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Construction labor shortage raises safety concerns

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee — As a global trend toward urbanization and large infrastructure projects looks to spike demand for services in the coming decades, the construction industry is at a crossroads.

While the industry has benefitted from a raft of advances in building design and technology, it still needs to address lingering concerns about labor shortages and construction defects. The recession decimated the construction industry and thinned the ranks of skilled workers, and worries persist about whether there are enough workers to go around as the industry's workload scales up, experts say.

“You need the right people for the right job,” said Timothy R. Kania, New York-based senior vice president for energy and construction with Liberty International Underwriters. “So you have to be concerned about the qualifications of the people executing the job.”

Many in the industry express concern about the implications of the labor shortage for worker safety.

David B. Walls, Dallas-based president and CEO of Austin Industries, said the issue of worker safety became an overriding passion for him early in his career after the father of an inexperienced worker who was killed on a jobsite Mr. Walls was overseeing confronted him with the words, “ "Why did you kill my son?' “

“The good news is that the construction industry has continued to improve its safety record over the last few years,” Mr. Walls said earlier this month at the International Risk Management Institute Inc.'s 34th Construction Risk Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. “The bad news is that it is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, still the worst of any industry.”

In addition to implementing best practices to avoid common jobsite accidents such as falls and electrocution, a world-class safety regimen must value people and be effectively communicated at all levels of an enterprise, Mr. Walls said.

“Leadership is the weakness when it comes to safety at constructions firms,” Mr. Walls said. “Most companies nail the structural processes for safety, but forget about the leadership.”

Bill Noonan, New York-based vice president of risk management at construction services provider Structure Tone, agreed that effective communication is vital to worker safety.

“The only thing worse than not having a safety program is having one that nobody pays attention to,” Mr. Noonan said. “You get the behavior you tolerate, so you have to have employee buy-in from the start.”

Effective communication is critical when dealing with subcontractors, Mr. Noonan said, adding that to be truly effective, risk managers need to move beyond email exchanges and insist on face-to-face meetings with the people on their jobsites.

“I think town hall meetings are extremely important,” Mr. Noonan said. “It's important that we invite subcontractors in to talk to us instead of just firing off a letter.”

Likewise, Frank Keres, Chicago-based risk manager with Clune Construction Co., said safety and risk management are inherently linked.

“I can't be a risk manager unless I'm the safety guy,” he said. “So, if you are a risk manager, you have to be out in the field.”

Moreover, risk managers need to leverage the expertise of their insurers to ensure they get the proper coverage.

“When it comes to worker safety, the broker/agent might be the most important person we have,” Mr. Keres said. “They can be a true intermediary and smooth communication between a contractor and underwriter.”

Nonetheless, he said risk managers looking to create a better safety culture need to be receptive to input from all quarters.

“Safety should flow from the bottom up because workers are the ones getting hurt,” Mr. Keres said. “You should be listening to your employees, not just your owner and insurance people.”

Sonja Guenther, Denver-based vice president and workers compensation specialist at IMA Financial Group Inc., said no suggestion to improve workplace safety should go unexamined.

For example, when data revealed a propensity for soft-tissue injuries and muscle strains in certain trades, such as masons, on jobsites, a relatively straightforward, low-cost resolution presented itself, Ms. Guenther said.

“We used to laugh at the idea of workers stretching before work,” Ms. Guenther said. “You wouldn't think about playing golf without stretching, so why would you allow a mason to lay brick in cold weather at 7 a.m. without stretching?”