New training modules developed at Wayne State University stress importance of construction workplace safety

Construction is a high-hazard industry that exposes its labor force to physical dangers as well as overall health risks. In the U.S., the annual total costs of fatal and non-fatal injuries in the construction industry are estimated to be over $10 billion - a figure that does not account for the latent diseases caused by exposure to harmful chemicals, substances and particulates.

These consequences can be reduced, however, by maintaining high standards of safety in the workplace. A research team led by Emrah Kazan and Mumtaz Usmen in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University has been focused for several years on occupational safety and health investigations and training, mainly for the construction industry.

In addition to conducting numerous studies involving statistical analysis and modeling of workplace injuries and illnesses, the team has developed and implemented various training modules to more than 2,500 construction industry employees and employers at no cost to them. These intervention strategies have been largely supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), specifically by the Susan Harwood Training Grant, which they have received continually for the last five years.

For the past two years, the OSHA grants have been augmented by support from the Michigan OSHA Consultation Education and Training program to reach out to additional trainees via an online training portal, which has a distinct advantage in being able to avail training to people in remote areas.

"Our training grants also have an evaluation component that allows us to investigate different tools and methods - including in-class and online delivery - to reach out to targeted audiences, including underserved, low-literacy and low English proficiency personnel," said Kazan. "After the grant period, the developed training materials are published by the federal agency to be utilized nationwide and globally."

The objective of the most recent Harwood grant - a $142,000 award from USDOL received by Kazan and Usmen - is to increase awareness of the health hazards associated with exposure to crystalline silica, a natural compound often present in construction materials such as sand, concrete and mortar.

"When workers cut, grind, drill, blast, jackhammer or crush these materials, dust particles that are very small in size can become airborne," said Kazan. "Unless they observe safe work practices, workers may inhale sufficient amounts of silica dust particles to cause silicosis, an incurable and sometimes deadly lung disease."

Respirable crystalline silica has also been linked to lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease. In most cases, these diseases are diagnosed after many years of exposure. A new standard issued by OSHA is expected to reduce silica risks by as much as five times, and the supporting training tools developed at Wayne State will include identification of silica hazards, safe work practices, engineering controls and personal protective equipment.

The research team works closely with an advisory committee composed of safety and health experts and organizational leaders from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Associate General Contractors of Michigan, Masonry Institute of Michigan, Michigan Laborers' Training and Apprenticeship Institute, and private firms from the Michigan construction industry.

"This group of key stakeholders has a keen interest in training their constituencies to protect them, while also promoting and achieving compliance with the new standard," said Kazan. "The training program we offer is directly aligned with both goals."

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