge.
When he reached out to grab the bar, he slipped on the frost, slid down the roof and fell 16 metres to the ground.
BIG AND SMALL
Size is one element that may make a difference in residential construction. Grant McMillan, president of the Council of Construction Associations (COCA) in Richmond, British Columbia, suggests one difficulty in improving safety traction in residential construction is that there are many very small contractors who are not aware of provincial requirements. “This problem is compounded by the fact that residential contractors tend to hire for the short term and it is, therefore, more costly to train a revolving door of workers.”
That revolving door can be even more challenging when vulnerable workers begin walking through. This status, Dillon says, “may be used as a threat to force [workers] to do certain things that they’re not trained to do.”
Fuke notes that with immigrant workers, the case can certainly be made that they do not understand the law or know that they can refuse unsafe work. It is not the fault of an immigrant who is simply trying to earn a living, he emphasizes, but rather those who are “taking advantage of the system” and, in so doing, “are choosing to let people work unprotected.”
The potential for injury and death is increased “because, first of all, you have untrained workers on the site; second of all, you’re not adhering to code with respect to what they’re supposed to do in a fall protection scenario,” he says.
Dillon reports that he was recently speaking to an Ontario contractor who has a stellar reputation. He asked the contractor, “‘How many of these voiceless workers come knock on your door looking for work?’ And there are none. That tells me there’s an underground network at play here that is feeding voiceless, untrained people into certain contractors.”
It is crucial to get “people as educated as quickly as possible with respect to their rights,” Fuke says, and to “get these employers or people employing them to work within the law.”
McMillan suggests that objective may be advanced by notifying workers’ compensation bodies of all building permits. In British Columbia’s case, the link would mean WorkSafeBC is made aware of residential projects so that it could ensure contractors are registered for insurance and oh&s purposes.
Fuke suggests it would be helpful to streamline the process so contractors can complete things like bonding and building permits in fewer steps — or even before a single agency.
What about the current economic situation? Does it threaten to erect obstacles to improving health and safety performance? It depends on who is being asked.
“The pressure to do construction work as quickly as possible often results in guardrails not being erected, openings in floors not being covered, or safe access to work platforms not being provided,” notes the WorkSafeBC guide.
But LeBlanc says he sees both good and bad. To the good, “if the economy is slow, then some of the larger companies that may work on commercial projects aren’t engaged in that side of the industry and they’re competing with the other firms, say, for residential construction and renovation. And they bring with them their attitudes toward safety,” he says.
With a slower economy, notes Fuke, there is more time to do the job, “so safety should be more important. You take it to a hot economy, in my opinion, it’s the other way around.”
McMillan argues that “people tend to go for the lowest bid without asking about the safety program of the contractor.” Combine insufficient knowledge about oh&s demands with “the cost of buying fall protection equipment, training workers and following safe work practices using fall protection equipment, this takes time. And time is money,” he says.
“The more costs you incur,” adds Fuke, “the more impetus you’re going to have to grow the underground economy.”
McMillan says COCA strongly supports WorkSafeBC having a dedicated team of officers to focus on residential construction. The need is clearly there, he argues, because “there have been cases where regulations are being ignored.”
There also needs to be education from within. The Construction Sector Council (CSC) in Ottawa notes that almost 200,000 construction workers are expected to retire between 2010 and 2018. With a view to the future — one that ensures sufficient skills and knowledge are available on the work site — the CSC announced in February that a national mentoring program has been developed and piloted.
“Since 80 per cent of training takes place on the job, an effective mentoring program will go a long way toward achieving” the goal of training the next generation, CSC executive director George Gritziotis says in a statement. The program was to be rolled out to key stakeholders over the spring.
One and All
Alberta has adopted residential construction compliance monitoring strategies — which apply to prime contractors, contractors, employers and workers — that occupational health and safety officers use when visiting sites. There are plenty of hazards for which officers keep eyes peeled, including, but not limited to, the following:
- fall hazards (considered imminent danger) as a result of floor and wall openings that are unguarded or do not have markings and secured covers, or falls from roofs and scaffolds;
- trenching/excavation issues (considered imminent danger) in which there is poor entry/exit capabilities, or underground services have not been identified, meaning they could be damaged or workers put at risk if these are disturbed;
- scaffolding that is not safe because of missing parts, an unstable or unsupported base and improper planking;
- use of equipment that is not certified, properly maintained or used in accordance with its designed intent;
- first aid and WHMIS non-compliance;
- lack of a written hazard assessment and emergency response plan; and,
- work near operating equipment without effective hazard controls being in place.
Source: Alberta Employment and Immigration, 2008-2009 Residential Construction Program
It really comes down to culture. “The level of engagement with the workplace depends on factors such as the employer’s commitment to a strong health and safety culture, and a well-defined, suitable and sustainable internal responsibility system,” notes the MOL’s Construction Sector Plan 2009-2010.
Other factors affecting engagement include the number of lost-time injuries, no-lost-time injuries, the nature and extent of any past non-compliance, and corrective actions required of the employer to achieve compliance, the plan adds.
In Ontario, a construction fatality is currently subject to a mandatory coroner’s inquest. Dillon wholeheartedly supports that system continuing, but notes there have been hundreds of construction inquests over the last 20 years or so.
“And we haven’t got the job done,” he says. “That is evidence in itself” that something additional is needed.
For LeBlanc, “if there’s anything that we would hope for with residential construction is we would like the sector to become more involved with the construction safety association.” There are services and knowledge that are “waiting to make some inroads in residential construction,” he adds.
Fall hazards are all known, Fuke says simply. “The key is, why aren’t we getting better at this? And, again, it brings me back to choices and the decisions that we make.”
Angela Stelmakowich is editor of OHS CANADA.