Everybody gets hurt

July 19, 2002

No construction worker wants to lose an arm, a leg, an eye, their hearing, or be exposed to a respiratory hazard.  Most employers in the heavy construction industry recognize that personal protective equipment (PPE) can help prevent such losses, paying dividends in worker safety, security and morale.

No construction worker wants to lose an arm, a leg, an eye, their hearing, or be exposed to a respiratory hazard.  Most employers in the heavy construction industry recognize that personal protective equipment (PPE) can help prevent such losses, paying dividends in worker safety, security and morale. A much smaller percentage, however, realize the small investment in PPE also can save their companies big money by drastically reducing costs resulting from injuries, chronic health problems and potential workplace fatalities that the right equipment could prevent.

Unfortunately, this lack of full awareness on the part of some employers leads to apathy in requiring workers to don their PPE when needed. For the second year in a row, a survey commissioned by the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) of safety influencers in the heavy construction industry showed that the main reason workers do not wear PPE when needed is because “employers don’t require/enforce usage.” 

Failure to provide workers with the right PPE and make sure they wear it is a mistake that gambles with employees’ safety and health, with the bottom line and potentially with a company’s future. It is not sufficient to look at a workplace injury in terms such as: “Well, I’ll have to give this person several days off and pay higher insurance premiums next year, and this is going to cut into what I make on the job.”

Instead, when an injury does occur its impact must be considered in terms of how it damages the bottom line.

Hidden from view

Workplace injuries consist of “direct” and “indirect” costs. Direct costs typically are those covered by workers compensation insurance and disability claims/benefits. Workers compensation covers ambulance service, emergency room care, treatment by a physician, medication and hospitalization. Temporary disability benefits are calculated as a percentage of the injured worker’s lost wages.

Indirect costs include those not directly related to the injury, but which occur as a result of the injury. Because there is no such thing as a “typical” injury, these costs vary and can be difficult to determine. In most cases, they probably represent three to four times the direct costs.

Safety specialist H.W. Heinrich first tried to identify these “hidden costs” in his 1931 book Industrial Accident Prevention. Indirect costs that he identified still apply today, including:

                Cost of lost time of the injured employee and cost of time lost by other employees who stop work to assist the injured employee or out of curiosity or sympathy;

                Cost of time lost by foremen, supervisors or others to assist the injured employee, investigate the accident, arrange for the injured employee’s production to be continued by someone else, or to select, train and break in a new employee;

                Cost due to damage to machines, tools or other property;

                Cost due to interference with completing a job on time, including loss of bonuses and payment of forfeits;

                Cost to employer under employee welfare and benefit systems; and

                Cost to employer to continue wages of the injured employee in full after his/her return, even though the services of the not-fully recovered employee may for a time be worth less than normal value.

To this list one could add the costs of management time dealing with lawyers or regulators, the costs of cleanup (including waste disposal if chemicals, blood or other bodily fluids are involved), possible legal action, the potential long-term effects of an injury or workplace fatality on the worker’s family and the damage a poor safety record can inflict on a company’s reputation among potential customers and the community.

Cash recovery

Not providing workers with the right PPE and making sure they wear it can be a very expensive mistake. No prudent contractor puts a line item into contracts to cover the “cost of worker injuries and fatalities.” Instead, when an injury does occur the contractor must consider its impact in terms of the amount of new revenue that must be generated to recover lost profit.

See the sidebar on the previous page for a simple formula to help calculate the cost of a workplace injury.

In the example, the hypothetical company could have prevented the hypothetical injury with a $5 pair of safety glasses or a $10 pair of goggles. The difference between those costs and the $800,000 the company must generate to recover leaves no room for workers who are not wearing their PPE when needed, nor any acceptance of workplace injuries. Plug in your own figures from the last injury your company sustained. You will always come out ahead with properly equipped workers.

An informative brochure on this topic is available without charge by writing to ISEA, 1901 N. Moore St., Arlington, VA 22209. Ask for the brochure titled Personal Protective Equipment: An Investment in Your Workers’ and Company’s Future, or put that title into the subject line of your e-mail to [email protected].

Here are a few facts that underscore the key role PPE plays in mitigating the financial effects of workplace injuries:

                The National Safety Council reports that the average lost-time injury costs nearly $30,000. PPE not only can prevent injuries, it can lessen the severity of those that do occur;

                Workers compensation premiums are affected by injury frequency as well as severity. The more injuries a construction company has—even if they are not serious ones—the higher the company’s premiums. PPE will reduce injury frequency; and

                The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that each non-fatal occupational injury or illness among workers in heavy construction requires the employee to miss eight to nine workdays. By lessening injury severity, PPE can reduce the number of days missed.

Still the same reason

As part of its “Partnership for Worker Protection” program to increase awareness and use of PPE in the heavy construction industry, ISEA in 2001 and again this year commissioned the aforementioned surveys to find out why workers do not use PPE more regularly when needed. A firm that specializes in construction market research conducted the research.

In both years, Strategic Marketing Associates, Stow, Ohio, asked respondents for their opinions concerning 10 different types of PPE: safety glasses/goggles, face shields, fall protection, gloves, hardhats, hearing pro- tection, respiratory protection, high-visibility apparel (vests), protective coveralls and safety shoes/boots.

This year’s survey covered 213 respondents from the private and public sectors and included construction safety officers, supervisors with safety accountability, labor representatives, insurance underwriters, trade press, trade association representatives and federal, state, county and municipal officials.

Results from both years were sobering and consistent, and should serve as a wake-up call for those who are responsible for keeping workers out of harm’s way: by far the reason given most frequently for workers not wearing PPE was “employers don’t require /enforce usage.” In this year’s survey, it was the No. 1 reason cited in six PPE categories (fall protection, gloves, hearing protection, respiratory protection, high-visibility apparel and protective coveralls) and No. 2 in the other four (safety glasses/goggles, face shields, hardhats and safety shoes/boots).

Valuable advice

ISEA’s “Partnership for Worker Protection” has been in full swing for about a year and a half. The program—including Protection Update newsletter, a steady stream of information about PPE in construction publications, new literature of special interest to the construction industry and participation in construction trade shows—has been well received by those responsible for worker safety. And apparently it is having a positive effect.

Results from the 2002 survey indicate that PPE awareness and use in heavy construction are increasing. Comparing key 2002 vs. 2001 data points, the results show that:

                Awareness about PPE’s importance in minimizing the risk of accident or injury is increasing versus other measures—training/education, signs/lights, barriers/cones, flagger and OSHA compliance. Awareness about the perceived importance of various types of PPE also is increasing in real terms; and

                Use of PPE is increasing as well. Responses indicated that six of 10 PPE types (hardhats, protective eyewear, hearing protection, protective coveralls, face shields and safety shoes) showed increases in the percentages of workers who are wearing them when needed; two types (safety vests and respiratory protection) showed no change; and two types (fall protection and gloves) showed decreases.

What is coming up? On the near horizon are a special section of ISEA’s website geared toward the construction industry; a “Safety Officers Pocket Guide to PPE,” which will serve as a ready reference to equipping workers properly for various tasks common to heavy construction; and a PPE pocket reference for construction workers themselves, available in Spanish as well as English. Later on, look for ISEA and its members to play a more prominent role in construction trade shows, for more visible signs of our ongoing partnerships with construction trade associations and for a PPE/safety recognition program for the construction industry.

About The Author: Shipp is president, International Safety Equipment Association, Arlington, Va.