Fatalities in the construction industry in the United States are on the rise, according to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labour for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
While other industries are experiencing declines, the numbers are going up on construction, largely due to an increase in construction projects around the country and new workers coming on board, said Michaels, speaking at the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) conference in Orlando on June 10.
Fatalities caused by falls from elevation continue to be a leading cause of death for construction workers, accounting for 269 of the 775 construction fatalities recorded in 2012.
To help prevent fall hazards in construction, OSHA spearheaded a national safety stand-down the first week of June. More than one million workers and 25,000 employers participated in the stand-down.
Nearly one-half (45 per cent) of falls that occurred during 2011-12 were from less than 20 feet; and more than 20 per cent of falls were incurred at 10 feet or less. OSHA “remains very concerned about falls and not just falls from heights,” said Michaels.
Temporary workers are another concern for OSHA. There are 23 per cent more temporary workers now than before the recession, with a large concentration in manufacturing, said Michaels.
“Now, with the economy coming back, the temporary work is going gangbusters,” he said. “Every month, the largest sector of growth, 10 to 15 per cent, is in temporary employment.”
Various studies show temporary workers are three to four times more likely to be injured or killed on the job. There are a number of reasons for this such as they are new to the workplace, they are often offered the most hazardous jobs and employers are less likely to devote resources to train them, said Michaels.
“We see week after week these first day fatalities — workers who get to the job and are killed on their first day. It is a very big issue right now.”
Michaels is calling on health and safety professionals to work with employers and let them know their obligations to train all workers — temporary or not.
And the training must be provided in language and vocabulary the workers understand, he said.
Permissible exposure limits
OSHA is also tackling permissible exposure limits (PELs). These have not been updated in the U.S. since the 1960s and many are very out of date, said Michaels. In fact, he cautions employers against using the limits set out in OSHA legislation.
“Don’t simply try to rely on OSHA standards, because OSHA standards are not safe. It’s a little revolutionary for the head of OSHA to say don’t rely on our standard, but you can do better and you should do better,” said Michaels.
Silica is of particular interest to OSHA. Exposure to silica can cause silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
“The one PEL we want to change sooner than later is silica. Workers are heavily exposed to silica, especially in the construction industry. We believe exposures are getting worse because there is more powered equipment used in construction than ever (before),” said Michaels.
A new silica standard is needed that reduces the current PEL of 100 µg/m3 (micrograms per per cubic metre) to 50 µg/m3, he said.
“We have strong evidence that lung cancer and silicosis have exposures below 100 µg/m3, so we need to reduce those exposures and we know it is economically and technologically feasible.”
Some ways employers can reduce the exposure to silica are through water sprays, enclosures and dust collection vacuums.
Michaels expects a new standard for silica to be in place in 2016.