New approaches and technology aim to keep builders safe
Job site safety in the home building industry looked a lot different just a few decades ago. Back then, safety gear was mostly optional and visits from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors were infrequent. “When I was doing this in the ‘80s, I didn’t wear a hard hat,” says Ron Stafford of Denver’s Thrive Home Builders. “I just got the job done.”
Most builders cite the construction of Denver International Airport in the early 1990s as a turning point. Three workers died during the project, prompting OSHA to step up its inspections for both commercial and home builders in Colorado. Faced with the threat of citations, builders started paying more attention to safety.
Today, it’s harder to find a job site without hard hats in the state. Most builders and many subcontractors have safety processes in place. In fact, Stafford is now a senior quality assurance manager and in charge of Thrive’s safety program.
But that doesn’t mean the work is done. According to OSHA, in 2020 and 2021, at least six construction workers suffered fatal falls on the job in Colorado and three workers were involved in fatal excavation collapse or trenching incidents.
Many in the industry are looking for more effective ways to ensure builders don’t get hurt on the job. “At the end of the day, we want everyone to go home safely to their family,” Stafford says.
Here are three things builders have started doing in recent years to help.
In the mid-1990s, the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver partnered with the Denver and Englewood OSHA offices to create HomeSafe Colorado. The program gives builders training and resources to establish effective safety practices on the job site. Builders can work toward Master Builder certification each year, which requires passing an OSHA-verified safety audit and ensuring all staff members complete OSHA 10-hour certifications.
However, it can be hard to convince workers to take the time to focus on safety when every minute away from the job is a minute not spent making money. “The focus is on paying the bills, but what if you get hurt?” says Stafford, who has helped Thrive reach Master Builder status the last three years. “Then you can’t pay the bills.”
To reach more workers, Master Builders has started hosting Field Focus Forums through the HomeSafe program. The forums cover a range of safety topics and are free and open to all builders and their trade partners. Most importantly, they’re hosted on a job site, so workers don’t have to lose time commuting to an off-site classroom.
“It’s hard to get people to leave the job if they’re not getting paid,” says Dan Johnson, chair of the HBA of Metro Denver’s Jobsite Safety Committee. “The training still stops work, but at least they’re not having to drive somewhere else.”
The HBA of Metro Denver has also hosted two trench safety-focused events in the field this year, after a recent spike in trench-related fatalities. And it recently hosted its fifth annual safety fair, which occurs every fall. The fair takes place on a master community build site, in order to reach multiple builders, and includes prizes and a free lunch for workers who participate in the safety trainings and demonstrations.
Addressing safety on the job site is even harder when not everyone speaks the same language. According to the National Association of Home Builders, one in three construction workers in America, or 31.5%, is Hispanic. That’s a higher percentage than most other industries: Hispanics make up just 18.8% of workers across all industries.
It also represents a rapid shift in the industry’s demographics. Hispanics have been entering the construction field in large numbers over the last two decades. In 2001, just 16.7% of construction workers were Hispanic.
Safety programs are trying to keep up, rolling out Spanish and bilingual versions of trainings in the field and the classroom. But access is also an issue, Johnson says, because Hispanic workers often have the least flexibility to leave the field or take time away from their jobs.
“A good chunk of the labor is Spanish speaking, and they’re the ones not getting access to classroom training,” he says. “The Spanish OSHA 10-hour course is the least attended.”
Cultural differences are also a factor. Many of the workers’ native countries aren’t highly regulated and safety practices aren’t the norm.
At Thrive, Stafford’s solution is to focus on creating a culture of safety, for Hispanic and non-Hispanic workers alike. Part of that means making sure that leaders model appropriate safety behavior. “If I’m on the job site, I’m being safe,” Stafford says. “If they see all these other people being safe, the goal is to get them to think hey, I better be safe too.”
Construction safety technology has made great strides over the last several years. Commercial builders have started adopting wearable devices that can alert workers to safety hazards or even just monitor their posture to avoid fatigue or injury. Drones can fly over large construction sites to record information on potential hazards and count the number of workers present in the field.
But most home builders have taken a more conservative approach to safety tech adoption. “The commercial industry tends to lead on the technology front,” says Eric Holt, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management. “They’ve got bigger budgets, bigger projects. Generally the home building world is much slower to adopt.”
However, a lot can be done with technology most builders already have in hand: cell phones. For example, safety apps can make sure workers don’t perform duties they haven’t been properly trained on. “They can load in your OSHA training, and your device and your supervisor’s device will go off to warn people that you’re out of bounds, safety-wise,” Holt says.
Apps can also be used to record safety inspections and meetings, sharing data more immediately with all relevant parties. “A lot of builders weren’t using technology to track anything—it was all just paper sheets,” Johnson says. “An app gets that info in front of more people, and more eyes can help.”
More than next-generation technology, it might be the next generation of workers that redefines job site safety. Stafford says younger workers who don’t remember “the good old days” when hard hats weren’t around are proving to be more safety-conscious. “I think the younger generation is more open to it because it’s new to them,” he says. “Wearing a safety vest is just part of the job. I think we have an opportunity to do things better with the next generation.”