By Mason Nichols
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic effect on industries across the United States and around the globe. Supply chain shortages have severely limited the worldwide availability of everything from computer chips to toilet paper, exercise equipment and construction materials.
For business owners, the pandemic also has led to lagging workforce numbers, exacerbating an issue that began pre-COVID. A recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey issued by the U.S. Labor Department indicated 10.4 million job openings as of August 2021 and not enough job-seekers to fill all of those spots.
To compensate for the lack of available talent and keep up with the required work, precast concrete facilities often rely on offering overtime hours to their employees. But while overtime work can help companies keep pace with busy production schedules, it also can present potential safety concerns for team members who experience heightened levels of stress and fatigue.
POTENTIAL OVERTIME HAZARDS
According to OSHA, “worker fatigue increases the risk for illnesses and injuries,” with research finding that “working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury.”
Debra Hilmerson, president and CEO of Minnesota-based safety product design and manufacturing firm Hilmerson Safety, has worked in the precast and construction industries for more than three decades. She often logged overtime during her time as a production crew member and field laborer, and her experience mirrors OSHA’s metrics.
“Common sense would tell you that if you’re working too much overtime, your ability to operate at a high level is lessened,” Hilmerson said. “And it doesn’t matter how good of shape you’re in. Everyone has a point of diminishing return.”
OSHA and the Fair Labor Standards Act classifies overtime as any work over 40 hours in a seven-day period. A consistent workload greater than 40 hours per week can affect the ability to think clearly and function efficiently, according to OHSA. This leads to a heightened potential for workers to put themselves in situations that could lead to injury.
“When you get to the end of a day, you might be 10, 11 or 12 hours in, you can see the finish line,” said Logan Brutcher, environmental health and safety coordinator at Norwalk Concrete Industries (NCI). At that point, fatigue may set in and put employees at a higher risk.
Excessive hours also can lead to an increased sense of complacency, a feeling of confidence that develops when a person repeatedly performs a task with success. One potential side effect of that contentment is unawareness of associated dangers and deficiencies. For example, at the end of an overtime shift, a production team member might substitute a tool typically used for an operation with a similar one that is close by to avoid a longer trip across the plant floor – even if the swap deviates from standard operating procedure.
There are longer-term effects of consistent overtime work as well. Studies show that fatigue can lead to heart disease, stomach and digestive problems, sleep disorders and more. Mental health also can suffer, with some employees experiencing depression and anxiety.
BUILD A SOLID FOUNDATION OF SAFETY
Despite these potential issues, there are numerous strategies to mitigate the negative effects of overtime work for a team. It begins with establishing a strong safety culture.
“The No. 1 thing that we start with is safety orientation,” said Victor Layne, project manager at Lindsay Precast and a National Precast Concrete Association Safety Committee member. “Safety is a critical component of our initial training, which then extends out into the hands-on, one-on-one education that occurs afterward in the shop.”
Brutcher said NCI takes a similar approach from the get-go.
“We have a three-week program for all our new hires,” he said. “During this initial training, we talk about tool safety, the importance of personal protective equipment, overhead crane safety and more.”
Both Layne and Brutcher referenced the importance of robust safety programs that extend beyond an employee’s first few weeks on the job. A wide-reaching approach not only educates workers about the breadth of safety topics to be considered, but it also helps employees keep safety top of mind in day-to-day operations.
Layne recommends the NPCA website for its deep reservoir of materials to help get started, including a series of safety training videos, bi-monthly safety training posts, webinars and an archive of focused articles from Precast Inc. magazine.
Facilities also should establish a production schedule that matches the level of on-site support. Plants taking on more work than the business typically accepts must plan for additional hours to complete projects. This not only can help with safety precautions but assists in maintaining quality as well.
“We keep a tight overview of scheduled hours,” Layne said, “Advanced forecasting allows us to adjust the schedule as needed to accommodate our projects – we might back off the hours if we see that things are getting unmanageable.”
“There are days where our work ends up taking an extra hour or two,” he said. “But that’s something that we seek to control through our production schedule rather than having to extend our overtime plant-wide. That way, we don’t have to push our team to 12, 13 or 14 hours in a day, because when that happens, we know safety risk exposure will rise.”
BALANCING OVERTIME WITH EMPLOYEE WELL-BEING
Simple adjustments to a worker’s lifestyle can pay dividends when it comes to maintaining safety during overtime work.
Hilmerson said it is imperative to remind production staff about the importance of eating healthy and getting enough sleep each day – a message to integrate into both onboarding and ongoing safety training throughout the year. At NCI, these discussions have shown to be effective.
“We’ve talked about diets, good habits and what a solid night’s sleep can do for you,” Brutcher said. “Overall, we’re just trying to help our team members put themselves into a position where they’re feeling better and have a bit more energy so that they can fight any fatigue they might experience toward the end of the day or a long work week.”
Another method that helps raise energy levels and prepare employees for the day is stretching or as some companies refer to it: stretch and flex. The idea is simple. Engage the group in guided, moderate movement to begin the day to make the body and brain more alert.
“High-performing athletes succeed because they prepare their bodies mentally and physically,” Hilmerson said. “Construction workers are essentially industrial athletes and need to do the same. I’ve implemented stretching programs for decades with high levels of success.”
Layne said that Lindsay Precast has standard operating procedures (SOP) in place for every plant task. So, whether stripping a form or using a crane to move a product from one part of the plant to another, there are set routines to follow. SOPs help ensure consistency – whether someone has been at work for eight, 10 or 12 hours.
The Lindsay team pairs these SOPs with job hazard analyses (JHA) – techniques that focus on job tasks as a way to identify hazards before they occur. When SOPs and JHAs are used in conjunction with one another, they give employees peace of mind that work will be performed safely no matter what the situation.
To help put team members in the right mindset and to remind them of their value during busier times, Hilmerson, Brutcher and Layne all suggest providing lunch for plant workers. Doing so sends a clear message of care from leadership and an indication of the value associated with hard work performed efficiently, effectively and, most important, safely.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO CARE
Overtime is unavoidable at times. And while the risk of potential accidents and injuries statistically increases as employees work longer hours, overtime work can be performed safely.
Start team members off right by building a solid foundation for them through initial safety training during onboarding and ongoing safety training throughout the year. Develop a production schedule that balances the amount of work taken on with the available workforce. Above all else, establish a strong safety culture and show care and compassion for the work of your team.
“It all comes back to a caring attitude,” Hilmerson said. “Remind your team members of their worth and how much you appreciate them busting their tails to get the job done. Showing that level of care is incredibly valuable and will go a long way to ensure safer operations for everyone.” PI
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry for nearly a decade.