When the numbers on traffic fatalities were released for 2015, there was a public outcry about the dramatic increase in crash-related deaths. The numbers left many people scratching their heads, but some analysts offered a simple explanation for the increase – the economy had improved, more people were driving and, therefore, there were more deaths.
The same phenomenon that contributed to the traffic fatality increase has also affected the construction industry. Amid a growing economy and a construction boom, more people are dying on construction sites. The number of construction worker fatalities in the United States in 2015 was the highest since 2008, eerily mirroring the same trend of road fatalities.
There are many parallels between the rise in construction worker fatalities and crash-related deaths. The improving U.S. economy and an increase in activity are the most obvious. But these two factors have failed to fully explain either problem. Road safety advocates cite an increase in distracted driving as a culprit in the increase in road deaths, while a lack of emphasis on worker safety is clearly a significant factor in the increase in construction fatalities.
Yet, the outcry that followed construction-related fatalities is nowhere near as loud or as fierce as it was for road deaths. While that’s understandable – after all, more people travel in cars than work on construction sites – it doesn’t help us solve the incredible problem facing construction workers.
There are many possible explanations that can help us understand why construction workers are being injured at such an alarming rate. For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on three interconnected causes – lack of safety precautions, misclassification of workers and a construction worker labor shortage.
Unsafe Construction Sites
Construction sites often make for dangerous work environments. But many of the incidents that lead to construction worker injuries are both predictable and preventable. Injuries are more likely to occur when there is a lack of safety training and a lack of oversight. They are also more likely to occur on non-union sites and in projects handled by smaller construction companies.
Contrary to popular belief, construction worker deaths are typically not due to a 30-story fall during construction on a new skyscraper. They are often on smaller sites managed by smaller construction companies. Investigations conducted by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that 67 percent of construction worker deaths occurred on smaller-scale projects, as opposed to large-scale projects run by big construction companies.
Workers are Misclassified
To save on costs, some construction workers rely on day laborers to complete projects. These workers are not given adequate training, and they are not granted the same pay or benefits as construction workers, even though many of them do some of the same things unionized workers do.
Though several states have laws that require construction companies to classify workers appropriately and train them accordingly, it is common practice to rely on laborers who are considered contractors. The use of “non-skilled” workers who haven’t received adequate training makes a construction more dangerous for all workers.
A Labor Shortage
Any time demand picks up after a lull in production, like it does during a recovery from a recession, an industry will often struggle to find enough workers to fill their labor needs. Construction companies are finding plenty of work these days, especially in markets across the country where new homes, apartment buildings and offices are in high demand. But they are struggling to find enough skilled workers to meet those demands.
There are approximately 200,000 unfilled construction worker jobs in the United States, a number that has jumped dramatically over the past two years. This means that more companies are relying on inexperienced, temporary workers. That presents yet another danger on construction sites, because temporary workers are twice as likely to die on the job when compared to their more experienced counterparts.
These three factors are deeply connected to one another. They point to an industry that is hastily taking measures to meet their market’s demands at the expense of worker safety. The problem can be addressed, at least in part, by increased oversight and more unionization of construction workers. When a company isn’t held accountable for breaches in safety protocol, they will, not surprisingly, be less likely to place an emphasis on construction site safety.
While the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, we must reduce the number of casualties we suffer. This is as true in the construction sector as it is on our roads. As safety advocates and lawmakers look for ways to protect motorists from injury and death, we should ensure that the workers that build our roads, our homes and offices are also given the attention they deserve.
John Tucker has been working alongside workplace injury attorneys for years in his role of Director of Claims Management at Kaplan Lawyers PC.