Large-scale home builders deserve a good deal of credit for the strides most have made building not only better homes, but better managed companies. Not far from the foundations of progress, however, lies a dark and largely unspoken reality plaguing the home building industry. And that is the rising number of workers who die from injuries suffered on residential construction jobsites each year.
The latest available figures suggest that every week, three workers will die from accidental injuries sustained on residential construction sites in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As Big Builder reports this issue, of particular concern now is the rising fatality rate among Hispanic workers, who account for a growing percentage of the U.S. construction workforce and a disproportionate number of construction industry deaths.
No one would disagree that the loss of even a single life as a result of a jobsite injury is one life too many. Nor can the vast majority of home builders be faulted for not taking genuine steps to make safety as important as any procedure on today's jobsites, as indeed, so many companies have.
What is a matter of debate is how much responsibility for jobsite injuries and fatalities builders should ultimately bear; and what can be done to reverse what is clearly an unacceptable trend.
The fundamental challenge builders continue to face, primarily from OSHA, is how to get workers who don't actually work for you to comply with jobsite safety rules. Another is how to overcome the language, literacy, and cultural barriers that thwart even the best efforts to persuade the growing number of Hispanic workers in the construction trade to follow safe practices.
Until recently, OSHA has been seen more as an adversary than ally to builders in addressing residential jobsite safety. In particular was OSHA's move to come out swinging in the 1990s with the Multi-Employer Citation Policy. The policy gave OSHA enforcement officers the means to go after a broader swath of companies connected to jobsite safety violations, unnerving even the best of builders.
Compounding concerns, and efforts to make improvements, is how widely OSHA guidelines have been interpreted and how inconsistently policies have been enforced from region to region. Many OSHA compliance officers, say builders, still lack a true understanding of how homes are actually built in America. It's one thing to enforce safety procedures at a worksite where you can hire, train, remind, or fire employees. But home building is a classic unincorporated enterprise involving layers of contractors. Being held accountable for independent subcontractors is hard enough, let alone at 200 different developments, each sprawling up to hundreds of acres, across 15 or 20 states.
Fortunately, OSHA and the NAHB have been making strides to find some solutions, most notably with a new joint alliance struck in May. The early results show some promise, including new efforts to train OSHA specialists. But more is needed.
OSHA policies need to be more clearly spelled out as applied to residential construction sites and enforcement officers, not just compliance assistance specialists, need to be better educated about residential construction techniques. And the practice of automatically citing general contractors when subcontractors are found in violation without proper review should end. Most of all, new, more creative approaches need to be found to break through the cultural and language barriers with Hispanics workers.
Experience has shown Hispanic immigrants have little reason to trust the extended hand of government or big business; and that even offering training classes on the jobsite won't always get workers to act safely. The work-safety message needs to reach whole families, perhaps with the help of well-regarded celebrities in the Latino community. And builders might consider coordinated incentives with subcontractors and the crew bosses whom Hispanic workers respect.
We live in a country known for helping one another in times of loss and disaster. Sadly, we also can ignore the quiet losses to families and friends when a single worker is fallen by an accident. The industry can and should do more.