Two years ago, this magazine took a look at trench and excavation safety (October 2017) and reported that there had been an increase in fatalities in that segment of the construction industry. Scott Earnest, in the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Construction Office, cites OSHA 2012 to 2017 data that confirms there has been a gradual uptick in fatalities, to the point that the agency has made trenching its number one priority for 2019.
In the 2017 article, Joe Wise, customer training manager at United Rentals, noted a need for improvement in industry health and safety programs. NIOSH agrees, particularly in smaller companies, which it estimates account for 80 to 90% of construction industry employers.
Chris Cain, executive director of CPWR, the Center for Construction Research and Training (funded by NIOSH), confirms that the problems are disproportionate with smaller employers. According to the most recent data (2016), 82% of construction companies have fewer than 10 employees. Ninety percent employ 19 or fewer people. Employers that have fewer than 19 workers account for approximately 67% of the fatalities, with a death rate of 20.4 per 100,000 workers. In two larger categories (20 to 99 workers and 100 or more workers), the rates were 6.3 and 7.5 per 100,000 workers respectively. “So there’s something that happens when an employer employs 20 people or more that really brings them into a new level of operating safely,” she says.
“The smaller companies are not only the most resource-poor, but they may also have very little left over to invest in their workforce in the form of training,” says Cain. “It’s a huge challenge in this industry to reach the smallest companies, influence them and try to affect these rates.”
Tom Cunningham, who focuses on training at NIOSH, makes the distinction between training and education. “Education is simply sharing information. Training is actually teaching a skill. So if that’s what we’re talking about, there’s definitely a place and a need for ways to deliver good, effective training, especially among small employers. Research indicates that the more engaging that training is, the better the outcome. So wherever you can get closer to a hands-on, task-specific type of training, the more effective it’s going to be.”
Although NIOSH doesn’t deliver large-scale training, it does test different approaches. One example is a program organized in Kentucky by a local trade association, a local trench box leasing company, the local OSHA trainer, and a community college to offer half-day training on the most important things employees need to know about trenching, shoring, and rigging.
The program was successful in attracting small employers, one, because it was only a half day; two, because of the cost—approximately $50 a person—and three, because the participants really liked the hands-on activities. The organizers dug a trench in the yard of the community college and a backhoe demonstrated how to rig up and safely install a trench box. “There was a lot of opportunity for discussion that participants couldn’t get online or from a manual,” says Cunningham. “Another key was that all the participating organizations were already networked with small employers and as a group, they could pull together resources that made the training affordable.”
NIOSH believes that a second critical factor in effective health and safety training is breaking down information into small segments to make it more easily accessible; the goal is to reach as many people as possible with key messages. “With everybody on a construction site with a cell phone or a tablet,” says Cunningham, “we’re seeing training shifting to delivering mini bits of content, especially in the dissemination of safety information.”
One example is a three-minute CPWR animated video based on a NIOSH investigation of a 32-year-old worker who died when a trench caved in. It not only tells the story of what happened, but it also provides recommendations on how to work safely.
“We explore how we can take content that exists in lots of different places that’s really good safety training information,” says Cunningham, “then we break it down into short usable pieces. For example, although there are some very good OSHA and NIOSH guidance documents on safe nail gun use, we realize that many small employers are not going to take the time to access it and sit down and read through it with their employees.
“So we researched what the experts had to say about the most important message to get across to workers and employers, small employers especially. That turned out to be knowing how your nailer works to set it from rapid pump firing to single shot fire. We created a less than three-minute video that explains why that’s important and demonstrates how you set a nail gun to those different settings. We had it translated into Spanish and put it on YouTube. When we checked recently, we discovered it has been our number one Spanish language video.
“This reinforces the notion of short, digestible chunks of information incorporated into teaching people how to do a task. Employees don’t typically ask, ‘How do I do this task safely?’ They just want to know how to do it. So we want to try to weave in our safety message with our training message. When you’re looking to reach as many people as possible with the most essential information, the short message approach seems best.”
George Kennedy, VP of safety at the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), agrees about incorporating safety with general training. Kennedy established NUCA’s safety program in 1990 and has been teaching courses ever since. “One of the things that I firmly believe is that we don’t see enough of incorporating safety when employees are being taught the basics of how to do their job. My recommendation is to teach them safety when they’re learning how to use equipment or execute a procedure. This is easier and more effective than teaching safety as a separate learning experience. Particularly when somebody is just starting on the job. When you’re teaching somebody how to use a cut-off saw, you should be teaching them the things that they should be doing to be safe while doing it.”
Both Kennedy and Cain agree that a blended approach to training is best. “If it’s a complicated or intensive safety training program,” says Kennedy, “I believe in classroom training, as opposed to having somebody watching a monitor for half a day. I like someone there so a learner can raise their hand and say, ‘What about this?’ Having people together in a classroom setting also provides opportunities for networking and to swap experience.” When the class is over, participants take an open book test and anyone who gets below 80% gets a personal consult with Kennedy to help fills in the gaps.
“Online resources to share information are good and effective,” says Cain. “However, I have never seen research to my satisfaction that online training is superior to in-person training.” Cain, like Kennedy, likes toolbox talks to supplement original training—15-minute refresher courses to remind people about what they’ve previously learned. She also notes that training has to be customized to the situation. “Adults learn through different types of stimuli—visual, auditory, actually doing a task. All those things are self-reinforcing, and there definitely has to be a mix.
“There are lots of no-cost resources and training that contractors can do right there on the job site. We have toolbox talks and hazard alert cards that are available on our website for free. Or we’ll send them out for free in the mail. OSHA also has some very good resources that are aimed at trying to help small contractors understand the hazards and protect their workers.”
Earnest takes it a step further: “We’re [walking] with CPWR—we don’t have the data on this yet—about whether there’s a boost to knowledge if you have an accompanying micro-game on a cell phone that employees can play after they’ve engaged in a toolbox talk to reinforce the topic with some decision-making. The idea is to teach people to make decisions based on the information they’ve been presented.”
When it comes to training, says Earnest, especially online and self-paced training, it all boils down to the quality of the product. “With some kinds of self-paced learning, the employee scrolls through the information and they’re done. There are other programs where there are knowledge checks or quizzes or tests embedded throughout that the employee has to complete in order to move on to the next module.”
It’s about engagement, says Earnest. “The more interactive the programming, the better the learning will be. And that varies with how much time is invested. If you want to be able to check a box and say everybody on my crew was exposed to this information, so they’re trained, a program that you can scroll through quickly satisfies that need. But if you want to ensure that people actually learn something, then you want to do your homework and find programs where those knowledge checks or test results can be viewed and verified.”
Everyone agrees that for small employers particularly, the number one message is to look for help—OSHA, NIOSH, CPWR, trade and professional associations, insurance companies that provide free safety training or free safety inspections and consultations. Take the time to look around to see what applies to your organization and use it. It’s much more efficient than trying to tackle it yourself.
NIOSH, for example, is in the process of finalizing 55 revised toolbox talks, two-page documents that can be printed and circulated around the job site about raising awareness and how employees should address hazards with their employer. The approach is largely graphics, says Cunningham, with minimal text. “The intent is to begin a conversation. ‘Let me ask you some questions.’ Or, ‘Tell me what you think about this.’ Or, ‘Give us some examples from your experience.’ That’s just one simple way that a small employer can start to evaluate whether his employees understand what they need to do to be safe.”