Then and now: The evolution of construction safety

CFCSA chair on how industry improved and why more work is needed

Then and now: The evolution of construction safety

Canadian Occupational Safety is celebrating 60 years of publication in 2023. To mark the occasion, we are writing a series of articles that look back on the industries we cover to explore how safety practices have changed over the years.

Safety in the construction industry is in a constant state of improvement. “In a word, I would say that it's evolving,” says Sean Scott, the executive director of the Construction Safety Association of Manitoba and the current chair of the Canadian Federation of Construction Safety Associations.

Decades ago, safety was just an “add-on” and Scott says that mindset has fundamentally changed, with a rapid shift taking place over the past 20 years. From training, to PPE, to the tools and equipment being used on the job, Scott says just about every facet of the industry now has ingrained safety components.

“The drastic improvement over a couple of decades has really (led to) a steady decline in the number of incidents that occur,” says Scott.

Creation of the construction safety association

Scott attributes much of the advancements made to the establishment of the various construction safety associations in each of the provinces. Scott says in the 1980’s there were a lot of accidents happening in the industry, “and the contractors said we need help.”

One of those accidents was the Bentall Tower tragedy. A memorial was recently held to mark 42 years since four carpenters fell 36 floors while helping build the office tower in downtown Vancouver.

Scott says these types of incidents led to the creation of the construction safety associations to help contractors meet legislative requirements and assist with prevention programs. By 2000, every province had created a construction safety association, “it's a drastic and dramatic change in the evolution of safety in the construction industry.”

As those associations looked for ways to help companies improve their safety practices, Scott says it became clear that “the best thing for a company to do is to implement a comprehensive safety health management system.”

The national COR® accreditation standard is one of those systems that has been adopted in each province, and Scott says it has been extremely effective. In addition to ensuring employers are following all legal requirements and have the tools they need to prevent incidents from happening, the accreditation also qualifies them for a 10 to 15 percent rebate on their premiums paid to worker’s compensation boards, depending on the jurisdiction.

Need for consistency

Despite the existence of the safety associations, and an accreditation program adopted across the country, the legislation still varies between the provinces. Scott says one of the challenges for 2023 and beyond is the skilled-labour shortage, an issue affecting many sectors of the Canadian economy. As workers move between provinces, re-educating and recertifying becomes an added obstacle for businesses trying to keep up with demand and stay fully staffed with qualified workers.

Scott says the CFCSA is working to harmonize regulations across the country, “ultimately trying to create consistency in those standards so that when clients shift work from Manitoba to Ontario, they don't have to redo all these different things.”  He says 80 percent of the work is going to involve following the same rules and regulations while 20 percent might be governed by specific provincial legislation.

Injuries and mitigation

While vast improvements have been made in the industry over the years and decades, the types of incidents resulting in injuries are not that different. Scott says slips, trips, and falls continue to be the number one concern for safety professionals in construction. The types of injuries have consistently remained the same, with falls accounting for the highest number of severe injuries and musculoskeletal being the primary concern for days lost.  “Those continue to be the highest number for time-loss injuries,” says Scott.

Mitigation is still the name of the game, and even though accidents will happen, prevention systems are the best way to ensure workers go home at the end of the day. “In a nutshell, if you want to sound like a good safety professional, it's your ability to identify, communicate and control hazards.”

Identifying hazards and knowing the control methods is the easy part. Communicating the information is what can be tricky according to Scott. Given the labour shortage, new workers may not understand English well, or may not be familiar with the industry jargon, “safety professionals seem to like to use a lot of acronyms.” 


Scott says it’s all in that one word, “it's your ability to respond to any situation.” And at the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of safety leaders to make sure every worker understands the role they play in ensuring safety on a job site. 

“Prepare yourself, make sure that whatever situation you're going in, that you are competent in dealing with it. And as a safety professional, if you're not competent, make sure you advise people of that.”

Scott says the moral, legal, and financial reasons for ensuring safety are all trumped by one maxim, “your responsibility helps you get home safely and helps those around you get home safely.”

Because we all have people who love us.