Every accident is one too many – occupational safety evolves by anticipating and learning

Occupational safety has taken a huge leap forward in development in 50 years and the speed of change is accelerating due to the development of technology and artificial intelligence. In the construction industry, occupational safety is taken extremely seriously. All accidents must be prevented and learned from.

Työturvallisuus - Work safety
Työturvallisuus - Work safety

In the 1970s, one person per week on average died in an occupational accident in the construction industry in Finland, which is approximately 50 people a year. We have still not reached a situation where we are without any sad news. In 2020, a total of seven employees lost their lives in occupational accidents in the construction industry, two of them in the infrastructure sector. However, the situation has changed drastically in 50 years.

“During the last 10 years, the member companies of the Confederation of Finnish Construction Industries RT have halved their accident frequency rates,” says Kati Kaskiala, Industrial Policy Expert in INFRA ry’s Safety Committee.

What has brought about this positive change?

Occupational safety by anticipating, planning and involving people

In the construction industry, occupational safety is taken seriously and accidents are prevented by anticipating, planning and cooperating. Zero-accidents is always the target and it can be reached; several sites have proven this.

Occupational accident risks are amplified by the constantly changing circumstances on the site and personal risk-taking. For example, tunnel sites have always been high-risk sites due to their working conditions.

The development of work machines, personal protective equipment and materials used on sites as well as the changed working methods and attitudes promote occupational safety and prevent accidents. According to Jarkko Hyytiäinen from YIT, unnecessary risk-taking is no longer that common on sites as employees’ views are considered already when planning work phases and constantly during projects, such as in weekly safety briefings.

“Information about the risks, accidents that have occurred and lessons learned are shared on today’s sites, which makes the employees think and participate,” says Hyytiäinen.

Employees are engaged in the prevention also by, for example, allowing employees to select their own protective equipment suitable for the working conditions in question and their needs. Through success, employees get more committed to occupational safety improvements.

“For example, due to our employees’ wishes, we added a section describing what we have learned during the week in the safety briefing,” says Hyytiäinen.

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Open discussions promote a shift in attitudes

Developing machines and safety equipment is the so-called easy way to improve occupational safety, but changing attitudes and how people act is not a quick process.

“It takes time for rules and regulations to take root in how people act,” summarises Kaskiala.

Open discussions about occupational safety issues promote a change in attitudes. In order to improve safety, information is openly shared between employees on the site, but also between different companies. For example, the member companies of INFRA ry’s Safety Committee operate in this way.

“Occupational safety issues are not regarded as business secrets or competitive factors, but we share knowledge between companies in order to develop the entire sector,” says Antti Mitrunen, Occupational Safety Manager, Infrastructure segment at YIT and Vice Chairman of INFRA ry’s Safety Committee.

According to Mitrunen, it is important to address the shortcomings instead of ignoring them. Managers, employees and white-collar workers must all have the courage and boldness to tackle shortcomings and question bad practices.

“When thinking about safety, intervention means caring,” says Mitrunen.

Accidents change operating methods

If accidents nevertheless happen despite anticipating actions, each one makes us think, provides lessons for the future and permanently changes operating methods.

“One company, for instance, made the Occupational Safety Manager’s position permanent after a fatal occupational accident,” says Kaskiala.

The party ordering the work may also play a significant role in safety matters. For example, at the beginning of the 2000s, the client of the Kilpilahti area required that the accident frequency rate must be below five, which was below the average in the field – approximately 20 in recent years. Strict requirements were also set for the operating methods and personal protective equipment. The compliance with these requirements was ensured with lengthy induction training and measures following misconduct.

“If someone on the site failed, for example, to wear safety goggles, the person was removed from the site for the rest of the week and had to undergo new induction training. The site supervisors were also reprimanded,” says Kaskiala.

According to Kaskiala, occupational safety has improved since all accidents and incidents are investigated and analysed in pioneer companies. Investigating, for example, working hours may be informative.

“When searching for the root causes of an accident or incident, the investigations may reveal that the alertness of employees is not high enough or they are overburdened. Root causes may also be found from the organisational operations,” says Kaskiala.

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Artificial intelligence will not diminish the role of human intelligence

The digital leap in the construction industry has been huge during the past couple of years. The infrastructure sector is a pioneer in machine control and robotics in the construction industry. For example, the work machines already used on the sites represent advanced technologies, and the use of remote control, drones and 3D modelling is already becoming the new normal. An induction training model for site induction in the construction industry utilising a virtual helmet in site familiarisation is under development.

The development of technology and artificial intelligence will enhance occupational safety in the future. Artificial intelligence may help in refining and analysing accident-related statistics. Issues that would have otherwise been missed may arise. Currently, people still assist in analysing data, but this may change in the future.

“Accumulating data could create measure proposals that could be used directly to support project planning,” says Mitrunen.

Smart clothes are also being developed for occupational safety purposes. The sensors in smart clothes collect data and warn about dangerous situations, such as high levels of carbon monoxide or an approaching vehicle, or even a human’s ability to cope.

Although the technology and digitalisation improves safety and the automation of routine work changes the role of employees on sites, human intelligence should not be forgotten.

“Workers and white-collar employees are needed every day, so let’s take care of our colleagues,” summarises Hyytiäinen.

YIT's occupational health and safety principles