The health and safety of its employees should be a primary concern of any company and even more so with small businesses. After all, the productivity loss to a 30-man construction company losing a worker is significantly less than it is for a three-man company.
Yet in 2006, the construction industry represented the second-highest number of workplace-related fatalities in Canada — nearly 20 per cent of the total number of deaths of this kind — and it is estimated that residential construction operations with fewer than three employees represent a disproportionately high percentage of these.
What makes this statistic all the more troubling is that small outfits or self-employed contractors are serving a growing segment of the market. According to Statistics Canada, one third of construction workers in the country are self-employed, and self-employment as a whole is the second fastest growing employment demographic right now.
These are just some of the reasons that Grant MacDonald, associate professor at Dalhousie University, produced Working Safely Today for a Better Tomorrow, a study of the state of worker safety practices in the Nova Scotian construction industry.
“No one is paying attention! There is no information about safe work practices presented to homeowners when they buy lumber, rent equipment or apply for a building permit,” the report points out. “When seeking out contractors to hire, the price of the job is often the main criteria, followed by quality of the work if that can be determined at all; safety is never a real consideration.”
The report was released this past August and paints a stark picture of an industry increasingly made up of self-employed contractors who are unqualified or unwilling to employ proper safety techniques in carrying out their work. The issue was also picked up on in a 2006 study entitled Report on Fatal and non-Fatal Injuries in the Ontario Construction Industry. There, it was found that among firms with five workers or less, fatal falls were an astounding 11 times more likely than in companies with 100 or more workers.
Licensing and Education
Among the reasons that this is a difficult problem to address is the fact that much of the work by self-employed or small construction companies is done off the books.
“Safety follows you around through your whole life when it comes to workplaces,” says David Dahr, one of the lead researchers on the project and a senior Occupational Health and Safety advisor. “There’s a criteria of things that need to be understood when going through the process of hiring someone and if you don’t understand it you don’t know what questions you should be asking.”
The Dalhousie report settles on 11 recommendations to improve the safety conditions in this key segment of the construction industry. Among those suggestions, education and some kind of licensing program are at the heart of the solution.
The study points to British Columbia as a positive example of how the issue could be tackled from a licensing perspective. There, the Homeowner Protection Office demands that all builders be licensed either as residential builders or as building envelope renovators. This gives the government the ability to set industry-wide safety standards and provides homeowners with a central avenue to draw pertinent information from.
The report underlines education as the key to getting the ball rolling. A cultural change paired with legislative action will likely be needed to make a significant impact on the industry but those will only come from a greater public awareness of the issue.
“Homeowners may be financially viable, if not criminally responsible, if those working on their properties are injured,” the report notes. “This information, if put in the hands of homeowners, will help drive change.”
Other important pieces of information that might permit homeowners to make more informed decisions include: what questions to ask contractors about safety; what a construction contract or agreement should look like; and how certain commonly used tools should be used.
A Concerted Effort Will Be Needed
Given the aforementioned underground nature of self-employed construction companies, they are a particularly difficult segment to reach. First and foremost, homeowners will need to be more aware of their responsibilities as employers. With that, provincial legislatures and construction associations may be able to generate the political will necessary to impose a greater level of regulation and thus bring about significant improvements in worker safety.