Research aims to improve health, safety of construction workers

October 04, 2004

Blacksburg, Va.- In 1990, accidents were responsible for 6 to 7 percent of the world's mortality rate. In industry, the highest injury rate occurs in the construction sector, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) hopes to reverse this trend, awarding Virginia Tech $3.4 million to investigate ways to help reduce work-related accidents, injuries, and fatalities in the small construction industry. Falls from buildings, scaffolds, and ladders are the leading cause of fatal injury in the construction industry. Each year some 38,000 construction injuries are reported, with 21,000 involving days away from work, according to the Labor Department.

"We are looking at introducing research-based changes to the entire construction system to improve the health and safety of construction workers," said Brian Kleiner, the lead investigator on the NIOSH project. Kleiner is an associate professor in Virginia Tech's Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) and the director of the Macroergonomics and Group Decision Systems Laboratory and the Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics Center at Virginia Tech.

The researchers are interested in developing the most advantageous work system designs. In the construction industry, this might address how individual jobs should be designed to improve the entire work system. This improvement includes technical, social, and organizational issues that affect the workers. Technology must be designed to be compatible with human capabilities and limitations. This approach can help improve overall productivity, quality, health, safety, and job satisfaction.

Of the approximately 600,000 construction companies in the United States, 90 percent employ fewer than 20 workers. Most of these smaller construction companies do not have formal safety and health programs. Construction safety issues range from the more simplified individual task of operating a jackhammer to the team effort of building entire residential communities.

With NIOSH funding, Kleiner and his colleagues, representing a cross-section of expertise from six academic departments, are forming the "Center for Innovation in Construction Safety and Health" (http://www.ictas.ise.vt.edu) within Virginia Tech's new Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). ICTAS is a collaborative university research institute at Virginia Tech organized to foster and facilitate interdisciplinary research (http://www.eng.vt.edu/ictas/).

"We have the institutional framework, facilities and equipment, faculty expertise, multidisciplinary partnerships, and enthusiasm to achieve the safety and health improvement goals necessary to save lives and minimize injuries and accidents," said University President Charles Steger.

"As head of the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, I am delighted to learn that NIOSH, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has funded this proposal. Dr. Kleiner has assembled an outstanding team of researchers from both the engineering and architecture colleges to examine critical occupational health and safety issues in the construction industry. I am confident that this funding will enable the researchers to greatly reduce the risk of injury in an industry so vital to the American economy," said Don Taylor, who holds the Charles O. Gordon Professorship.

The research group will develop strategic partnerships with a diverse array of industry stakeholders. An external advisory committee, consisting to date of Susan Asmus, vice president of environmental and labor, safety and health for the National Association of Home Builders; Michael Walker, vice president of construction for Pulte Homes; and Grover Edwards, president of the Lake Gaston Construction Company, is assisting the effort.

The Virginia Tech center members who will be serving on the internal advisory committee include Kleiner, Tonya Smith-Jackson, and Maury Nussbaum from ISE, Anthony Songer from civil and environmental engineering, Antonio Nieto from mining and minerals engineering, and Ron Wakefield from building construction. Additional investigators are Ricardo Burdisso and Marty Johnson, mechanical engineering; Kari-Babski-Reeves, John Shewchuk, and John Casali, ISE.

"There are many safety implications involved when changing the way we do residential construction. This collaborative research is part of an effort to industrialize the residential construction sector and redesign the work place to increase safety levels by analyzing multiple factors that impact safety at the job site," said Wakefield.

Researchers will be targeting topics such as developing a decision support tool for ergonomic construction design, noise and vibration control of hammer drills, quantification of and solutions to the impediments to speech communication and signal detection in the construction industry, and training needs analysis of informal construction work systems.

Once the researchers determine best practices for construction safety, the results will be communicated to the construction industry in the form of safety manuals, training sessions, and conferences. "I appreciate all of the effort everyone put forth on this major, collaborative proposal, and I hope to involve additional faculty, universities and organizations in the future," Kleiner said.
-end-


Virginia Tech

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