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Three to Zero: Driving down construction fatalities

Driving down construction fatalities

By Fred LeSage, Construction Risk Engineer

Three. That’s the average number of daily construction fatalities in the United States. Three per day. And that’s three too many.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of 4,674 worker fatalities in private industry in 2017, their latest data, 971 or 20.7% were fatalities in construction. In other words, one in five worker deaths last year were in construction. Since 1992, daily construction worker fatalities have averaged about three per day, except between 2009 - 2014 when construction activity was in a downturn. Now, at a time when construction activity is abuzz, it’s time to sharpen our safety focus to assure no uptick in the number but, to also drive that number down to zero. Even in an industry that is inherently risky, we should always aspire to do better.

Culture, not an afterthought
Safety in construction has come a long way from the early days of building our cities, towns and infrastructure. Risk management has become a focus in an industry with extremely high risk. Because of the commitment of the construction industry to worker safety and dedicated safety professionals, safety programs have become part of the culture, instead of an afterthought.

And construction safety programs have continuously improved. Safety professionals measure safety on many levels to reduce incidents, accidents and fatalities. The success of a safety program is determined using OSHA and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics data such as Total Recordable Incident Rate, Lost Time Incident Rate and Days Away Restricted or Transferred Rate, to name a few. Years of tracking and measuring safety have facilitated the development of OSHA standards and the improvement of safety programs through modification and enhancements. Tracking specific injuries such as trips, slips and falls, falls from height, sprains and strains, struck by’s and fatalities determine where the focus of safety should be within a corporation or specific project.

Behavioral-based safety has also empowered the on-site workers to contribute and drive safety for their benefit and the benefit of their fellow workers. Plus, many injuries have been reduced due to safety equipment, processes and procedures specifically designed to target managing outcomes. Although progress has been made in many ways, for over 25 years the number of fatalities per day still averages three.

Changing challenges
Construction is inherently risky. Depending on circumstance, construction projects are constantly changing. Work schedules and specifications are modified as needed and worker experience varies. These changes create adjustments and confusion that can distract, even momentarily, workers from safety protocols and procedures.

Likewise, in today’s competitive construction market, the talent shortage and the industry’s aging workforce pose additional safety risks. (Read Gary Kaplan’s Constructive Conversations column - Helping clients tackle the labor challenge – to learn more.)

Construction isn’t the only industry that’s had to face safety challenges head on. Consider the auto industry. According to the National Safety Council, in 2018, an estimated 40,000 people lost their lives to car crashes in the US – a 1% decline from 2017 (40,231 deaths) and 2016 (40,327 deaths). Despite the 5-digit numbers of fatalities, the industry has taken an aggressive stance to reduce fatalities.

Volvo, for one, says it is “Aiming for Zero” by using knowledge and technology to create more sustainable and safe personal transportation. According to Volvo President and CEO Håkan Samuelsson, “Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.” Volvo plans to reduce the number of people who die every year in road traffic accidents by focusing on safety, people and quality.

Similarly, the construction industry’s focus on safety, people and quality seems to be a reasonable path to achieve zero fatalities.


" Behavioral-based safety has also empowered the on-site workers to contribute and drive safety for their benefit and the benefit of their fellow workers. 


Hone in on safety 
OSHA statistics show that four of the leading causes of construction fatalities made up 59.8% of all industry deaths. Leading causes of construction fatalities include:

  1. Falls - 381 (39.2%)
  2. Struck by Object - 80 (8.2%)
  3. Electrocutions - 71 (7.3%)
  4. Caught-in/between* - 50 (5.1%)

*Category includes construction workers killed when caught-in or compressed by equipment or objects, and struck, caught, or crushed in collapsing structure, equipment, or material.

Eliminating these four will automatically reduce fatalities from three to two, and statistically closer to one.

Of the top 10 reasons for OSHA citations, eight – those in bold – can be directly associated with these four leading causes of fatalities:

  1. Fall protection, construction
  2. Hazard communication standard, general industry
  3. Scaffolding, general requirements, construction
  4. Respiratory protection, general industry
  5. Control of Hazardous Energy (lockout/tagout)
  6. Ladders, construction
  7. Powered industrial trucks, general industry
  8. Fall protection - training requirements
  9. Machinery and Machine Guarding (general requirements)
  10. Eye and face protection

All of these causes have many programs, processes and procedures currently in place to protect workers. To boost safety efforts, a thorough review of the system and processes will determine the cause of previous failures and identify critical gaps focusing on the human factor that can help us understand. Given all is known about these cause factors and ways to prevent them, we still average three deaths a day in construction. 

The people part
Even more important, construction colleagues on every level need to assume more responsibility and become more proactive with safety. 

Corporate commitment to fail-safe. It starts with leadership. Asking a worker to do the right thing to manage safety on a jobsite cannot always be expected or controlled. Workers don’t cause accidents; they trigger the conditions necessary for the failure. 

Understanding that safety is not the absence of accidents; and the presence of defenses changes the emphasis from” fixing the worker” to controlling the failure.

According to Dr. Todd Conklin, an internationally recognized expert in Organizational Culture, Behavior and Human Performance, “Accidents are unintentional deviations from expected behaviors; what needs to be managed is the capacity to fail.” Dr. Conklin challenges leadership to take the responsibility within their safety program that ensure not if, but when an incident occurs, there is an additional fail safe as a method of prevention.

Commitment to the fail-safe must come from the corporate level to ensure three things:
1. Safety first
2. People are the priority
3. Quality and continuous improvement

Leadership makes safety a priority. Every individual on a project has the responsibility to project safety. That said, the leaders on that project must take a pro-active approach and be accountable for the entire workforce. Leading by example will establish the safety culture required for zero injuries or fatalities. Encouraging personal responsibility and setting expectations will align the team and set up the project for a successful outcome. Providing safety leadership through education and training has proven effective to ensure safety awareness is the number one priority.

Commitment to project safety as a priority is accomplished with these three things:
1. Vision
2. Communication
3. Collaboration

Be the leader that refuses to accept injuries or fatalities and become the success story.

On-Site Workers need to be empowered. Let’s not forget individual responsibility to safety. We constantly consider our personal safety and the safety of our children, homes, cars and the list goes on. So why take a risk that could have catastrophic outcomes on a construction site? It happens; construction workers cross the line from safe to unsafe because it’s been done many times before and the risk seems low. The components for an accident to occur are always around us. It is up to the individual to take responsibility for project safety. 

Every worker has the responsibility and is empowered to contribute to project safety in these three ways:
1. Being accountable for yourself and others to make the right decision
2. Training and following established policies and procedures, including wearing your personal protective equipment (PPE)
3. Providing feedback; if you see something, say something

Embrace safety and the culture by not taking risks at the expense of anyone, including yourself.

Committing to Zero
Like the auto industry, the construction industry needs to aim for zero. Given new technologies and data that helps us hone in on where the improvements need to be made, we can do it. It’s achievable. 

Committing to zero, which begins at the corporate level, supported by project leadership and the on-site worker, will move the needle in the right direction, downward to zero. Preventing fatalities is accomplished by eliminating one at a time, committing to the fail-safe and continuous improvement with a proactive approach. 

One fatality is too many. It’s time to make the necessary changes to contribute to the reduction of construction fatalities from averaging three per day to achieving zero.

About the Author
Fred A. LeSage, CRIS, is Senior Construction Risk Engineering Consultant for AXA XL’s North America Construction team. He can be reached at


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