Rise in construction deaths alarms many, but work goes on

Construction is a dangerous business. Accidents and fatalities occur at job sites every year despite the industry’s best efforts to prevent them. Eleven construction deaths have occurred in Southern Nevada this year alone, reports the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Nevada Division.

“It’s very alarming what’s happening,” said Nicky Nolte, a local OSHA trainer. “We have seen an increase in deaths.”

On Aug. 9, for example, Harvey Englander died at MGM Mirage’s CityCenter development — a $7.4 billion, 18.6 million-square-foot mixed-use complex of residences, hotels and entertainment space on the Strip between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo. Englander, 65, was working on an elevator lift when he leaned over into the counterweight system and was cut in half, say Clark County Fire Department officials.

Englander was retired before he rejoined the labor force to work on the project.

CityCenter is the nation’s largest privately financed project, with 4,000 tradesmen on the job at any given time. The 76-acre, seven-building development will eventually see up to 7,000 tradesmen and 350 supervisory personnel during the peak of construction. CityCenter has had three deaths this year.

“We don’t like to see (accidents) happen, but with that many men at work and that much going on, accidents are going to occur,” said Steve Holloway, executive director of the Associated General Contractors, Las Vegas chapter. “Nearly 95 percent of accidents are caused by human error, by people doing what they are trained not to do.”

Construction safety has become a high-profile issue lately, particularly following Englander’s death and another fatality at a different construction project just several days before. On Aug. 2, three workers fell from a 30-foot-tall wall at the $2.9 billion Fontainebleau hotel-casino site at Rivera and Las Vegas boulevards. Norvin Tsosie, 36, died when his harness failed, dropping him into a 10-foot hole. The other two workers only sustained minor injuries. Four days later, Fontainebleau had another accident when three precast concrete twin tee fell from the top level of a seven-story parking garage. No one was injured.

Dwelling too much on what happens after an accident is almost blasphemy among some of the industry’s hard-core safety adherents. Contractors claim zero tolerance for safety risks and projects visibly promote their number of “accident-free” days. The idea of preparing for an accident seems to undermine that iron-clad commitment to safety.

“I’d rather talk about prevention,” replied one safety official who asked not to be named.

Yet job site accidents, injuries and deaths remain a fact of construction life, with annual U.S. fatality numbers stubbornly exceeding 1,000 since 1994.

Construction sites are inherently dangerous places, with a fluid environment of people constantly coming and going, including subcontractors, suppliers, and part-time help. Heavy machinery, designed to tear, cut, dig, lift and pull, operates around the clock. Workers, as a result, must communicate while maintaining a heightened awareness of their surroundings. It can be a tall order when performing physically demanding labor for 10 hours or more each day in 110-degree weather.

Safety is often handled differently from project to project depending on the contractor and owner. Many firms employ dedicated safety professionals to ensure secure working conditions through inspections, citations and routine meetings to review work hazards. Some companies even offer cash incentives or raffle prizes for accident-free work.

Accidents bring undesired publicity, slow construction progress and dampen worker morale. They can increase financing requirements and insurance premiums, making it more costly to do business.

A new program called the Incident and Injury-free movement, or IIF, seeks to create a zero-incident work site through a shared sense of responsibility and caring between labor and management. The 13-year-old idea developed by JMJ Associates, an Austin, Texas, professional consulting firm, is growing in popularity within the construction industry.

“The program initially started as a concept that was more developmental in nature,” said Steven Knisely, a principal with JMJ Associates. “It has since evolved into a commitment-based process that gives people an opportunity to examine their true feelings, beliefs and values in order to create an injury-free workplace.”

Incident and Injury-free is not so much about numbers as it is a mind-set about safety. It’s a way of thinking that avoids incidents and injuries, making safety a high priority on both a personal and organizational level. The idea first came about when JMJ was working with one of its clients to develop a new tactic for reducing work site incidents. IIF is designed to shift the focus of safety from a compliance requirement to a concern for workers’ health and welfare.

Bovis Lend Lease, the firm building the new Allure Las Vegas, uses IIF on its job sites. The $195 million, 41-story residential skyscraper on Sahara Boulevard, just west of the Strip, opens next month without a single incident or fatality. IIF helps reduce incidents and injuries, while improving productivity and absenteeism through a culture of mutual concern and respect. It creates a collective sense of ownership in the construction process.

Bovis, for instance, uses a modified safety orientation in which workers discuss their backgrounds. Dialogue about spouses and children helps form mutual trust between workers, leading to friendships and relationships. It also underscores what’s at risk — wives, kids, relatives — while subtly asserting the need for a collective safety effort. The chat is often informal, but also intimate. The result is a more personally connected job site with workers, managers and superintendents watching out for one another.

“Nearly 90 percent of accidents occur in safe conditions,” said Matthew Schroyer, Bovis’ environmental health and safety director for the company’s New England region. “We are trying to get to the point where working safely is the only way to work. It’s everyone’s obligation to have the right mind-set.”

IIF shuns traditional safety measurements, such as lost work-time hours or experience modification factors, emphasizing the number of relationships forged instead. Workers, under a conventional setting, often only follow rules and procedures for fear of being written up or fined. Several small and minor incidents, as a result, may never get reported. IIF removes those barriers and replaces them with worker concern to create a job site where incidents can be reported without fear of retribution.

The movement has experienced an unusually high-level of support across all segments of the industry. Practitioners feel that IIF brings labor and management closer resulting in more collaboration and a better understanding of work force needs.

It also cultivates stronger leadership skills since IIF requires people to change their attitudes, behavior or values.

“If everyone in the pool is a lifeguard, then no one gets hurt. They watch out for the other guy,” Schroyer said. “We think it’s the evolution of making the business safe.”

This story first appeared in the Business Press. Tony Illia is a freelance writer who writes for the Review-Journal’s sister publication and can be reached at tonyillia@aol.com or at 303-5699.

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