We Need Safe Places to Walk and Ride, Not Just Safety Theater

CC BY 2.0. All dressed up for construction/ Lloyd Alter

Do helmets and high-visibility vests on construction sites really do anything?

Recently we wrote about the hierarchy of controls, where the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests what should be done first to reduce injuries and deaths in workplaces. A lot of bike activists use it to demonstrate how we should stop worrying about helmets and high-visibility clothing (PPE) and do something about removing the hazards.

Queen Anne Greenways hierachy
©. Queen Anne Greenways

© Queen Anne GreenwaysI noted that construction sites are often trip and fall and fire hazards, but everyone yells about the hats and boots because it is easier and cheaper than cleaning up the site or working safely.

20 Niagara Street

20 Niagara Street/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I remembered the last project I was responsible for building, where I wouldn't let a satellite dish installer (in steel toed boots and hard hat) work because he didn't have a safety line. The minute I left, he went ahead and did it anyway. Or the drywallers who were using illegal stilts, and wanted extra money because I insisted they use legal scaffolding. The fact was, and is, that working safely slows the trades down and costs money, just as building infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists slows drivers down and costs money.

This led me to ask the question, "Do hard hats, high viz and safety boots actually work on construction sites, or are they just safety theatre?"

construction worker fatalities

© OSHA via Construct Connect

When you look at how construction workers died in 2017, close to 40 percent were killed in falls, with the biggest number of deaths (69) from falls between 11 and 15 feet. The vast majority of falls are less than 20 feet, probably because they are on house construction sites, where safety measures and supervision are most lax. According to Kendall Jones in Construct Connect,

When looking at the high number of construction worker deaths from falls we can look at some of the primary sources such as roofs (121 deaths), ladders (71 deaths), scaffolds (54 deaths), and floors, walkways, and ground surfaces (47 deaths) to better understand what caused these fatal occupational injuries.

Falls are part of what OSHA calls "the fatal four":

In the construction industry, the four leading causes of worker deaths not involving highway collisions were falls, being struck by objects, electrocutions and getting caught-in/between objects.

The next biggest cause of death were from crashes in cars and trucks offsite, then 80 were killed by falling objects, 71 workers were electrocuted and 59 died from drug overdoses or alcohol while on the job. Then the "getting caught-in/between objects"– getting struck by construction vehicles, squished by equipment, or in collapses of structures or cave-ins, which were 7.3 percent or 50 workers.

Now of course, there is no way of knowing how many lives were saved because people were not hit by construction vehicles thanks to the high visibility vests, or how many falling objects did not kill because the worker wore a helmet.

But falls are the biggest killer, and almost every single fall is preventable by having a safety harness or a proper temporary handrail, or properly built scaffolding. That's eliminating the hazard. Almost every caught-in/between death can be prevented by keeping people away from moving equipment. That's isolating the hazard.

In the earlier post, I noted that our roads are like construction sites; you could also say our construction sites are like roads, a lot of safety theater, with people putting on vests and hats and boots, but with the vast majority of deaths caused by unsafe conditions, carelessness, and haste. The next biggest killer is the caught/in between, where people and heavy machinery don't mix.

Senior Safety Zone

© Sean Marshall/ A senior safety zone, part of Vision Zero in Toronto

If we really do care about deaths on the roads or on construction sites, the same actions are required: remove and replace the hazards and isolate people from the hazard. Silly signs and vests won't do the job.

We have to decide that saving the lives of cyclists, pedestrians and seniors is something that we want to do, but just as in the construction industry there is no real incentive to slow down (it costs money) and risks are part of the business. We have also seen that there isn't any real incentive or interest in slowing down cars or taking out lanes for pedestrian or bike infrastructure. Or as one planner noted in the Region of Waterloo, "There are things that we can do for safety that would quickly reduce the number of collisions, but would be extremely inconvenient for people... I would love to be able to eliminate deaths and serious injuries, but doing that may have side effects that people don't like as much."

Whether on the roads or on a construction site, reducing deaths and injuries costs money and slows things down. We can't have that!