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COMMENTARY: Construction safety becoming a valuable U.S. export

Posted On: Mar. 11, 2012 12:00 AM CST

U.S. exporting construction safety

I was surprised to learn when visiting Vietnam with my wife in November that construction safety is a key U.S. export to the country we once warred with.

There is a high-rise building boom under way in Vietnam, with numerous construction cranes towering over the country's cities accompanied by indications that international contractors had brought their aggressive safety programs with them.

One Ho Chi Minh City hotel development site, for instance, had a massive “safety first” banner draped across the construction project. The English-language banner raised my curiosity while I was passing by the site in a cab.

So later, while on foot, I elbowed my way onto a Japanese Embassy building site where all the workers wore hard hats and reflective vests, signaling consistent safety enforcement across the entire construction project.

It wasn't long before I was standing before a friendly Vietnamese safety engineer who barely spoke English but was able to explain that all workers on the site must attend daily and weekly safety briefings.

Vacation over and back at work, I called Richard King, senior vp of construction in Denver for global engineering and construction company Black & Veatch Corp., and a highly regarded member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, to discuss union involvement in U.S. workplace safety programs.

But I learned that Mr. King's employer is building a coal-fired power plant in Vietnam, so we digressed.

“It's been a philosophy of our company that when we go abroad to do construction, whether it's Vietnam or Indonesia, Thailand, Africa or wherever, we always export our safety programs,” he said. “The disruption of a serious accident on a job, besides (the loss of) life and limb, has the same financial impacts.”

It also has become “fashionable” for overseas construction-site owners to demand safety programs that incorporate formal U.S. or British standards, so more foreign construction request for proposal documents require them, Mr. King said.

“They demand that that technology be exported, and Vietnam isn't any different,” Mr. King said.

The overseas construction project owners also prefer to place many of their safety engineers on job sites so they learn those safety standards from Americans and other foreign counterparts.

That means U.S. safety programs are helping our companies compete overseas with an export that not only helps deliver a profit, but also keeps workers worldwide out of harm's way so they, too, can go home injury-free at the end of their workday.

There is also a bit of irony to this construction trend in Vietnam.

Decades ago, we went to war under the Domino Theory, a belief that if we didn't stop communism in Vietnam it would spread to the rest of Southeast Asia and then the world beyond.

Now we are helping former opponents spread some market-driven practices across their country.