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What Jerry Seinfeld Can Teach Us About Construction Safety

What Jerry Seinfeld Can Teach Us About Construction Safety

Famous comedian Jerry Seinfeld first made a name for himself by observing the eccentricies of the human condition.  By taking an outsider’s perspective on daily routine, he could always light-heartedly pinpoint life’s most overlooked ironies or absurdities.  In one stand-up routine, Seinfeld would humorously marvel at the research community’s drive and resource dedication to successfully convert watermelons into a seedless fruit, while major and fatal universal afflictions such as cancer or AIDS remain uncured. 

Coincidentally, the same sad irony haunts those in the built environment today.  When technological advances are propeling the infrastructure industry into the dawning of a new age of design and development, fundamental safety advancements remain unexplored as thousands needlessly die within our national borders.

The Occupational Health & Safety Organization (OSHA) estimates there to be 130 million workers spread across 8 million worksites throughout the nation.  So, when a labor quanitity of 4,628 hits the newswire, it only seems to be a comparative drop in the proverbial workforce bucket.  However, 4,628 is the number of occupational-related fatalities that occurred in the US for FY 2012 according to recent reports by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  More staggering is the fact that the number of deaths in only one year of US labor exceeds the total combined US casualties in both recent Middle Eastern conflicts; 4,486 total American casualties between 2003 and 2012 in Iraq and 2,335 total American casualties between 2001 and 2014 in Afghanistan.  In light of these troubling comparisons, the BLS stated, “the final 2012 total was the second-lowest annual...since the fatal injury census was first conducted in 1992.”  Our own workforce is silently fighting a war to survive, and America’s attention seems to be occupied elsewhere.

Despite the built envrionment being only a subset of the entire workforce, it’s a perennial front-runner for fatalities and injuries.  In fact, the built environment (i.e. construction, transportation, manufacturing, mining, power and utilities) comprised 45% of the 2012’s workforce fatalities, with the next largest sector being agriculture accounting for only 11%. With looming deadlines, emphasis on speed without sacrificing quality, the unpredictability of outside forces and adverse working conditions, there will always be variables we cannot altogether eliminate regardless of technological advances. 

However, most fatalities that occur could be erradicated by thoughtful consideration to preventitive measures.  In another report done by the BLS for FY 2012, slips, trips and falls (15%), contact with objects or equipment (16%) and transportation incidents (42%) were the biggest threats to the US workforce.  Simple adjustments to our safety plan can drastically improve mortality rates.  As stated by OSHA in regards to the construction industry, “eliminating the fatal four [(falls, struck by object, elctrocutions and caught in-betweens)] would save 437 workers’ lives in America every year.”  

The misuse or lack of safety resrouces can no longer be an adequate excuse to justify the loss of a life, especially in the technologically advanced community in which we live.  Despite major advancements in the market like commercialized drones, zero carbon footprints and portable, handheld devices, we are not altogether dedicating enough resources to develop inexpensive, functional safety equipment for mass implentation.  Why can’t the two-man roofing company afford appropriately rated fall protection?  Why is ABC Contractor still using wooden rails to protect leading edges?  Is plywood ever enough to cover multi-story elevator shafts?  How do manmade machines run by human operators still create deadly situations?

I’m not rejecting or marginalizing the progress we’ve seen thus far in making our workspaces safer.  New and innovative products available in today’s market have saved many lives throughout the years, with new advancements being developed everyday for the workplace of tomorrow.  Dupont is working on protective clothing such as Kevlar gloves and cooling vests, and young companies such as Illumagear is experimenting with new technology like hard hat halo lights for heightened visiibility.  We can categorize these great advancements as victories in our fight against workplace mortality. 

But is it enough?

Even with the endless resources the United States seem to possess, we will never reach a place where workforce fatalities will be eliminated.  But this truth should not detract from the importance of our task, nor excuse us from the responsbility.  Don’t take for granted the gift of life.  Let us protect the hands that build America, for our future depends on it.

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