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  • Writer's picturergibson

Is OSHA Driving Construction Costs Up?

This article is meant to spark a constructive conversation about the construction safety industry and its affect on construction costs, without ignoring the important safety concerns essential to the construction process.  Construction can be a very dangerous endeavor for many trades and the need for regulations and oversight is necessary for job site safety.  Even though OSHA is spending more money every year and making more regulations, the overall death toll on construction sites rose from 2011 to 2015.  construction-leads-industries-worker-deaths

As a whole, OSHA is a necessary governing body that needs to be in place to protect workers from unsafe practices.  They were formed in 1971, but they did not have a major presence on commercial job sites until much more recently.  With a rise in knowledge, comes a new perspective on safety and regulations.  Since its inception, OSHA has put some very important safety regulations into law and protected many people from dangerous practices. OSHA Timeline  While it is important to separate a regulating body from the business it regulates,  many of their regulations are not only costly to enforce, but very costly for contractors to comply with.  While cost should not be spared for human life, a closer look at the direct costs of each regulation needs to be explored.

In Football, for example, new concussion protocol and new rules have attempted to minimize head injuries in the sport.  While high school and college players are not "employees", their professional counterparts are.  With the new knowledge associated with head injuries, kids (and their parents) are turning to different sports with less risk involved.  Gifted kids, and those that love the sport, are still playing football in spite of the risk because of the dream of playing professional sports and the pay that comes along with that rare opportunity.  The parallel between football and construction is this; there are risks with every career, and more with some than others.  Each individual accepts those risks when they join the workforce.  It is not possible to have zero risk in any profession, and compensations are based on each jobs risk.  This is as true for construction and football as it is for business risk in white collar jobs.  The more you risk, the higher possibility for gain and/or failure.

But Why the Lunacy? 

Some very important regulations are necessary to keep workers safe, but due to the robotic efficiencies of the 21st century, common sense has been thrown out the window.    The MSDS sheets and now SDS sheets are necessary and very helpful, but do not really tell the "whole" story.  Many products that we let our kids play with at home require construction workers to wear respirators to handle.  Materials are marked with warnings that resemble cigarette cartons.  While education is the answer, there needs to be common sense used in creating warnings and regulations.  General Contractors are intimidated by OSHA and want to avoid fines, so they make small sub contractors jump through hoops that create chaos and loss in profits.  Major General Contractors have created safety positions for job sites and created an adversarial environment where cooperation should be in place.  Many safety directors are adversarial, rather than helpful creating a hamper on productivity.


"On a job several years ago, I received a call from the "safety director"  (I will leave out GC names and job locations) stating that our crews had been ask to leave the job site because they did not have fit tests for their respirators.  I informed him that my men did not need respirators for the work they were doing and the MSDS sheets did not require them; also, they were wearing dust masks, not respirators.  He informed me (not so nicely) that my men were wearing respirators (2-strap dust masks with the N-95 stamps are considered respirators) and they could not come back without a fit test.  I asked him if I went and purchased cheep low quality dust masks could we continue?  He said, Yes.  I complained that he was telling me to put my men at greater risk with low quality equipment rather than letting them continue and he said...that's just the way it is.  Later on the same job he made us take a ladder safety class and test even though we had no ladders and were working on the floor."

My example is extreme, but not that unusual; it shows how regulations that don't take common sense into consideration can put people at risk and cost time and money.  Even though many of the safety directors (even the one in the example above) try to help, they are required to meet exact written perimeters that do not allow for any interpretation.  The industry as a whole needs to continue to push safety, but in a more user friendly way.  Trade yelling for education; in place of getting kicked off a job, make crews watch relevant training videos in the job site trailer.  Creativity has been killed with the advent of rules and regulations run by people who are far away from the actual job site.  It is time to think outside the box and create a work environment that seeks to help those who want to comply.  It is much less expensive to have a 1/2 day orientation before beginning work, than it is loosing days of work from non-compliance; and less invasive to punish workers with more education rather than sending them home.

The Money:

Safety has become a money making industry but has caused small contractors to loose profits.  Many job sites are requiring OSHA 30 trained workers on site for any size company.  Some jobs want every person to have an OSHA 10 and first aid.  While some contractors are large and need these people on staff for every job, it is a very costly endeavor for small contractors with high employee turnover and seasonal workers.  Sub contractors are pressured into low bids on competitive jobs and then required to meet standards that are designed for much larger companies.  Many companies bid projects and then discover that they will have to spend hundreds or even thousands per employee to meet tightening requirements for projects.  General Contractors and Owners do not know how costly this can be to their bottom line on each project.  The industry and its competitive nature is driving prices, but eventually the costs will make it to the overall bottom line on each and every job.

As a whole, OSHA and the new safety regulations are very needed and they serve an important purpose in commercial and industrial construction, but there needs to be a middle qualification and financial help for smaller companies who want to comply, but have found themselves in the dangerous middle ground between profitable work and compliance.  When new costly regulation are put into place, low interest loans need to be available to help companies with the costs of compliance.  In place of catching workers doing wrong and imposing high fines, why can't OSHA use its funds for discounted education programs implemented at a reasonable rate for companies to enroll in prior to mobilizing for a job.  Why can they not develop in-house training programs for small contractors to implement and  manage themselves?  I think there are many solutions to this complicated problem that could both save taxpayer money, and protect small business profits.  If safety qualifications continue to expand at this rate, the cost of construction will continue to rise and the money that should go to the workers will be forced into compliance.  This will be one more program designed to protect the same people that it is harming.

Any thoughts?  please post them in the comments section!

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