Building safety into construction sites

Emily Sparer, ScD '15

May 8, 2015 — Emily Sparer may be the first Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health student to have construction workers cheering her on at her dissertation defense. Sparer, who is graduating in May with a ScD in occupational safety and ergonomics, developed a safety communication program for construction sites built on a simple, low-cost idea: Take the safety data that managers already gather and share it with the workers.

Posters at Sparer’s pilot sites around Boston displayed safety scores each week, broken down by subcontractor to encourage workers and managers to look at safety conditions outside of their own area and trade. Sites with high ratings earned a free lunch at the end of the month. As a result of participating in the program, workers are reporting improved team work and better communication around safety — and they want it to continue.

“At my defense, one of the construction workers in the audience said that he and his coworkers had met with their corporate-level safety people to see if they could adopt the program company-wide,” Sparer said. “That felt like completing a circle — I developed the program, tested it, and now it’s being implemented on worksites. That’s what I want to do with my work, to take it a step beyond a published paper.”

Construction workers suffer from high rates of work-related injuries and chronic health issues. Sparer first became interested in improving their health while she was working for an environmental consulting firm and touring industrial sites across the country. She had recently graduated from Barnard College, where she studied pre-med and environmental science, and found that occupational health was an intriguing way to combine her passions.

“The workplace is a direct interaction between environment and health,” she said. “What struck me about construction sites is how dynamic and fluid they are. You can be on a site one day talking to people, and come back the next day to find a giant hole or a wall in the spot where you were standing. Safety systems need to be designed for an environment that is constantly evolving.”

After enrolling at Harvard Chan, Sparer began working with Jack Dennerlein, adjunct professor of ergonomics and safety, on construction worksite safety research that would later develop into her thesis. She looked at the ways that hazards are communicated — or not communicated — between workers and managers, and between trades.

On most worksites, Sparer said, a manager from the general contracting company regularly walks the site to take note of positive and negative working conditions. The information may be shared with insurance companies or government inspectors, but typically not with workers. As part of Sparer’s program, foremen received a weekly narrative report from her, including a description of both safe and unsafe working conditions, which they were encouraged to share with their crews. Sparer noted that for many workers, this was the first time they had received positive feedback for the things they were doing right.

She found that the program got workers talking about safety — and increased their sense of shared responsibility for keeping their sites safe. If scores were down, workers noticed and resolved to make changes, she said. “People were looking out for each other’s safety where they hadn’t before.”

“Emily’s research has been recognized here in Boston as well as nationally for its innovative approach to improving safety climate on site,” Dennerlein said. He noted that her program garnered the interest of David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, as an alternative to traditional employee safety incentive programs that are based on the number of injuries.

After graduation, Sparer will move into a joint fellowship at Harvard Chan and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute looking at elements in the work environment that may raise cancer risk. She has also developed a website where she posted instructions for implementing her construction site program.

“The great thing about public health research is that it is very practice-driven, on the ground, in the community,” Sparer said. “I want to do more of that.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Emily Cuccarese