OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Accident “prevention through design” coming to construction industry

09/17/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A major new initiative is under way within the construction industry that challenges decades of tradition in which architects and building designers paid little attention to safety issues in construction, and the movement may become a core aspect of popular new “green” construction concepts.

Construction employs about 7 percent of the nation’s workforce, experts say, but accounts for more than 20 percent of occupational related deaths – more than 1,000 people every year.

As the United States approaches the 40th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has yielded major improvements in worker safety, some researchers and other safety experts say it’s time to take the next step – what they are calling “prevention through design.”

“There’s a long history in the construction industry of architects and building designers leaving construction safety up to the builder or contractor, saying it wasn’t really the architect’s concern,” said John Gambatese, an associate professor of construction engineering at Oregon State University and one of the research leaders in this new movement.

“It may seem strange that safety considerations in building construction and maintenance have typically not been a driving force in building design,” Gambatese said. “Some of this dates historically to the separation between owner, architect, contractor, maintenance and construction worker.”

“There are also legal and liability issues that give some people problems when you start to blur these lines,” he said. “But there are a lot of ways we can improve construction safety with this approach.”

The general idea is to prevent a hazard from occurring through better building design, rather than wrestle with the danger on the job site. And one approach, Gambatese said, is to incorporate design safety into the increasingly popular concept of green construction.

“The basic concept of sustainability has a social component to it, so safety of construction and maintenance is a natural fit,” he said. “Right now, however, the U.S. Green Building Council that certifies sustainable construction standards doesn’t explicitly consider construction safety. One project in Las Vegas that earned a high level of certification had six construction workers die on the job in an 18-month period.

“Right now the level of safety in sustainable construction is no better than with conventional construction, and we hope to change that.”

Another boost, Gambatese said, may be federal support. He and other officials are working now on a possible executive order that may be considered by political leaders, outlining a new strategy that would incorporate safety issues into many areas of federal building design. Gambatese is consulting regularly with both private industry and labor organizations that see the benefits of improving safety with no long-term increases in cost.

Construction has always been a dangerous profession, with some of the leading concerns including falls from an elevated height, electrocution, cave-in of trenches, being struck by moving equipment, and many other lesser types of workplace injuries.

“Your target rate for on-the-job injuries is always zero, but we will never eliminate all the risks,” Gambatese said. “That’s why this new approach of prevention through design is so promising, it’s something we haven’t done much with here. Some other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia are already more involved with it than we have been.”

Some of the design steps that could improve safety are not elaborate. They might include higher roof parapets to prevent falls; greater strength or guards to prevent people from falling through skylights; or organization of the building site to facilitate safe handling of materials. Where hazards still exist, designers might do a better job of pointing them out to contractors. And more elements of construction might be pre-fabricated instead of built on the job site.

Improving worker safety through building design may result in some higher initial costs, experts say, but in the long run it should be cost neutral through fewer injuries and deaths.

OSU experts are working closely with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health on these initiatives, and the AFL-CIO has issued a resolution supporting a new movement toward safety within the umbrella of sustainable construction. Educational and outreach activities for architects and construction managers are envisioned.

Research on these issues has been presented at professional conferences and in journal publications, and the OSU studies have been supported by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

“Sustainability is important,” Gambatese said. “But rather than focusing solely on energy and the environment, or striving to gain points on a rating system, designers should also develop better designs that help prevent injuries during construction, operation and maintenance after project completion.”