Study: Smoking on the Jobsite Still a Tinderbox Issue
One of the great things about Fine Homebuilding discussion forums is that the participants tend to be candid. They say what they mean, and don’t hold back. That’s one of the main reasons the authors of a recent study focusing on perspectives and practices regarding smoking at residential construction sites seemed confident they were getting honest information about workers’ attitudes, even if solutions to some of the questions raised by the study aren’t clear-cut.
“Smoking on building sites was a contentious issue,” wrote Susan Bondy and Kim Bercovitz, researchers at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health who analyzed online discussion-board comments posted from December 1998 through May 2010 in Fine Homebuilding’s Breaktime forum.
“A polemic was observed characterized by negative attitudes, stereotypes, and conflict between smoking and nonsmoking builders,” Bondy and Bercovitz wrote, adding, “Harsh comments about smoking smokers were made by nonsmokers and recounted by smokers. Similarly, pejorative comments about nonsmokers were found, including accusations of intolerance, discrimination, and of being hypocritical.”
Tracking the main themes
The researchers also noted that even though many of the comments were harsh, many also were humorous (some sardonically so, as in: “All smokers should be shot on sight”). Bondy and Bercovitz didn’t post to Breaktime themselves, but did forum searches during the study period using a variety of keywords. They found more than 1,000 smoking-related messages posted among Breaktime subtopic forums such as “Business,” “General Discussion,” and “Woodshed Tavern.”
Beyond existing data about smokers – including findings from a study showing that construction workers had the highest smoking rate by occupational group from 1997–2004: 39%, versus an average of 25% among all employees in a sample of blue-collar workers – the researchers relied on qualitative analysis of the discussions to identify major and minor themes relevant to workplace smoking culture and policies.
One major theme: there’s conflict between nonsmokers and smokers who smoke in the workplace, although several smokers wrote that they’re not interested in creating conflict and do what they can to respect nonsmokers’ rights.
Another point of focus: secondhand smoke and its potentially unhealthful effects on workers in outdoor environments. Builders didn’t need convincing that secondhand smoke is linked to health problems, but they wanted quantitative data on the levels of exposure that will cause damage. Such data, however, would be difficult to calculate for most outdoor settings because key factors – such as the number of cigarettes smoked, distances between workers, and air movement in outdoor work areas – are likely to be highly variable.
Striking a balance on workplace remedies
When it comes to imposing restrictions or bans on smoking at the jobsite, builders seem motivated mostly by related economic issues, including the cost of medical coverage, the potential for lost productivity, and an aversion by customers to workers smoking inside (and, sometimes, outside) a home under construction. Imposing restrictions, many of the forum participants noted, requires enforcement procedures that can be complicated (how do you define “outdoors” at the jobsite?) or simply ignored.
That alternative to restrictions – outright bans or hiring policies that exclude smokers – requires a somewhat simpler enforcement strategy and greatly reduces conflicts among workers, but might mean the builder is missing out on some of the most highly skilled workers in their trade. Ideally, the researchers wrote, “creative means are needed to connect builders with effective cessation supports,” such as combining health promotion with job training, or connect workers intervention programs that might include counseling and pharmacotherapy.
Bondy and Bercovitz acknowledge the limitations of their study. It is, they noted, a “convenience sample,” meaning the forum comments were analyzed without in-depth demographic data on the people who made them. But, as mentioned earlier, the comments also were abundant and unvarnished. What’s more, no one was excluded by criteria such as union or business membership, or by minimum requirements on company size.