The perception of construction workers among the general public is far from flattering, particularly in the United States. The impressive speeds at which highly visible projects are completed in other countries seem to lend truth to the idea that American workers are lazier than their fellows.
This perception is far from reality. Based primarily upon a lack of understanding of what construction workers do, and what really decides how long a project takes to complete, it is past time that the myth of the lazy U.S. builders is debunked.
Are Construction Workers Lazy?
The short answer to this question is no. Construction workers are hard working, industrious employees. The very nature of their job requires them to be.
Compare them to the workforce in general. In the US, construction workers can expect to work at least 40 hours a week. This can consist of 8 hour days, but more often the workday is 10-12 hours long, and overtime beyond that total is common.
So far, this may not sound too impressive. After all, many people work 40 hours or more in a week. But it’s what construction workers do in that time that makes laziness unlikely for them.
Working on a construction site is frequently rated among the most strenuous, stressful forms of employment. Heavy lifting, in excess of 50 lbs, is commonplace. Workers must roll wheelbarrows of bricks, shoulder metal pipes, and climb scaffolding with hefty tools in tow.
Speaking of tools, using them often imposes heavy strain. Hours of jarring vibrations from power tools leave a body aching. Larger and more dangerous equipment, such as a jackhammer, require unwavering focus and control even while the operator is bombarded with vibration and deafening sounds.
Even when seated in the cab of a construction vehicle, there is no time to be lazy. Drivers have to remain in a state of high alert, as even a small mistake could cause tremendous damage, or worse, prove fatal.
All of this takes place outside, at the mercy of the elements. Construction sites are loud, choked with dust, filled with hazards at every turn, and constantly busy. Laziness is simply incompatible with the profession.
That isn’t to say there are no lazy construction workers. There are people in every field who try their best to avoid breaking a sweat. Yet in a field this demanding, they don’t represent the majority.
Why Do People Think Construction Workers Are Lazy?
The belief that construction workers, particularly in the US, are lazy is the result of pernicious stereotypes. People imagine men in hard-hats, sitting in a row on an I-beam and eating sandwiches, or milling about on the roadway next to a gaping hole, doing nothing. Their representation in popular culture contributes to this misleading picture.
Looking beyond those cartoonish portrayals reveals a more favorable reality. Very little of what happens on a construction site is without purpose or direction, and what can seem like idleness to the uninformed may in fact be vital.
Take the example of workers standing around an excavation. There is a good chance they are entry attendants, or “hole watchers.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that competent persons be designated to watch over their colleagues working in hazardous spaces (see CFR 1926.1209). They are performing a life-saving service.
Suppose there is no hole? OSHA also requires spotters be on hand to help machine operators with obstructed rear view (CFR 1926.601). There are also runners on site to perform non-skilled tasks, so that the skilled workers make the best use of their time. These runners may be seen between tasks, but there is always more for them to do.
Those in supervisory roles might not be observed swinging a hammer or pouring concrete, but their presence is equally vital. Engineers visually inspect progress for quality control, while foremen provide instructions and ensure that processes are performed correctly.
As for those men and women seen relishing their food and rest, this is hardly a sign of laziness. Hours of grueling physical labor take their toll. It’s no wonder that construction workers greet their lunch break with gusto.
Why Does it Take Them So Long to Finish a Project?
How long a construction project takes to complete is governed by many factors. When comparing the time it takes to build a bridge or high rise in China or India to a similar project in the U.S., it is a mistake to infer that the country who finishes first has better, more dedicated workforce.
To begin with, the regulatory environment in the U.S. is far more strict than in those countries. Take China, for instance. If the Chinese government decides to build a bridge, there is no further debate. Because there is no private land ownership, the State can choose a site quickly. They don’t have to wait for environmental or feasibility studies, nor do they have to endure a bidding process for contractors or materials procurement.
While this results in very rapid turnaround, there are downsides. The lack of competition means materials are not always the best, nor are the structures as well built as they could and should be. Stories of new bridges collapsing, new highrises sitting empty, and environmental hardships due to rampant construction show the dark side of this speed.
In the U.S., the focus is on quality over quantity. One may argue that there are more regulations than strictly required to ensure the safety and soundness of new construction, yet there are far fewer structural failures or environmental catastrophes as a result.
There are also fewer workplace injuries and deaths. Adherence to safety standards takes time, it is true. Workers have to pause for inspections, and progress may be halted due to hazardous conditions. Other countries may gain time by ignoring these things, but they do so at great cost.
There are other elements that can slow or stop work on a project in the U.S.. Political concerns about the purpose of a structure can lead to protests or court-ordered delays. A contractor’s attempt to circumvent regulations can result in a strike by their employees.
Yet, no one can reasonably suggest that laziness of the entire workforce is the culprit. Construction workers in the U.S. work just as hard as any others, and there are plenty of marvels across the country that attest to this fact.