At the January, 1998, Las Vegas opening ceremony for a construction industry training program called Smart Mark (SM), OSHA head Charles Jeffress said the agency hoped SM training can help reduce the 573 falls experienced annually in the construction industry, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1995.

SM is a standardized, nationwide safety and health training program developed by the Construction Industry Partnership (CIP), which is composed of the 15 unions of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, and seven contractor management associations.

SM training is only available to Building and Construction Trades union members. Since the program's kickoff, 256 workers have completed the ten hours of instruction in areas such as tool safety, confined spaces, scaffold safety and more, taught by OSHA-certified instructors. Upon completion of the training, workers will get cards with the SM logo on it to take to future jobs to prove they are trained to increase safety knowledge on the job. Three-thousand union members-from Texas alone-signed up to take training between early March, and June, 1998, according to Pete McCall, staff coordinator for the Public Relations Subcommittee of CIP, which is located in Washington, DC.

SM is based on OSHA's own 10-hour certification course for construction workers, according to Sandy Tillet, director of the Occupational Health Foundation. "The Building Trades Groups wanted to standardize and update OSHA's training information," says Tillet. As part of the agency's ten-hour Construction Awareness program, OSHA-trained instructors cobbled together materials to educate workers. But the information was sometimes outdated, and the quality of training varied nationwide, according to Tillet.

Now, with construction industry employment growing (U.S. Chamber of Commerce statistics reveal that the industry's employment through the year 2001 will increase two percent annually) and fatalities resulting from falls at a five-year high (according to 1996 data from the Department of Labor's National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries), OSHA welcomes new ideas on how to reduce the two-fifths of fall-related worker deaths occurring in the construction trades.

"We'll jump on any good idea that helps us achieve our mission of lowering injury and illness rates among construction workers," says Stephen Gaskill, an OSHA spokesman. The agency has set a goal of reducing construction injuries and illnesses by 15 percent by 2002.

Objectives for SM's training relating to fall protection state that upon instruction, workers should be able to identify falls as the leading cause of deaths in construction; recognize when loss of footing or balance could occur; recognize the height at which OSHA requires fall protection; and the components of fall protection.

Why get certified?

Workers who want to remain competitive in the growing industry may want to invest the time in SM certification. Reason being, finding a job without it [SM] may get tougher, say those involved. Advertising for the certification, which so far consists of two print ads in the January issue of Engineering News Record, the most widely read publication in the construction industry, according to McCall, encourages contractors to only hire workers with a SM card because they will reduce help costs.

Trained workers always increase productivity and reduce accidents, resulting in a cost savings on every job, say regulators, contractors and unions alike. In fact, safety programs such as SM save industry approximately 10 percent of the total construction cost per job, according to CIP data.

"There's an indirect savings [on every job] when there are fewer accidents," says Steven Wynn, president of Atlandia Corporation, the construction and design group for Mirage Hotel Resorts and Casinos in Las Vegas, NV. "Workers' comp rates are lower when guys don't get hurt on the job."

OSHA stats on construction worker fatalities concern Wynn: An average of three workers per day are killed on the job.

That's one reason why Atlandia's subcontractor, Marnell Corrao, hired a number of workers from the first SM graduating class during the program's kickoff. They are now helping build the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, which will be the world's largest hotel, according to Wynn. "Construction costs total $1.6 billion dollars for the 3,000-room resort," he says.

Certification can be obtained by union members for such a nominal fee that it's worth their time to take the classes, which are ten separate hour-long courses spread out over the course of a week, says McCall. If members have to pay out of pocket for materials, which include booklets, the cost is a mere 50 cents per booklet, according to McCall. But some unions may absorb those costs for its members-$5 per head.

What lies ahead

CIP officials expect the number of SM participants to increase, but there's no set goal. McCall refers to the 159,000 workers that joined a Building and Construction Trades union within the past two years as a sign of a strong future for the program.

Asked about refresher courses for SM-certified workers, McCall says it's too soon to tell.

"But as OSHA changes its regulations, SM will need to alter its training content in order to comply," he says.