Impacts of the Construction Labor Shortage on Job Site Safety

Written by Donna Laquidara-Carr, Director of Industry Insights Research on October 26, 2018

Safety has been a top concern in the construction industry for decades, but there are new challenges on jobsites whose safety implications need to be addressed. The most recent USG Corporation + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index, a quarterly report based on surveys of general and trade contractors conducted and analyzed by Dodge Data & Analytics, explores the degree to which several factors now impact construction site safety among contractors. Findings show that factors such as the construction labor shortage, shorter construction schedules, greater project complexity, an aging workforce and the use of marijuana, alcohol and opioids all play a role in job site safety.

The quarterly Commercial Construction Index, first launched in 2017, has consistently revealed a booming construction market, with strong levels of backlog, a high degree of optimism about the ability of the market to provide new work and strong revenue expectations. However, one issue has also been consistently reported as a problem in this study in the same time frame: the shortage of skilled workers, or the construction labor shortage. In the third quarter of 2018, 94 percent of contractors report that this is at least a moderate concern, and more than half (57 percent) report that it is a major concern. More than half (55 percent) also report a high degree of concern about the skill levels of the workers being hired, in addition to the general shortage of workers with specific skills.

Unfortunately, many contractors believe that one of the side effects of the construction labor shortage is increased safety risks on their projects. Most contractors (80 percent) are moderately to highly concerned about job site safety risks due to workforce shortages, and this factor ranks on top of the list of topics included in the study that contractors believe are increasing construction site safety risks now and expect to increase those risks in the next three years.

To combat these risks, most contractors believe that placing these workers in an environment where job site safety is clearly prioritized and is a fundamental value of the company is the best strategy. Almost two thirds (63 percent) say that a top strategy to reduce the safety risks due to workforce shortages is to improve the safety climate on job sites, and more than half (58 percent) regard improving the safety culture at the firm as a top strategy. These rank much higher than more immediate measures such as tracking and assessing safety records and the use of safety-enhancing techniques—not just among large companies, but across the range of contractors by type and size included in the study—which reinforces the importance of these concepts.

Substance Abuse

In addition to doing a deeper dive on dealing with safety challenges that are caused by the construction labor shortage, the study also took a more in-depth look at the degree to which contractors are concerned about the job site safety impacts of workers who use opioids, marijuana or alcohol. Over half of contractors state that they are at least moderately concerned about the risks created by workers using marijuana (54 percent) and alcohol (58 percent). It is notable that concerns about marijuana are highest in the West region, where marijuana use has been legalized in six states (including California and Washington), and lowest in the Midwest.

However, the biggest concern is currently about opioids. More than 70 percent of contractors report they are concerned about increased safety risks due to opioid use on their job sites. Unfortunately, when asked whether they have a strategy in place to reduce these risks, only half of contractors who regard it as an issue have a plan in place. The percentage of contractors concerned about alcohol and marijuana who have a strategy to deal with those issues (62 percent and 61 percent, respectively) also demonstrates that the industry needs more guidance about how to tackle these issues. This is particularly the case for smaller contractors. While more than 80 percent of contractors with revenues of $100 million and more who are concerned about alcohol, marijuana and opioid use have a strategy to reduce the risks created by these issues, only about half of smaller companies have strategies for alcohol and marijuana use, and only 39 percent of them have strategies for dealing with opioids. More resources need to be made available to help smaller firms mitigate these challenges.

Where contractors are employing strategies to combat these issues, the most common approach is testing, followed by pre-screening employees. Companies also provide education and/or communication about these substances, and a few offer counseling and access to rehabilitation. Many also report relying on oversight by supervisors, and a few tout their zero tolerance policies.

These findings demonstrate that contractors, in their drive to improve construction site safety, continue to face new challenges and a need to come up with new and flexible strategies to address them. They also show that holistic approaches to encouraging job site safety are widely recognized as a good tool for reducing the risks they face.

Reprinted from, Oct. 19, 2018, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.