Burning buildings, collapsing freeways: Is our lousy education system to blame for the recent uptick in construction accidents?

Updated May 12, 2014

Lately there’s been a rash of fires, collapses and accidents at projects “under construction,” all over the country. Here are just three of the more spectacular examples.

March, Boston:. A 33-story apartment building under construction pancakes in Boston when a load up top causes the support under it to buckle.

April, Des Moines, Iowa: A three story commercial building under renovation burns to the ground.

May, Los Angeles: A welder accidentally sets fire to the timber falsework holding up an overpass under construction and the entire structure, nearly a half mile of work, collapses onto Interstate 15.

Perhaps I’m just paying more attention to these things these days, but MSHA, which is statistically rigorous, recently noticed an uptick in fatalities at mines and quarries and has launched a program to find out why. In a similar vein, OSHA noted a rise in crane accidents two years ago and has instituted new rules for operator certification.

Running with just my subjective conjecture here I’m going to put forth a theory that, at least in some quarters, some construction workers and their supervisors are getting really careless with their work.

Being a craftsman, getting it right the first time, measure twice/cut once–this used to be the ethic. But often when I look around I see lousy workmanship. Trash left on jobsites, slabs that are poured out of square, sheathing nailed up with the joints not staggered (just this morning.)

What’s going on? Four possibilities:

1. Maybe this new generation of construction workers just don’t care. Pride in workmanship is gone.

2. Maybe these construction workers are so rushed, so under the gun, that they are forced to slap up whatever will look good to the boss and move on to the next project.

3. Maybe inspectors are getting sloppy, corrupt or lazy. Or due to budget cuts they’re forced to do more with less and don’t have the time to do thorough inspections.

4. But I think the biggest part of the problem is that we’ve raised up a new generation of construction workers, now in their 20s and 30s, who don’t have the mental grit and self-discipline to get it right and to make sure it’s right.

From day one in kindergarten kids are pressured to excel in abstract, book based learning. For 13 years whenever these kids get something wrong in school they get a pat on the head and a green ribbon for “participation” and endless do-overs. Then they go out in the real world of construction, wire up a junction box wrong and burn down a whole building.

I harp on education quite a bit because of the craftsmanship I’ve seen in Europe and because European vocational education is second to none. Of course the Germans make great cars, but the building construction, the tile work, the furniture, woodworking, landscaping, roads—all the way up the professional ladder to architecture and urban planning—always A+.

While visiting Hilti’s headquarters in Lichtenstein a few years ago I marveled at the fact that the manhole covers in the streets were set perfectly flush into the asphalt. There wasn’t 1/8-inch difference between the two surfaces. In my neighborhood there are manhole covers set so badly they could swallow a small dog.

Don’t think that I’m tarring the whole industry with the same brush. Earlier this year I interviewed  two Contractor of the Year finalists and the Contractor of the Year for 2014 and all three were fanatics about quality, precision and safety. Not coincidentally, all three were very successful businessmen.

But it seems there is more sloppy work and more indifferent workers every year. Am I wrong? I’m curious to know what you think. Are the workers in the construction industry today lacking when it comes to pride, quality and attentiveness. And if so, why?

Write me at tjackson@randallreilly.com or leave a comment below.