One thing is clear: construction continues to be one of the most dangerous industries in the world. For example, in the United States, an astounding one out of every five deaths in the workplace is due to a construction accident, according to statistics published by the country’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In 2019, 1,071 workers in the U.S. alone died doing construction work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that almost 10 out of every 100,000 construction workers are killed on a construction site - each year.
The above statistics are sobering reminders of how hazardous construction work can be. It should not be surprising that there needs to be an emphasis on machine operators, given that they work with equipment that is often innately hazardous. Furthermore, they often work in hazardous or difficult locations (for example, at heights or in confined spaces) or in bad weather, which only heightens the risk.
Fundamentals: that is the key word for this article. The focus here will be on six fundamental practices needed in order to improve machine operator safety on construction sites.
Perhaps most fundamentally, there needs to be a safety management system in place. This can be a standalone system or form part of a construction site’s environment, health and safety (EHS) or further-reaching risk management system. For any management system, the best bet is to base it on the well-known Deming or PDCA Cycle, based on the principle that any system works best with a Plan-Do-Check-Act/Review or PDCA Cycle.
The beauty of the PDCA Cycle is its sheer simplicity, as evident in the diagram below provided by a Taiwanese construction company. As illustrated by the diagram, a PDCA cycle can be used to manage virtually all operation components and steps, including safety. Source: Jen Yi Construction (Taiwan)
Safety training of all machine operators on a construction site is critically important. And that includes sub-contractors. The principal contractor has a duty of care to ensure that all machine operators on a site have been properly trained in the safety aspects of their work. This can be achieved by verifying training already done, or, in the absence thereof, ensuring that it gets done before work commences.
The importance of proactive safety training versus a one-fits-all approach for machine operators must be stressed. That is because machine operators often work with specialized equipment or machinery. Task-specific training for operators of mobile equipment on a construction site or lifting equipment operators are just two examples of this type of training.
Construction is an industry with various hazards that may require additional protection for machine operators, beyond the reasonable safety measures provided. That is why PPE needs to be provided to operators in accordance with the risk profile of a given task, albeit always as a last resort and after all other controls have been considered.
More typical examples of PPE for machine operators on a construction site may include:
- Hard hats/helmets
- Protective gloves
- Hearing protection
- Safety boots
- High-visibility vests (for night work or work on public roads or spaces)
- Full face shields (for operators who do cutting, grinding or chipping work)
- Respiratory protection (for work in a confined or underground space)
- Fall protection equipment (for operators working six feet above the ground)
Technology / AI
Technology, including the use of artificial intelligence (AI), is increasingly being used to improve safety on construction sites. For example, robots embedded with AI are being used to conduct inspections on construction sites. Robots can also be used to gather site-wide data and monitor prevailing conditions that can help make the working environment safer for operators.
AI can help ensure greater safety for machine operators with wearables. Gear such as hard hats, gloves, safety vests and work boots can be outfitted with devices such as sensors, location trackers and Wi-Fi - to monitor operators and to ensure safety. Wearable devices can also be used for biometric factors such as heart rate and body temperature, which can detect if a worker is suffering from exhaustion or heat stress.
Good maintenance of all machinery and equipment equals safer construction machine operators. This is a logical deduction: well-maintained machinery and equipment are less likely to be defective, which means operators are less likely to suffer harm due to such defects. Maintenance scheduling needs to be proactive, not reactive, i.e. the maintenance regime must not ‘kick in’ only when defects or problems arise with machinery.
Predictive maintenance (PdM) can make a difference too. This type of proactive maintenance hones in on the ‘lifespan’ potential of equipment, focusing on signs of deterioration, anomalies, and allied equipment performance issues. This is both a smart and lean approach, in that it limits maintenance to only those times needed to ensure that equipment remains viable and fit for use.
Last but not least is the critical importance of sound communication throughout a construction site. Beyond project management factors such as meeting project milestones, sound communication is needed to ensure safety on a site. One option is a ‘smart pull’ broadcast model, where key information - safety-related daily briefs for example - is always shared in a central location that is openly accessible to everyone on a project.
Importantly, communication must be open to include feedback provided by machine operators. After all, they are invariably on the ‘front-line’ and can provide first-hand insights into possible safety defects or looming issues on a site.
Any construction site manager knows that safety doesn’t happen without sound planning and strict adherence to safe work procedures by all. As outlined above, having the fundamentals in place ensures that machine operators are able to work at their best on a site that is safe and risk-averse.
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