UW Today

April 3, 2013

Safety emphasis cuts UW’s major construction injuries to less than 2 percent

News and Information

Construction can be a dangerous business, and there’s always plenty of it happening at the University of Washington, from remodeling a section of one building to refurbishing an entire building or erecting a new one.

A decade ago, when the Capital Projects Office began keeping tabs on worker injuries, it was estimated that 12 of every 100 workers were injured and lost time on the job, a number deemed unacceptably high, said Ronald Fouty, safety director in capital projects.

Laborors at work on building Lander Hall at UW.

Construction workers make progress in building the new Lander Hall.Vince Stricherz

The first thing was to raise the safety issue with individual contractors, he said. When the contractors saw the university was interested in safety, they took a variety of steps to give it greater emphasis and that alone cut the injury rate in half.

But UW construction managers wanted to do better yet, aiming for “world class safety,” and set a goal of reducing injuries to a rate of less than two per 100 workers per year. In 2012 it happened: an injury rate of 1.41.

The efforts, Fouty estimates, prevented 370 injures in the last decade.

“That’s 370 people who went home in as good a shape or better as when they came to work,” he said.

Fouty also estimates there has been a savings of $11 million in direct costs avoided in the last decade, savings both for the contractors and for the taxpayer-supported state workers compensation system. The time lost per injury has declined as well.

“It’s scary what can happen in construction. That’s the reason we had so much emphasis on planning. The best way to eliminate hazards on the job site is to think about them ahead of time,” Fouty said.

In the last few years, a hard hat has been a far-from-unusual sight on campus. The Capital Projects Office has some 60 projects in active construction at any given time, and another 200 to 250 in other stages from planning to finishing paper work.

Workers on scaffolding in the Lander Hall construction site.

Scaffolding is a routine sight on a construction project, particularly for tasks in hard-to-reach places such as this one in the new Lander Hall.Vince Stricherz

The recent decline in state funding has delayed construction on several projects that have completed the design phase. But with the Husky Union Building renovation, a UW Medical Center Tower project and various new student housing projects, the Capital Projects Office  recorded its busiest year in 2011 and second-busiest in 2012. Still, the focus on safety allowed the injury rate to continue to decline.

But there have been reminders of just how dangerous construction work can be. For example, in June 2012 the campus community held its collective breath as a seasoned demolition worker was severely hurt when a 10-by-30-foot concrete slab crushed the cab of the long-reach excavator he was operating. The man spent months in recuperation and has been able to return to work, Fouty said.

The vast majority of injuries are far less severe, and capital projects personnel have tried to “lead by example” by wearing protective gear themselves whenever they are on a job site. That includes work gloves, Fouty said, an item many construction workers were not in the habit of using but now use more routinely.

“We have seen a significant reduction in cuts and lacerations to the hands and arms in recent years,” he said.

The most common injuries now are muscle pulls and strains, but contractors are encouraged to implement a stretching-and-flexing regimen for workers before they begin their daily routine and that has helped to cut down on injuries.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity not just to get warmed up for work but to talk about the work they’re going to be doing that day and how to perform it safely,” Fouty said.

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