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US safety campaign seeks to prevent falls at construction sites

By John Stodder

The 335 followers of @NIOSHFACE on Twitter got some grim news on June 15: A report that a plumber died when he fell from the second floor of a building.

The links posted with the tweet reveal that the fall, which took place two days after Christmas in 2010 but wasn’t reported to the U.S. government until this spring, was avoidable. The plumber, a 58-year-old Hispanic man working at a California construction site, stepped from a concrete section of the second floor onto a piece of plywood. Because another worker had just removed a vertical brace beneath it, the plywood gave way. Three days later, the plumber died in a hospital.

As part of the U.S. government’s two-year education campaign to reduce deaths and injuries from falls on construction jobs, which began in April, every construction-related death from falling is noted to followers with a tweet.

The campaign is a collaboration of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Center for Construction Research and Training.

In 2010, according to NIOSH, more than 10,000 construction workers in the private construction industry were injured in falls, and another 264 workers died from their falls. The safety researchers focused on the 255 deaths that resulted from falls from higher floors to lower floors, or from any apparatus, such as a ladder or scaffold.

Dr. Christine Branche, principal associate director of NIOSH, said the institute had a particular interest in reaching residential contractors.

“Big firms tend to observe best practices,” Branche said. “They use fall-prevention equipment, they work at proper elevation.”

But, she added, OSHA data shows that smaller and even mid-size contractors tend to cut corners. At their sites, “You’ll see creativity and jury-rigging,” she said.

Most fatal falls are preventable, Branche said, if the contractor does three things — plans ahead, provides the right equipment and properly trains workers.

For example, campaign videos and fact sheets urge contractors to take pains to ensure that wherever a ladder is placed, it is anchored in several different ways, at both ends. It must be sized properly and must extend 36 inches above the point the worker is trying to reach. It must be angled properly, and must not be placed near doorways or windy spots. It must be continually inspected for cracks or weakened joints, and moving it to another spot requires restarting all safety checks and practices.

In short, no “creativity and jury-rigging.”

For small construction firms, the time spent on safety measures may raise the cost of their work. That’s a corner-cutting incentive.

Before NIOSH’s campaign was launched, Branche and Pietra Check, a NIOSH health communications specialist, worked with the CPWR to conduct 15 focus groups of residential construction workers with small companies in four cities. One finding stood out: Tactics of fear would not be effective.

Nevertheless, the writer of the headline for the resulting brochure and campaign couldn’t resist invoking fear: “I worked construction for 10 years before my fall. It shattered my body and my livelihood: Work Safely. Use the Right Equipment.” The campaign combines two concepts that emerged from the focus group, Check said: It speaks to construction workers as professionals, and it focuses on solutions.

To ensure credibility, said Check, those delivering the message are peers.

“What [focus-group participants] wanted were solutions,” she added. “Even though they all knew at least one person who had fallen if they hadn’t fallen themselves, when death and disability was thrown up, they thought, ‘I fell, and I’m still alive.’ They wanted a real accurate message about what to do to prevent it.”

Both Branche and Check wanted to build their campaign on the science and engineering of fall prevention.

Thus the campaign so far is neither sexy nor particularly memorable. But the researchers assert that appearing credible and serious outweighs “Mad Men” appeals to subconscious wants and needs.

They are selling substance, not image.

The contractors in the focus groups responded well to the tagline, “Safety pays, falls cost,” Check said.

“These were contractors who said, ‘I don’t mind OSHA coming to my site. I don’t have anything to worry about,’” she said. “The general sentiment was, contractors who use safety as a way to undercut in bidding were contractors of poorer quality construction.”

Check said when she and her husband wanted work done recently on their house, her involvement with the campaign made them aware of the need to hire a contractor who practiced fall prevention.

“There could be a tremendous cost if a worker fell on my property, depending on the type of fall,” she said.

The NIOSH campaign will be distributed, mostly electronically, through the construction industry, its state and local associations, and others, Check said. There is a Facebook page, though at this point it has drawn little interest.

According to Branche, the first year of the campaign will be evaluated through more focus groups and surveys of the campaign’s partners in the construction industry.

“The results of these evaluation measures may influence how we proceed in the second year,” she said.

“We wouldn’t be promoting these practices if we didn’t feel they were important for contractors, to protect their workers, to get through a day on a construction site without injuries and fatalities,” Check said.

John Stodder is the roving Web editor for The Dolan Co.

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