Infrastructure, Sustainability, and OEHS
Infrastructure, sustainability, and OEHS: these are important topics, and if you’re an AIHA member, you stand at the confluence of all three.
When people think of infrastructure, often what comes to mind are roads, bridges, rail, and buildings. Sustainability summons topics such as conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and living in harmony with nature.
Construction links all these concepts, but how often do proposals to improve our nation’s infrastructure focus on construction workers? These proposals grab headlines with the number of jobs they will create, but how often do they include the additional resources that businesses and government programs will need to protect worker health and safety as the volume of construction work increases?
Against this backdrop, President Joe Biden’s recently released plan to revitalize our nation’s infrastructure represents an opportunity for occupational and environmental health and safety professionals to make significant progress. The proposal covers infrastructure in all its traditional manifestations, including roads, bridges, rail, airports, waterways, ports, and drinking water systems. It encompasses elements of sustainability, including energy efficiency, improved outdoor and indoor air quality, and building upgrades. Most notably for AIHA, the proposal also specifies $48 billion for “workforce development infrastructure and worker protection.”
Such an investment is clearly needed. As outlined in CPWR’s latest “Fatal Injury Trends in the Construction Industry” (PDF), construction remains one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S., particularly for Hispanic workers. According to CPWR, fatalities among Hispanic construction workers have increased 90 percent since 2011, outpacing the 55 percent growth in Hispanic employment in construction from 2011 to 2019. The leading causes of deaths in construction are the safety hazards prioritized by OSHA’s Construction Focus Four Outreach Training Program: crushing hazards, electrocutions, falls, and struck-by hazards.
In 2019 AIHA released “Focus Four for Health” (PDF), a guidance document that complements the OSHA program by highlighting the dire need for more attention on construction workplace health hazards. As noted in the AIHA document,
[t]he key message is that construction health risks that can harm employees and businesses are often overlooked. Just as safety risks are controlled on construction sites, health risks can also be controlled.… Health hazards do not get as much attention or effort on many construction worksites, yet health hazards, such as noise or air contaminants, are common.
Air pollution, high temperatures, manual material handling, and noise are the four construction workplace health hazards discussed in “Focus Four for Health.” The document lists three main reasons why health hazards often receive less attention than safety hazards: health hazards are often harder to see, and their effects are less immediate; relative to safety, there are fewer workplace health regulations and therefore less emphasis on health hazards during inspections; and underreporting of occupational illnesses, which are more difficult to track than injuries. Incomplete data means less attention and less action.
The document’s authors recommend a simple solution: raise awareness of construction health hazards. But simplicity does not mean easy success; a catalyst is needed.
The president’s infrastructure plan represents a focusing event for the nation, the construction industry, and OEHS. It is an opportunity to significantly increase worker protections in one of the most dangerous industries, saving thousands of workers, their families, and communities from workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. It is also an opportunity to highlight once again the value of OEHS professionals and inspire students to join the ranks of heroes. AIHA will continue working with the White House, members of Congress, and others to ensure the voices of OEHS professionals are heard by our nation’s leaders.
AIHA: “Enfoque en la salud de los trabajadores de la construcción: COVID-19” (PDF, 2020).
AIHA: “Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19” (PDF, 2020).
AIHA: “Focus Four for Health: An Initiative to Address Four Major Construction Health Hazards” (PDF, 2020).
CPWR: “Fatal Injury Trends in the Construction Industry” (PDF, February 2021).
The White House: “Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan” (March 2021).