When construction accidents happen in the United States, the worker often takes the blame.

Companies often ask: “What did the worker do wrong?” according to safety expert TJ Lyons. Lyons believes a better approach is to eliminate the practices that lead to injuries and claims.

Lyons is a certified safety professional, occupational health and safety technologist, and construction risk insurance specialist. He has brought his expertise to construction work for more than 36 years.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) last fall released a list of the 10 most cited construction violations from October 2022 through September 2023. The top three violations were probably no surprise to construction professionals: fall protection, ladders and scaffolding.

Through his focus on redesigning the workplace, Lyons recently shared commentary on those three violations with Insurance Journal. His years of onsite experience have shown him common construction risks that he believes can be better managed by approaching them with the goal of prevention – not just protection.

Ladders Come Last

Lyons has created a system called “Lyonetics,” and the guiding philosophy of this system is going beyond protecting workers and prioritizing the elimination of risks. For this reason, in Lyonetics, ladders come last.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 22,710 ladder-related injuries in 2020. Construction and extraction occupations experienced 5,370 ladder injuries.

In some circumstances, ladders are the only option. But often, Lyons said, it’s safer and more efficient to use other tools. He pointed to scaffolds and scissor lifts, for example, and noted that if you fall off a ladder, you’ll land in the emergency room, whereas if you fall on a scissor lift, you’ll get dirty knees from the platform.

Overall, ladders are an inefficient method of doing work, Lyons said. OSHA reports that falls are the primary cause of fatalities in construction – falls cause one of every three construction worker deaths.

Still, ladder falls are down, Lyons said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2020, there were 161 fatal work injuries from which ladders were the primary source. This marked a 5.8 percent decline from 171 deaths in 2019. The BLS reported that there were 105 deaths specifically from movable ladders in 2020 and five deaths from fixed ladders.

Some contractors have moved toward worker-assembled, rolling baker-perry-style scaffolds, but Lyons doesn’t like them. When contractors ditch ladders, they may be tempted to go to the next-cheapest alternative, “and a lot of contractors right now are pretty unhappy with how unsafe these things can be,” Lyons said of the baker-perry scaffolds.

Fall Protection: Helmets Versus Hard Hats

In November, the OSHA issued a bulletin urging employers to “consider using safety helmets instead of traditional hard hats so that employees are best protected against occupational head injuries.”

The recommendation goes for several sectors, and it includes those working on construction sites, especially those with high risks of falling objects and debris, as well as impacts from equipment, slips, trips and falls.

“For decades, traditional hard hats have been the ‘go-to’ choice for protecting workers’ heads,” OSHA’s bulletin states. “Made of rigid materials like high-density polyethylene, traditional hard hats provide a basic level of protection. However, as technology and scientific understanding of head injuries have advanced, safety helmets now provide further improvements to enhance worker safety and reduce the risk of severe head trauma.”

OSHA reported that while hard hats are made of hard plastics, safety helmets incorporate a combination of materials, including lightweight composites, fiberglass and advanced thermoplastics. These materials not only enhance impact resistance but also reduce the overall weight of the helmet, reducing neck strain and improving comfort during extended use. In addition, all safety helmets include a chin strap that, when worn properly, maintains the position of the safety helmet in the event of a slip, trip or fall.

According to data published last year by the BLS, in 2021 just over one-third of construction deaths were due to falls, slips and trips. The bureau reports that almost all were from falls to a lower level and that the construction industry accounted for 46.2 percent of all fatal falls, slips and trips in 2021.

Lyons believes moving toward helmets instead of hard hats “will be tremendous as far as keeping people alive,” he said.

“Successful general contractors have adopted the use of helmets solely for the increased worker protection they provide,” Lyons said in a follow-up email. “They cost more but provide so much more for the worker.”

He stressed, however, that the American National Standards Institute Type 1 helmets “really only protect you if you get hit directly on the top of the head,” whereas Type 2 helmets protect the sides and front of the head.

In a separate interview, Bill Scott, Northeast property and casualty leader at USI Insurance Services, also emphasized the value of following OSHA’s recommendations. Going beyond the helmet recommendations, he highlighted the preventative value of smart helmets that measure fatigue and activity.

Scott said that if a beam falls and hits a construction worker in the head, a helmet will reduce the impact of the beam, but it is not going to prevent the beam from falling. If a laborer is consistently working in a restricted area considered a higher hazard area for injuries from beams, the helmet’s technology will track them and provide feedback to the laborer’s supervisors. The supervisors can then coach the laborer to avoid higher hazard areas on the jobsite.

Scaffolding: Stilts

Lyons believes scaffolding is very useful if used, installed and maintained correctly.

He said that stilts, however, which Lyons considers a form of scaffolding, are dangerous. And while they’re outlawed in some places, they are still used in many states. “The stilts do not know what state they are being used in,” Lyons said in a follow-up email, adding that the severity of a fall can be “incredible.”

According to a construction safety study published by the American Society of Safety Engineers in 2006, between 1996 and 2002, approximately 37 percent of all stilts-related claims in the state of Washington were compensable, with a median of 73 lost workdays.

Lyons recalled a memory of watching two workers install ceiling tiles. One worker had a box in a scissor-lift and was lifting them overhead to place, and the other was on stilts and being handed tiles by a worker on the floor. Lyons said watching the installer on stilts reach down for every tile was scary. Lyons acknowledged the efficiency, but he also recognized the stark difference in severity if either worker were to fall.

How Safety Can Influence Pricing

Insurance professionals understand that premiums are based on favorable loss history, and reducing claims reduces premiums.

According to Scott, contractors benefit from using a documented, systematic approach that utilizes technology and action to reduce those claims.

“If you look at any type of account out there, the accounts that get the most favorable terms and pricing are the accounts that have better claims,” Scott said.

He later added that from an insurance company perspective, if two companies have similar operations, the one embracing technology “is the one that I’m probably going to want to support in more favorable terms and pricing, and really want to be in business with.”

Matching technology to exposures and appropriate claims drivers is key, he said. Cutting-edge electronic hoists may reduce lifting strain, but if a contractor doesn’t have a lot of that exposure, it’s really of no value to them. Wearable technology measures movement, ergonomics and behavior that help reduce claims, he said. Smartphone applications that track site safety audits, and drones and cameras that capture photos of job sites also help.

Scott explained that USI shares data with clients that show how safety investments eliminate certain kinds of claims and keep workers safe.

He boiled it down to this: “If you’re going to expend a certain amount of money, but you know based off of benchmarking of data of similar risks it will reduce a certain amount of claims, you’ll invest” in those safety tools.

A Holistic Safety Approach

Craig Tappel, chief sales officer of the North American construction specialty practice at HUB International, said having clients graduating from small businesses to medium- and large-size firms with a focus on worker safety, claims and claims management is important “because that is the bigger piece of this pie.”

The client can then recognize that if they have an environment that fosters good safety practices, “where we have good work, we don’t have disruptions, we don’t get sued, we don’t have car accidents, we don’t have people falling off ladders, not only do we produce quality work on time, but we also save money,” he said.

He believes that some of the largest general contractors and largest, most sophisticated jobsites are driving some of the changes outlined by Lyons, such as no-ladder and helmet-only environments.

“We are seeing positive results where it’s mandated,” he explained. “Although a few states are talking about no ladders, there are no government mandates yet. It has to come from the top, the owner or general contractor. With wrap-ups or OCIPs, there’s centralized control, insurance buying and risk management, and the ability, in a controlled environment, to change behavior. Subcontractors have to meet these higher safety standards, or they can’t work.”

When valuing policies, underwriters are “really looking for culture and movement in the right direction and an employer who pays attention,” Tappel said. He added that “there is no one thing. It’s not, ‘Hey, you’ll get this discount if you buy chin straps.’ There’s no ‘Get rid of the ladders, and I’ll give you 30 percent off.'”

Still, according to Tappel, implementing enhanced safety measures may influence whether insurers will quote a potential account. Carriers tell him that an above-and-beyond focus on safety culture puts the underwriter “in a better position to recognize a good risk,” he said.

“Customers request clear guidance, and we try to provide it,” Tappel added. “Unfortunately, underwriters are not going to say, ‘Do this one thing, and you will get 10 percent off.’ Usually, there is no litmus test when evaluating risk.”

Final Takeaways

Scott urged brokers to “embrace and support their construction clients’ technology.” Brokers need to ask clients what they’re doing differently today than they were previously from both a process and technology standpoint, he said. Because every operation is unique, having a deep understanding of risks and claims drivers – and helping contractors address them – is also key.

“Many brokers have said, ‘Oh, that’s the insurance company’s loss control people that do that,'” Scott said. “Well, if you wait until that’s the end result and you’re not partnering up with the client and talking about it, you may be far behind on that.

“Insurance companies do a really good job in marrying up with clients, and I think there’s always a good marriage between all the parties there. But if you’re not actively in that discussion, and you’re not actively helping drive that discussion, I don’t think you’re doing your client service,” he said.

Communicating analytics to clients and insurers alike can lead to positive results, Scott said.

Sharing detailed client information, claims history and preventative measures with an underwriter, for example, can enable agents to show them how “we can get the losses down to a number that will make this a whole lot more palatable in the underwriting,” he said. “And here’s the data behind it. Let’s negotiate now and come up with something better off a model.”

*This article was originally published by Insurance Journal, CM’s sister publication.