Eliminating or Controlling Hazards in the Construction Industry
Let's face it: Construction doesn't happen in a padded room free from all potential hazards. It happens in the real world, with very real hazards. What’s more, construction sites are busy places with many moving parts, and construction projects must all too often manage moving targets.
Apart the unexpected issues which can arise from these factors, and disregarding contracts, subcontractors, and the inner-workings of multi-employer worksites, the Code of Federal Regulations mandates a seemingly simple objective for employee health and safety in the construction industry: the elimination of hazards.
Of course, not all hazards can be entirely eradicated. Eliminating risks may be the best way to protect workers, but doing so simply isn't realistic. So must work stop? Do you scrap the project? Of course not.
Fortunately, OSHA regulations point the way toward workable solutions which allows employers to maintain compliance and protect the employee from unreasonable danger and risk.
A Systematic Approach to Hazard Control
Your safety plan won't cover every potential hazard construction workers face, but that doesn't mean you can’t adequately prepare for a variety of situations and adjust your response so as to provide the safest environment possible.
After all, that's the essence of compliance: to make things as safe as possible, not to eliminate every single safety hazard. So we begin with the application of a systematic approach to hazard control, one that OSHA supports. You can grasp this systematic approach by looking at OSHA's "Hierarchy of Controls" below:
- Elimination / Substitution
- Engineering Controls
- Administrative & Work Practice Controls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
When Complete Elimination of the Hazard Isn't Feasible
OSHA deems elimination or substitution as the most effective means for preventing worker harm. That means: (a) eliminating exposure to the hazard before it even occurs (i.e. physically removing the hazard), or (b) reducing risks by replacing a hazard with safe or less dangerous alternatives (i.e. using non-toxic or less-toxic materials, or upgrading aging machinery with new equipment).
When elimination or substitution of the hazard is not feasible, your focus will shift to engineering controls, in which you consider physical changes to the job site or project that would make the environment safer by isolating people from the hazard.
For example, you could modify the sequencing of a demolition plan in order to avoid struck-by hazards, or construct a fence around a dangerous location to prevent access.
When Physical Changes to the Job Site Aren't Feasible
When engineering controls are not available or feasible, employers should look to the application of administrative controls. This means changing the way people work.
For example, in the case of heavy equipment operators, you could put in place a comprehensive and regimented communication plan in order to ensure safety around moving machinery, implement a lockout / tagout program, or adopt policies regarding the use of warning signs, alarms, or sirens.
Personal protective equipment (PPE), while at the bottom of OSHA’s Hierarchy of Controls, is another way to manage risks on work sites. This includes providing workers with proper PPE, and adopting policies for the use of safety goggles, respirators, fall arrest systems, hearing protection, and other applicable protective equipment.
Note: Document Your Analysis of Proposed Safety Measures
Every step down OSHA's Hierarchy of Controls pyramid, starting at the top with elimination / substitution of hazards, decreases the effectiveness of any given method of hazard control. Therefore, it is important to evaluate and clearly document your hazard analysis and any proposed safety measures which may come from it. As elimination and substitution are more difficult to enact after work has begun, proactive assessment, documentation, and compliance are all the more important.
What About Multi-Employer Worksites?
When OSHA finds safety violations at a construction site or other multi-employer worksite, it isn't always clear who is responsible. But under OSHA's multiemployer enforcement policy, employers can be cited when their employees are exposed to safety hazards, even if the hazards were created by a different employer on the job site.
Under the Multiemployer Enforcement Citation Policy, employers can be cited in each of the following capacities:
- As the creating employer responsible for creating the unsafe condition.
- As the exposing employer that did not create the condition, but knew about the condition and allowed their employees to be exposed to it.
- As the correcting employer, which has a responsibility to correct the condition, usually by installing or maintaining safety equipment.
- As the controlling employer responsible for the health and safety of workers at the job site in its capacity as a general supervisor.
Given this policy, all parties on construction sites have an interest in controlling hazards. Though specifics vary, you can take steps to limit liability exposure under the multi-employer enforcement policy by understanding your duties and responsibilities at the job site before the job begins, and taking the necessary steps to manage risks under your purvey. An effective way to do this is by meeting with an experienced OSHA lawyer for advice, who can assist in conducting a thorough job hazard analysis and safety plan, and help with implementation of critical safety policies.
The Takeaway: Proactive & Comprehensive Compliance
Employers must understand OSHA’s Hierarchy of Controls is not an all-or-nothing proposition. PPE, for instance, is usually necessary. Though PPE may be one of the least effective means of hazard control, it is a form of control nonetheless – and it is reasonable and expected.
Additionally, employers should be wary of relying too heavily on PPE and administrative controls to manage worksite hazards – not only because such methods of control are reliant on human behavior and susceptible to error and non-compliance, but also because controls on the higher order of the pyramid are ultimately more effective. What’s more, it is not uncommon for construction projects to utilize the entire hierarchy of controls to achieve the greatest protections for workers, and minimal risks for violations.
Ultimately, safety on construction sites rely heavily upon employers’ ability to take a proactive and comprehensive approach to compliance. As attorneys with extensive experience counseling employers on OSHA compliance plans and representing them in matters of OSHA citations, our team at Hendershot Cowart P.C. has the insight to help construction industry clients effectively assess, control, and mitigate hazards and risks of liability.
Have questions about OSHA compliance in construction? Call our Houston-based attorneys to request a consultation.