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Safety Directors Keep Eye On Construction Sites

6 min read

Keith Broadway’s job at East-Harding Inc. of Little Rock is to root out hazardous conditions at construction sites before a worker is injured or killed.

“You’re looking at all aspect of construction, not only inside the fence but outside the fence as well,” said Broadway, who has been a safety director for 40 years, with the last 20 at East-Harding. “Fall protection is a big issue in construction, a real big issue.”

Just last month, a construction worker died after falling 11 feet from a beam and hitting his head on a concrete foundation at a downtown Little Rock construction site.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration continues to investigate the death of Erik Rivera of North Little Rock, who worked for the subcontractor Hale Steel LLC of Alexander on a $3.2 million office building project at 301 Main St. for general contractor Kinco Constructors LLC of Little Rock.

Carlos Reynolds, the OSHA area director for Arkansas, declined to comment on the case because of the pending investigation.

Having a safety director on a job site, however, could help prevent worker injuries, said Richard Hedgecock, the executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors Arkansas, the state’s largest commercial construction trade association.

While having a safety director isn’t new, “it’s much more widespread than it used to be,” Hedgecock said.

Construction companies have found having a safety director helps protect workers, saving the company money through lower insurance rates, he said. “The front-end investment is worth it to the bottom line,” Hedgecock said.

Even an attorney who has sued construction companies on behalf of workers who have been killed or injured agreed that firms that have safety directors are better off than those that don’t.

“Having a safety director who is advocating safety is so much better than the company that ignores safety altogether,” said Sach Oliver, a trial attorney and partner at Bailey & Oliver Law Firm of Rogers. “On these construction sites, we’re dealing with large equipment, where generally the injury is catastrophic or, unfortunately, death. And that’s one reason safety has to be such a high priority.”

However, he has seen companies that had ineffective safety directors. Oliver said he’s discovered in some cases that the “safety director is constantly butting heads with the project manager, the board, the owner. There’s friction, and when we see that friction is when we see unsafe results and people are getting hurt or killed.”

He said construction work has to be slow and patient. “When you’re moving around backhoes, 18-wheelers, picking up 600-ton objects, safety has to be on the forefront of everyone’s mind, not profit,” Oliver said.

Fall Preventions

OSHA’s Reynolds said falls at construction sites are the No. 1 cause of on-the-job deaths across the country and in Arkansas.

In 2014, OSHA reported 19 fatalities in Arkansas, up from 16 in both 2013 and 2012, but Reynolds said he didn’t have the numbers immediately available showing how many of the workplace fatalities were tied to the construction industry in the state.

Across the country, in 2013, about 20 percent of the 3,929 workers killed on the job were in the construction field.

Reynolds said OSHA is conducting its third year of a fall prevention campaign for construction companies between May 4 and May 15.

He said a fatal fall can happen at any height, even less than the 11 feet that killed Erik Rivera.

OSHA requires a worker who is more than 6 feet off the ground to have some sort of fall protection equipment in place. Broadway said the three approved systems are a guardrail system, a body harness attached to the worker or a safety net.

Reynolds said a worker on a ladder could be higher than 6 feet without having the fall protection equipment in place, however.

“If you’re using a ladder in its correct manner, you should not have any issues,” he said.

Dangers All Around

Falls aren’t the only dangers at a construction site. The potential for injuries surrounds the worker.

In Arkansas, OSHA found 270 violations at 116 construction companies in 2014, according to OSHA data analyzed by Arkansas Business. That was down from 290 violations at 128 construction companies the previous year.

“I want to ensure we do all what we can, use all the resources that we can, whether it’s enforcement or outreach to … ensure that folks go home safely,” Reynolds said.

In addition to falls, the leading causes of worker deaths on construction sites were objects striking employees, electrocution and becoming caught between items, OSHA said.

Hedgecock said other dangers lurk where the job site is located, such as a highway. “Think about going to work every day and having 2 tons of steel whizzing by you at 70 miles an hour all day long,” he said.

He said workers have to be aware of their surroundings when working by the highway, and drivers need to be cautious when traveling through work zones.

Another potential danger is working underground. The construction companies have to “make sure the trenches are done in a safe manner and those have very strict controls on them,” Hedgecock said.

Oliver, the Rogers attorney, represented the estate of Brannon Rhine, a 21-year-old who was engaged to be married and about to become a father when he was killed at the construction site of the Vue Apartments in Fayetteville in May 2013.

Rhine entered a trench at the project when “the walls and surrounding dirt collapsed crushing the decedent, fracturing his skull and causing his death,” according to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville.

The general contractor, Parkcrest Builders LLC of Houston, and the subcontractor, Business Construction Services LLC of San Angelo, Texas, were sued.

The case reached a confidential settlement and was dismissed in September.

Neither attorneys for the construction companies nor company officials returned calls from Arkansas Business.

Safety Inspectors

Broadway said he first conducts a thorough walk-through of a construction site. “Basically what you’re looking for is anything underground or overhead or anywhere where a hazard might exist,” he said.

The next step is to identify potential problems and correct them as quickly as possible.

He said the development and widespread use of the smartphone and tablet have made the construction site safer because communication is improved. Photos of potential hazards can be shared with workers and those hazards avoided. And the technology makes it easier to document a potential risk to workers.

Dan Vargas, the safety director at Kinco, said he visits job sites four or five times a week to make sure everything is up to code and safety standards are met.

Vargas said he has say over the safety of the subcontractor on a Kinco’s project too. “If they’re on our project, they’re going to follow our rules,” he said.

He said he couldn’t comment on the investigation into Rivera’s death. Robert Hale, the owner of his namesake construction company, also said he couldn’t comment because the case was under investigation.

Vargas said Kinco has “a 100 percent tie-off policy at all times, no matter what task you’re performing.” Being tied off means that a construction worker is tethered to the structure to reduce the chance of injury.

He said in the seven years he’s been at Kinco, there has only been one injury to a Kinco employee that resulted in the loss of work time. That happened in 2009, when a new employee was working at a Hot Springs construction project and broke his toe when the jackhammer he was using slipped, Vargas said.

The employee had been wearing his steel-toed boots, but that didn’t prevent the injury.

As a result of the accident, Kinco decided to start off new employees with tasks that are less dangerous “to get a feel for what they’re capable of.”

Broadway said construction workers welcome the additional attention to safety and there isn’t pushback from the workers.

“We all want to go home to our families at the end of the day,” he said.

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