It's day one of construction for Phoenix Self-Storage, a long-awaited ground-up development in Main Town, USA. Everyone is eager to get started. The construction crews have arrived, and the site is buzzing with excitement.
Then the unthinkable happens. Just a few hours into the day, a worker is severely injured. As panic ensues, a few level-headed employees do their best to control the situation. While some tend to the injured man, others alert the supervisor and storage owner. Someone else dials 911.
After the employee is whisked away in an ambulance, the remaining workers begin to share information and speculate on what might have caused the accident. The once-energetic worksite has quickly become fraught with anxiety and fear.
With all eyes on them, the owner and supervisor huddle to discuss their next move. Do they send everyone home or forge on? What went wrong and could it have been prevented? Should they alert someone from their insurance company or a representative from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) right away or wait until they hear how the worker is doing? Is there still risk on the site for someone else to get hurt?
No one ever goes to work thinking they'll be hurt—or even killed—on the job. Yet 12 employees, on average, die every day from workplace injuries, according to OSHA statistics. Fortunately, there are many precautions self-storage owners, developers and employees can take to ensure they don't become a number. It begins with understanding site safety and OSHA regulations, following them to a T, and then ensuring everyone receives ongoing training.
Prior to 1970, there were no national laws regarding health and safety for people on the clock. Congress established OSHA in 1971 under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was signed into law on Dec. 29, 1970. The act covers nearly all private-sector employers and their workers, and some in the public sector, in all 50 states as well as certain territories and jurisdictions under federal authority.
The agency's mission is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for employees by setting and enforcing standards in addition to providing assistance, education, outreach and training. OSHA standards are divided into four main categories: agriculture, construction, general industry and maritime. There are hundreds of guidelines, and new ones are created every year. These regulations are enforced through regular jobsite inspections, and companies can be cited or fined for violating them or creating serious hazards.
"OSHA [inspectors] can stop at a site by picking a job from a permit, a complaint or by driving by and noticing the site," says Danny Montelepre, a vice president of construction (Louisiana operations) for SBS Construction, a design-build general contractor providing turnkey construction services to the self-storage industry. "Often times, [inspectors have] sat across the street and taken photos or video of an evident violation before ever stepping foot on site."
OSHA violations often result in significant penalties for a company. "Fines usually start at $1,000 per violation and can go up depending on the severity. The general contractor can be fined for a subcontractor's violation," says Nicholas Bergmann, vice president of general contracting for Capco Steel Inc., which also supplies steel and erects metal buildings, including self-storage and boat/RV storage.
OSHA has strict reporting requirements. Companies with more than 10 employees must keep a record of serious work-related injuries and illnesses. The records must be maintained at the worksite for at least five years, and employers are required to post a summary of the injuries and illnesses from the previous year, February through April.
Who's in Charge?
While every employee is fundamentally responsible for his own safety at work, the superintendent or general contractor is ultimately in charge of ensuring the company provides a protected worksite and everyone follows OSHA rules. This person is also in charge of submitting necessary forms to OSHA in case of a site accident, injury or illness. Many companies will create a safety team and require each member to undergo extensive OSHA training. Following proper safety protocols also extends to subcontractors.
"We also require each of subcontractors to name an onsite competent-safety person to represent their company while on any of our jobsites," says Nichole Ackley, who oversees OSHA policies and procedures for Robert High Development LLC, a self-storage construction and development company. "We require a copy of every subcontractor's safety program. We also have safety managers and coordinators within our operations team to institute standards, policies and procedures."
In addition to maintaining, posting and submitting OSHA-mandated forms, the designated person or team has total jobsite authority. "Each superintendent and project manager is empowered to have the absolute authority to stop a dangerous working condition and shut down the project or task until the dangerous condition has been resolved," says Bergmann, sharing an instance in which a utility subcontractor was working in an unsafe manner while installing a large water line. "[We] immediately informed the subcontractor to get out of the trench and to not even think about re-entering it until [he] had trench protection in place."
When working with subcontractors, it might be necessary to remind them about the site's safety rules. "Ensure that subcontractors know you're serious about safety and emphasize that during the contracting phase," Montelepre says. "Many subcontractors commit infractions through a lack of knowledge of the rules."
A critical step to protecting workers on the job is eliminating hazards through what OSHA calls "engineering controls." While the term covers a broad spectrum, it essentially refers to methods built into the design of equipment, a plant or a process to minimize a hazard.
As with any construction site, there are dangers lurking around every corner of a self-storage development. Some examples are potential falls, electrical shock or falling objects. "When it comes to construction and equipment, there are a lot of potential hazards," Ackley says. "Identifying those hazards before they become issues and being proactive in your approach to your safety program is necessary at all times."
One way to eliminate potential hazards is through the use of barriers, including safety railings for employees working at heights greater than 6 feet, barricades for elevator shafts, and mandatory personal-protection equipment (PPE) such as hardhats, safety glasses, steel-toed boots and safety harnesses. "The elevator pit is a major concern. We block off the pit to keep people from accidently stepping in and injuring themselves," says Tony Cooper, president of Cooper Architecture and Design. "Other potential hazards include sharp objects, which could penetrate the sole of a worker's boot; not wearing a hard hat and receiving a head injury; falling off of a ladder; or major cuts from sharp objects on a jobsite."
Not only do workers need to be warned and protected, so does the public. "Construction fence and signage are the most effective and cost-efficient ways to make the public aware of a construction site and to maintain a barrier between construction activities and the public," Montelepre says.
The signage should always include "No Trespassing" and "Hard Hats Required," says James Bratton, founder and president of MST Constructors Inc., a design-build general contractor. He also suggests posting signs with information about the contractor and jobsite rules. "All visitors must check in, be properly dressed and acknowledge the safety rules," he adds.
Because construction sites are rife with equipment and materials, they can be attractive to thieves. To combat theft while ensuring public safety, some contractors will add a few more security layers such as video cameras or security guards. "Cameras are a great way to let people who would like to enter the site know they're being watched," Cooper says. "This will keep people from stepping foot on the site and potentially injuring themselves."
The jobsite should be properly organized and maintained at all times. This includes stacking materials, using trash receptacles, securing tools and equipment at the end of the shift, and obeying all displayed traffic rules, Bratton advises.
Finally, employees should have access to proper safety equipment—and know how to use it. A ladder with a missing rung, an extension cord sporting electrical tape over frayed spots, or missing guards on a power tool should be unacceptable. "The employer is responsible for providing safety equipment for employees and ensuring they understand how and when to use the equipment," Montelepre says.
Even a task that seems routine or harmless could, in fact, be hazardous. Ackley shares the story of an employee who dropped a fire extinguisher, which went off and sprayed him in his unprotected eyes. "Wear safety glasses at all times," she says. Fortunately, a quick trip to a nearby medical facility and an eye flushing was all that was needed.
Although safety barriers are necessary on the jobsite, they don't take the place of employee training. "Workplace safety starts with companywide safety awareness, not forms and regulations," Bratton says.
The OSHA Outreach Training Program offers a number of classes, many of which are available online and through a variety of certified companies. Although the classes aren't mandatory by OSHA, employees who successfully complete the 10- or 30-hour course receive a certification card from the U.S. Department of Labor. The 10-hour class is designed for entry-level workers, while the longer class covers OSHA compliance and is aimed at employees with some safety responsibility.
"It's critical that we have proper training within all aspects of the processes, policies and procedures of OSHA standards pertaining to the construction industry," Ackley says. "We require all of our superintendents as well as construction employees to be OSHA 30-certified so they are trained properly on safety protocol."
Every company should also have written safety policies and ensure all employees read and understand them. MST's safety manual is 16 pages long and addresses a variety of topics, such as PPE requirements, how to property use tools and equipment, and tips on fire protection. All employees are required to review and sign the form prior to working at an MST jobsite.
Safety manuals should be updated regularly as OSHA standards or company policies change. "Be sure you have a plan for the unforeseeable. No one wants issues to arise, but they do," Ackley says. "Preparedness keeps people safe. Keep your safety manual readily accessible by everyone on your site, with your plan of action clearly identified."
Educating employees on safety should never be considered a "one and done" process. "Training is the most important aspect of keeping employees safe," Bergmann says. "Daily discussions with the workers about the work they're scheduled to perform, the safety measures that are required while performing the tasks, and ensuring the employee is properly trained to perform the task are all ways employees will be kept safe."
Many construction companies host "lunchbox safety programs" or "toolbox talks." Content for these instructional meetings as well as tips on delivering the information is available for free download on the OSHA website. A number of other organizations offer safety content online as well. "One of the most successful programs for MST has been the implementation of the 'Lunchbox Safety Program,'" Bratton says. The mandatory Monday meeting allows employees to discuss various safety issues that pertain to tasks on the job that week.
Business operators who are unsure how to implement a safety program should reach out for help. "There are many consultants who'll help you develop a safety plan and do periodic site visits to help identify risk," Montelepre says. "Most of these services are reasonably priced and work to help prevent accidents and OSHA fines. Ultimately, while no one wants an OSHA visit or fine, preventing an injured employee is the real focus."
Regardless of your role at a construction site, safety is everyone's job and should be woven into everything you do. Never be complacent about the task at hand. Something as simple as using a drill or nail gun improperly could have serious consequences. And if you see something unsafe, say something. The cost of cutting corners is simply not worth it.
"There's a saying that when a fish stinks, it stinks from the head to the tail. That adage applies to jobsite safety," Bratton says. "Successful contracting companies realize the importance of workplace safety from top to bottom, inside and out."