NIOSH talks about the future of job site safety and performance

Dr. G Scott Earnest, Associate Director of NIOSH

On June 8 at 1:00 pm, we held a webinar with a panelist of leading experts hosted and moderated by Alex Berg, CEO and founder of Cratos Equipment. Joining Alex was Ignacy Puszkiewicz and Dr. G. Scott Earnest.

Dr. G Scott Earnest, Associate Director of NIOSH

First to present was Dr. G Scott Earnest, who discussed current research at NIOSH and the future of job site safety.

Dr. G. Scott Earnest is the Associate Director for Construction Safety and Health at NIOSH. Before joining the Office of Construction Safety and Health, Scott was Engineering Branch Chief in the NIOSH, Division of Applied Research and Technology from 2005-2015. Scott has over 70 peer-reviewed publications and technical reports. He began his career as an active duty, commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers. He is a registered Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in industrial and mechanical engineering.

Dr. Earnest began by explaining the difference between NIOSH and their sister agency OSHA. NIOSH is a research agency, the only institute in the federal government that focuses on conducting occupational and safety research, working on all issues regarding health and safety.

The future of construction safety by NIOSH

The construction industry is very hazardous; even though it only represents 6% of laborers in the U.S., it accounts for 17% of the fatalities. The goal of NIOSH is to eliminate construction fatalities, injuries, and illness through research and prevention. Even though they are a research agency, they don’t just publish papers; they strive to make a real impact by turning their research into action.

NIOSH firmly believes that all employees should safely make it home at the end of each day; that is why even one fatality is one too many. Focusing on the most significant hazards helps make the biggest difference the fastest, so they focus on the Construction Focus Four- falls, caught-in/between, struck-by, and electrocution, representing about 60% of all fatalities.

Significant research efforts have gone into silica, noise, hearing loss prevention, musculoskeletal disorders and vibration, work zone safety, and fall prevention. In addition, they are always looking at what they need to do to control or eliminate construction hazards.

In addition to elimination, there are other ways to reduce risk, including substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE). However, as you get to PPE, this is dependent on human behavior, which makes it much less effective in keeping you safe and has the least amount of impact on reducing injuries and fatalities. Optimally they would consistently eliminate hazards which means designing the risk out of existence versus protecting against it.

At Cratos Equipment, the goal of our battery-powered equipment was to eliminate specific risks, including noise level, toxic indoor fumes, and the physical strain on the human body.

Preventing Falls to a Lower Level

In an effort to put an end to falls, NIOSH teams up with the National Falls Campaign and National Safety Stand-down to help generate awareness for prevention. They also provide in-depth information and resources to help conduct stand-downs within your own company and help keep more employees safe. According to NIOSH the majority of falls come surprisingly from small residential construction contractors. Their campaign aims to prevent falls from roofs, ladders, and scaffolds by encouraging companies of all sizes to plan, provide the right equipment, and train everyone on safely using the equipment. For more information on preventing falls, visit Here you can learn how falls typically occur and how to avoid them.

According to NIOSH the majority of falls come surprisingly from small residential construction contractors

According to Dr. Earnest, it looked like there had been a nice drop in fall fatalities in the past year, but it seems to have gone up once more. With numbers going back up, they are redoubling their work and looking for the root causes. Currently, NIOSH is working with the ANSI committee to focus on root causes and how to prevent injuries in falls from high elevations. In addition, regulations to ANSI Fall Protection are consistently updated to keep workers safe.

The other thing that NIOSH is doing is getting research proposals on ways to prevent falls with the future of construction work. One such proposal is robotic roofing; universities are looking at robots to put roofs on houses. Another area uses drones to conduct inspections at high elevations; why send a human to the top of a telecommunication tower when using a drone to inspect it? Once more, the future of work and advanced technologies will play a significant role in preventing injuries and fatalities in the industry.

Hard Hats and PPE in Construction

Hard hats have had a massive transformation in the last 100 years; they started as metal hats and are now explicitly engineered to protect the skull at all times, looking more like rock climbing helmets. A colossal amount of research goes into construction hats; studies look at the design, making recommendations for improving their overall performance. For example, if a construction hat stays on during a fall, it can vastly reduce the likelihood of brain injury and death for certain types of falls.

Silica Partnership Field Studies

NIOSH also does a good amount of work on silica and silica exposure. For example, they’ve worked closely with the National Asphalt Paving Association, the Federal Highway Administration, the Association of Equipment Manufacturing, laborers, and operating engineers to look at engineering controls to reduce exposure to silica produced during asphalt milling operations. In turn, OSHA reduced the permissible exposure limit based on NIOSH’s research work and standards. Additionally, they simplified the standard and regulations to make it easier for construction workers to comply. After all, if something is too complex, it discourages workers and construction companies from sticking to the protocol.

Presently a lot more data is being collected to help support OSHA in new and changing standards to help keep workers safe.

Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention

Though many people disregard the importance of noise levels on a job site, it significantly impacts construction workers. Almost three-quarters of construction workers experience noise levels above NIOSH’s recommended exposure level (REL) level. Ironworkers fare worse with the highest exposure to noise levels, as do construction workers in an urban environment. Hearing loss is the most common work-related illness in the U.S.; approximately 22 million workers encounter hazardous noise each year.

Hearing loss is the most common work-related illness in the U.S.; approximately 22 million workers encounter hazardous noise each year.

There is no exception to this as there are many loud noises on a job site in the construction industry. NIOSH focuses on developing quieter equipment; this is called buy quiet or prevention through design. Back in 2015, they made an initiative to encourage construction companies to purchase quieter equipment and for manufacturers to look for ways to produce even quieter equipment.

Electric machines provide an excellent alternative for working safely indoors; our Sherpa 100ECO electric mini skid steer has been pivotal in reducing noise levels both on indoor and outdoor job sites.

Despite the effectiveness of hearing protection like earplugs and earmuffs, they are heavily dependent on daily use and proper use. Therefore, NIOSH is working to reduce the noise level of pneumatic nail guns, jackhammers, and circular saws, as well as other equipment. If you can get to the hazard at the source and have manufacturers design it entirely out, you help more people than with PPE.

Unfortunately, unlike a fall, hearing loss happens over time and isn’t often noticed until it is much too late. Once your hearing is gone, it won’t return, causing severe quality of life issues for construction workers and their families.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) result from high physical exertion, odd physical postures, repetitive tasks, and prolonged static exertion. Therefore, NIOSH believes it is vital to focus on this highly prevalent hazard and has done most of its research on overhead and horizontal drilling. In addition, they have looked at the design of the equipment to do both overhead and horizontal drilling. The majority of equipment used, if done manually, is heavy and can take a tremendous toll on the construction worker’s body. So they continue to look to technology to help not only alleviate but to eliminate these problems.

A lot of overhead drilling can take a significant toll on the body of a construction worker. To alleviate this, NIOSH is doing a lot of research into machines that can hold the equipment for a construction worker and robots that can do the work. Many technologies are coming to fruition that will change the future of the construction industry. Right now, they are working with HILTI who is taking significant steps to make construction equipment safer.

Evolution of Construction

Construction is a rapidly changing industry, and safety has dramatically changed. Worker safety was a lot less critical in the past, but it still has a long way to go. According to leading researchers and theorists in robotics, automated machines will migrate from factories and manufacturing plants to building and construction sites. In addition, rapid technological advances will enable automated machines to perform increasingly complex tasks.

The future of job site safety

Technological advances will also help with some of the key issues in the construction industry, including- productivity, data transparency, certainty in delivering a job, and shortages in skills. Automation robotics can help mitigate each of these issues. NIOSH has a whole effort going on across many industries in the future of work and technology. They are currently working in nanotechnology, advanced materials, biotechnology, additive manufacturing, digitalization, advanced computing, A.I., machine learning (VR/AR), sensing technology, modeling, simulation, and robotics. All of these emerging technologies lend themselves to improving worker’s safety and health.

Currently, NIOSH is working with exoskeletons, that when worn similar to the ironman suit, reduce wear and tear on the human body. In addition, the exoskeleton helps to lift heavy equipment and hold it in place. Drones also play a significant role in keeping workers safe. Currently, they are testing drones, driverless vehicles, demolition robots, and how they can reduce injuries, but they are also observing how to prevent injuries. However, even the best technology, when misused, can lead to injuries, so they must establish best practices and ensure that safety is constantly improved. There is a lot of work in this area, and NIOSH will continue its research efforts to ensure that the construction industry moves toward a safer future.

It was an absolute pleasure to glean insights from Dr. G Scott Earnest, who gave us plenty to think about regarding the future of job site safety and performance.

Watch the entire webinar on YouTube: The future of job site safety and performance

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