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A Seattle ironworker fell eight floors and survived. Here’s why

Around Seattle, you might think more workers are getting hurt given that construction is booming.

Turns out, the opposite is true.

Construction worker injuries have steadily trended downward for decades in Washington state.

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I looked at the past 20 years of data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the 1990s, the rate of injuries and illnesses in the construction industry in Washington state declined 60 percent by 2016, the most recent year in the data. For every 100 full-time construction workers in the state, roughly six got hurt or sick in 2016, compared to 12 in 2006 and more than 17 in 1996.

That’s because a lot has changed in construction recently.

Consider a recent case, of an ironworker falling off a high rise in downtown Seattle on April 30.

Five years ago, that worker would be dead. But he fell into a safety net that is supposed to catch tools — and survived.

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Bob McCleskey was mulling that over after the accident. He is the CEO of Sellen Construction, which is building that high rise.

“As a leader of a company, it's the worst nightmare when you get a call,” McCleskey said. “I'm so thankful that it worked out the way it did.”

The worker landed in the net eight floors down, badly injured. The fire department fished him out of the net and took him to Harborview Medical Center.

That type of net is new to construction, McCleskey said.  

“It’s really just the last four or five years where they’ve been put in place around steel structures as they’ve been coming up to catch anything that drops over the edge,” he said.

(When he says “anything,” that usually means falling tools, not falling people.)

You can see other improvements to construction safety in Seattle’s hotbed of the building boom, South Lake Union.

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I go to the ninth floor of one of Google’s new buildings that’s under construction, next to MOHAI and Lake Union. My tour guide is Mandi Kime, safety services director for the Associated General Contractors, an industry group.

There are no walls or windows on floor 9 yet. Instead, between us and the open air are specially designed wood and metal handrails with bright orange netting.

Guardrail technology keeps improving, she said.

“It’s no longer, ‘Let’s just slap up some two-by-fours and call it good and just hope nobody leans on it.’ This is an engineered system,” Kime said.

Kime audits construction site safety, checking through a list of more than 200 points. Companies that do well during her audits get special recognition as members of the “Safety Team” (complete with hardhat stickers) and qualify for shorter state safety inspections, too.

Falls are one of the top hazards for workers in construction.

When workers go beyond the guardrails, to install glass walls, for example, they suit up. Workers wear a harness over their shoulders and legs that is connected to a line inside the building – some lines are like big bungee cords and others are called a “yo-yo,” Kime said.

“It’ll let you go out, but it you go out too fast, it’ll retract and stop you,” Kime said.

(By the way, the man who fell off the high rise downtown recently was working behind a guardrail, so he wasn’t hooked in at the time. Still, the guardrail didn’t stop his fall.)

While Kime remembers the days before hard hats were standard uniforms, contractors now compete with each other for jobs by boasting of low injury rates.

The safety gear is important. But so is the gut feel of a construction site, Kime said.

“What kind of culture are we creating out here, and do the workers feel supported and empowered to do the right thing? Do management people walk the walk, and is this a safe place to be?” she said.

Motivating with carrots.

You can see a prime example of “safety culture” by visiting Heidi Hagen, Exxel Pacific senior safety coordinator, at a job site in Renton where three office towers are going up by Lake Washington.

If motivating people takes carrots and sticks, Hagen’s all about the carrots.

Or, candy.

“I put it in my pockets when we do our weekly inspection,” Hagen said. “I’ll say, ‘okay, what are the requirements for handrail here?’ And they’ll (say), ‘I know, I know!’ They get a piece of candy.”

When it gets hot outside, Hagen uses ice pops and Gatorade to reward workers for following safety rules to a T.

“I’ll come up to an area and they’ll be like, ‘Ooh! I was wondering when you were going to get here. Look at what I did! Look, a sign, every 10 feet!’”

Hagen seems to know every worker on this site by name: Louie’s the one with a harness over there, Tammy is the badass ironworker down there. Tony’s the one who just proposed to his girlfriend in Hawaii.

Hagen started in construction two decades ago, and she says the attitude about safety is totally different today. Sure, there are more rules and regulations now, but Hagen says it’s more than that.

“I love it when I come upon a situation where wow, something could have happened to this person and now (they are) going home, just the way she showed up or he showed up on the project site,” Hagen said.

It’s about making safety personal, making workers feel valued. And when you do that, Hagen said, people follow the rules.

And then, there’s the stick.

Injuries cost construction companies. They rack up in worker’s compensation claims, higher insurance premiums, and paying to hire and train replacement workers.  

On the other hand, avoiding injuries can get contractors a refund on worker’s comp insurance, if they join a special program.

The state workers comp system is seeing a drop in claims.

“We’re happy that it appears that these rates are going down,” said researcher Naomi Anderson, who analyzes injuries at the state Department of Labor and Industries. But there’s a caveat.  

“Construction is still quite dangerous, compared to all other industries,” she said.  

Over 9,000 people got hurt or sick working construction in Washington in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Construction workers in this state were injured at twice the national rate for the industry (at just over three illnesses and injuries per 100 full-time construction workers across the United States in 2016).

A lot has changed in construction, sure, but there’s still work to be done.