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Building the Future of Safety in the AEC Industry

Building the Future of Safety in the AEC Industry

The topics of workplace health and safety are constantly at the forefront of conversation in the AEC industry, and for good reason.  Historically, engineering and construction have been hazardous professions, and, while there have been significant improvements to safety standards in recent years, the risk of workplace accidents is still high when compared to other industries.  In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its ongoing impacts, the AEC industry has seen a renewed focus on promoting workplace safety and its impact on a project’s time and budget.

One person who has approached the question of workplace safety in the AEC industry from just about every perspective is Bill Mueller, Hill International’s Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) manager.  Mueller’s career stretches back over 35 years with experience managing occupational health and safety and environmental issues in places like the United States, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago.  

With this wealth of international experience, Mueller has worn many hats during his career–being responsible for things like writing proposals, sub-contracting, supervising field work, and shipping environmental samples to name a few.  He eventually began working more on the client side of things, and became responsible for writing report deliverables and moving into the billing aspects of projects.Mueller believes this ability to wear many hats during his career has given him not only a good understanding of managing project health and safety but also in how work is planned and subcontracted.  As he engaged more on the planning side of projects, Mueller noticed that his background in safety similarly provided benefits when it came to things like envisioning potential hazards during planning, particularly within the field of Environmental Remediation.

Mueller has been Hill’s HSE manager for seven years, working with general contractors to ensure quality work is being performed and schedules are being met and constantly maintained.  Mueller says that a major part of this process involves protecting employees from “any hazards that are created…and [contributing] to the correction of those hazards before anyone is hurt by them.”  Mueller points out that, in addition to the need for protecting employees, accidents have the tendency to incur loss, which is defined across many different categories including schedule delays, personal injury, and increased costs.  Mueller believes that the ability to correct hazards and plan accordingly can be used as a “sounding board and the predicate for trying to formulate partnerships.”  These processes make safety something central to the project, being talked about, evaluated, and practiced.  This allows for further evaluation as to a project’s safety focus, and allows Mueller and his team to create relationships with companies who have a proven record as to safe practices.  

On the international level, the attitudes and perceptions of safety are changing.  Increasingly, projects involve a number of different people from different areas of the world with different backgrounds and cultures.  Mueller believes this is an opportunity to make safety a central point of emphasis moving forward.  By creating a standard of safety as well as providing continual education/training on the job, workers from varying backgrounds can understand safety requirements and help work towards the ultimate goal of completing the project/structure.

Mueller believes our focus on safety moving forward should be built from the fundamental levels of management, saying he “thinks it’s necessary that [students] learn about the inherent value of safety to create a shift in culture.”  Creating this shift in safety culture will help move the industry from its current level of workplace accidents towards the expectation of a zero-accident workplace.  In addition to creating the expectation of a zero-accident workplace within workers, another critical factor in workplace safety is clients understanding the value of a zero-accident workplace.

Perhaps as a result of Covid’s impact on the AEC industry, clients are more focused on safety now than they have been in the recent past.  Mueller says that, on a large scale, clients felt the impacts of not having employees available to do the work they’re being paid to do.  This impacted the ability to deliver projects on schedule and slowed product delivery.  Despite still facing challenges from Covid, Mueller believes that this has increased client perception when it comes to safety.  

As the AEC industry moves forward into 2024, workplace safety will continue to be a critical topic of discussion and implementation.  Mueller believes that, while there will rightfully be a continued emphasis on improving safety through the means of technology like AI, this must be supplemented with a fundamental understanding of safety management.  By building the idea that every worker comes in, fully understands their role, and goes home safe at the end of every project, we Mueller believes we can start to build a standard perspective that approaches the question of workplace safety at the necessary scale.