The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 31, 2003

Too much overtime can be too much of a good thing

By The Building Tradesman

Nearly all construction projects these days have one thing in common: the owners want the work done yesterday. Unless their project has a spring running through where they're trying to build a basement, virtually every construction manager that we've ever talked to claims that the number one challenge on their project is the aggressive schedule.

That being the case, tight construction timetables often prompts contractors to resort to overtime to get their work done. Today's Hardhats only wish that work opportunities would allow for the potential of too much overtime, as was the case in the late 1990s. But if it ever becomes available at a jobsite near you, there is some new information available on the effects of excessive overtime..

OT may sound like a cure-all for the contractor who stands to get a tidy bonus for early completion, or a penalty for late work. But there are still heavy-duty concerns about whether overly-worked workers are working as efficiently - or as safely - as they were during the first 40 hours of their week.

"If you keep doing that (overtime) for a year, instead of a month or two, you're bound to have bad thing happen," said John Langford of Chicago-based McHugh Construction. He studied construction overtime and tracked worker experience to determine how employers can maintain safety when faced with extended overtime schedules.

Langford made a presentation before a Sept. 10 meeting of the National Safety Congress in Chicago, and detailed several findings about the effects of construction worker overtime. He related how owners are increasingly demanding shorter timelines for project completion, without taking variables like weather into account. In addition, engineering drawings are often incomplete at the start of the project, and change orders are rampant.

In that environment, owners are demanding contracts that enforce tight schedules. This rolls downhill from the contractors to workers, and sets up a situation where safety can be compromised. Following are a few points to ponder regarding the use of overtime:

  • The Business Roundtable, an association of big business leaders, found that scheduled construction overtime "disrupts the economy of the affected area, magnifies any apparent labor shortage, reduces labor productivity, and creates excessive inflation of construction labor costs without material benefit to the completion schedule."
    Moreover, the Roundtable found that where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the "cumulative effect of decreased productivity" will cause a delay in the project's completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week. The results for 50-hour weeks aren't that much different, Langford said.
  • A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health utilized interviews of construction workers in five cities who had been doing overtime work for a long duration. They reported sleep deprivation, increased injury rates, fatigue that led to errors, and stress at home and at work.
  • Another large study suggested that if overtime is a key factor on a project, employers must be prepared to spend money on safety programs to minimize risk.
  • Winter work has added to the hazards. Langford pointed out that construction companies used to call it quits in the colder months, "but now we're not only working the guys overtime to make schedule, we're working them in the worst possible conditions."
  • In order to improve safety on jobs that utilize a good deal of overtime, Langford said daily safety meetings should be held among workers and contractor reps. Safety plans should be developed as a project is being planned. Supervisors' responsibilities should be limited to smaller groups of workers, and they should be providing safety assistance, as opposed to enforcement.

The bottom line: Langford found that working a schedule with 10 percent or less of overtime has little or no effect on a company's injury and illness rate. Move that number over 15 percent, and incident rates increase.