The evolution of construction safety

Not even 100 years ago, there was an alarming acceptance that people would almost certainly die on large and risky projects.

By Henry Nutt June 5, 2019

It’s sometimes hard to believe how much the construction industry has changed over the years, particularly in the area of safety. Not even 100 years ago, there was an alarming acceptance that people would almost certainly die on large and risky projects. The original Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge projects, for example, both completed in 1936, included 39 combined deaths over a four-year period.

What’s interesting is when you read the stats, the reporting describes those numbers as acceptable, considering the schedule and the cost to build those structures, but anyone actually working in the construction field (like myself and many others) will see it very differently. Those lives were someone’s father, brother, son, uncle or friend, and today they represent all of us (men and women alike) who chose construction as our career path. The risks remain the same, but our attitudes and approaches to our work has not.

Recently, I had the opportunity to comment on a study done by Dodge Data & Analytics, published in the Construction Business Owner, which reveals ways for contractors to improve safety on their projects and their companies. Studies and articles like these are important and equally encouraging to see because they emphasize directly and indirectly the importance of one life loss is one life too many.

This all means how we prepare our employees matters now more than ever. Just today I hired a new employee and his first order of business before any work gets installed will be to go through our orientation process with one of our safety professionals. Not only will we ensure he has the proper PPE and training, but observe his attitude towards safety and the work he is about to engage in. We ask ourselves, is he ready or will he be a risk that we need to pay closer attention to? This approach allows our teams to mitigate issues we may normally overlook and recognize only after an injury occurs.

Lean practices have also played a large role in our ability to mitigate injuries. We must consider not only how work gets installed, but where it gets installed as well. If we allow our most important assets (our employees) to consistently place themselves in risky situations, and wonder why they’re getting hurt, we have failed them. Whether we want to admit it or not, how and where work is performed is our responsibility as much as it is theirs.

For example, it’s standard practice to wear protective eyewear when drilling overhead. Most companies and employees will comply, no problem. However, what if there is a way we can remove a significant amount of the overhead work all together? We then not only reduce the risk of an eye injury, but also prevent shoulder and wrist fatigue, which may can lead to further injury. We do this by changing where the work is performed to a controlled work environment with optimal working conditions that place no extra stress on the worker’s body.

Falls are another area of concern. Though they still represent a significant portion of the injuries and deaths on construction sites, they also present opportunities for prevention. These opportunities again lie in a company’s approach to their work. If we can seek new ways to perform the same work, like considering modular structures, prefabrication and incorporating collaborative partnerships with major trade partners, we give ourselves a chance to make a positive impact.

Like anything important, the journey getting there is not an easy one and it takes many people bound by like minds and common goals to pull it off. This requires even those who may never touch a tool to listen to those who will, and those who will must be willing to engage the engineers, designers and architects about the risk that may possibly be reduced or prevented, even before one piece of steel is driven into the dirt.

Although we have still have much ground to cover in the area of creating safer construction sites, I am grateful for the advances I see every day. From implementing Lean practices and prevention through design into our projects to the investing in training and hiring safety professionals to encourage safe best practices, the industry as a whole refuses to accept the idea that one accident is okay.

As we trudge along collectively seeking better ways to keep our employees safe, let’s all remain mindful of the hazards they still face each day. It’s not just the least we can do to build and maintain better teams, it’s also our responsibility and should remain our commitment for the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared on Southland Industries’ blog, In the Big Room. Southland Industries is a CFE Media content partner. 

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: As Sheet Metal General Superintendent for Southland’s Northern California Division, Henry Nutt is responsible for managing shop and field staff, assisting with project scheduling, personnel assignments and training, managing tools and equipment and project safety, as well as interfacing with the unions. He is directly involved with Southland’s lean construction delivery method, also is an instructor and frequent participant at the Lean Construction Institute’s quarterly trainings and an instructor at the annual LCI Congress seminar. Mr. Nutt sits on the Lean Task Force for both SMACNA and the Association of General Contractors (AGC). He has several published articles written on the topic of construction innovation. As a mentor for students, Mr. Nutt is also very involved with CityBuild, a non-profit organization that prepares underprivileged San Francisco residents for employment in the trades.