2015-2016 Construction Safety Highlights

From OSHA's National Safety Stand-Down to bridge collapse investigations and trenching hazards, the construction industry can learn from mistakes in order to boost its safety performance.

The construction industry is one of the most dangerous industries in the private-sector workforce today, with 6.5 million employees working across hundreds of thousands of sites. This industry faces perhaps more hazards than any other, aside from oil & gas, due to the broad responsibilities of those working. Some of the most common hazards include falls from heights, trench collapses, scaffold collapses, and electric shock. This article takes a broad look at construction safety over the past year to see what happened and how problems will be fixed going forward.

National Safety Stand-Down
The 2016 National Safety Stand-Down (hashtag #StandDown4Safety) again highlighted the importance of preventing falls, still the number one cause of worker deaths and serious injuries in the U.S. construction industry. According to OSHA data, fatalities from falls made up 337 of the 874 construction fatalities in 2014.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels issued the following statement in February regarding the third annual event: "Falls still kill far too many construction workers. While we regularly work with employers, industry groups and worker organizations on preventing falls and saving lives, the National Safety Stand-Down encourages all employers—from small businesses to large companies operating at many job sites—to be part of our effort to ensure every worker makes it to the end of their shift safely."

OSHA reported that its 2015 Stand-Down was a "tremendous success, reaching more than 2.5 million workers," and that its goal for 2016 was to reach 5 million workers: "If we meet this goal, we will have touched more than half of the construction workers in the country."

NYC Crane Collapse
On Feb. 5, 2016, David Wichs was walking to work in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan when a crawl crane collapsed, killing him and injuring three others. Two of the injured civilians were hospitalized with serious injuries from debris after the 565-foot crane fell onto Worth Street, shaking the buildings nearby. The cause of the collapse was attributed to heavy gusts of wind that occurred in New York City that morning, leading the workers to determine they needed to lower the crane to a more secure level. The crane's boom began to topple on descent, quickly entering free fall.

The crane was being used to install generators and air-conditioning units on top of 60 Hudson Street, and it had been inspected the previous day to approve the length of the extension. A water main suffered leaks as a result of the collapse, as did multiple gas lines, according to officials.

Incidents like this one have become more common in New York City as construction has increased by more than 300 percent there since 2009, leading to a 98 percent increase in accidents.

Following the incident, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) Commissioner Rick Chandler announced a campaign to increase job safety on construction sites. The DOB now requires construction superintendents for all major construction projects at buildings of less than 10 stories. Previously, a superintendent was required only on sites for new construction projects under 10 stories. These smaller sites were responsible for 70 percent of workplace accidents in 2015, according to the Commercial Observer.

Now, a superintendent working on a construction site in NYC has more duties, including: ensuring compliance with Chapter 33 of the Building Code, ensuring work conforms to plans, designating a competent person to provide full-time safety supervision, notifying the DOB of accidents, correcting any unsafe conditions, and inspecting the entire work area, as well as maintaining a job site log for each visit.

As of Aug. 1, superintendents must visit the job site every day that work occurs.

Regarding crane safety, OSHA says on its website, "Significant and serious injuries may occur if cranes are not inspected before use and if they are not used properly," adding, "Often these injuries occur when a worker is struck by an overhead load or caught within the crane's swing radius."

Recent OSHA Enforcement Actions
Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov, a school, was cited for 21 serious violations of workplace safety standards by OSHA on June 3, 2016, when an investigation determined employees were exposed to widespread electrical hazards and to falls from 6 to more than 10 feet, as well as impalement, struck-by, and laceration hazards. The school was constructing a six-story school and office building in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On July 13, 2016, OSHA called on Philadelphia construction companies to prevent falls after five fatal incidents occurred within one month. (Falls had accounted for 40 percent of all fatalities since Oct. 1, 2015, according to OSHA.) And a Houston contractor was cited and faced $124,300 in penalties for a total of 14 violations, including one classified as willful, for trenching hazards. It was the sixth time the company had been cited in 10 years, after OSHA investigators witnessed workers performing trench and excavation work unsafely. Oscar Renda Contracting Inc. was cited on July 28, 2016, for allowing employees to work unprotected in excavations and permit-required confined spaces.

North Carolina Bridge Collapses and Engineering Investigations
At 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2015, the center and east spans of a ramp bridge being demolished near downtown Cincinnati fell 15-20 feet on the southbound I-75 south freeway, killing a foreman and injuring the excavator operator. The incident occurred while a concrete slab was being removed from the deck of the ramp as part of the demolition, according to OSHA. Work had begun a day earlier but was stopped due to concerns about steel girders lifting off their bearings. Work was resumed after measures taken by engineers were carried out, but they proved not to be adequate.

An engineering analysis determined two things:

  • The demolition plan that was prepared was flawed, leading to the incident. The engineers were given an opportunity to fix the plan, but the changes were considered "grossly inadequate" and did not meet the engineering standard expected.
  • The Ohio DOT did not question the contractor about the method/sequence of demolition. While ODOT is experienced in these types of projects, the department recognized that the contractor is responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the plan.

When two pedestrian bridges under construction collapsed at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., in November 2014, one worker was killed and four others were injured. The bridge collapses happened within hours of each other less than a block apart on the college campus. The bridges consisted of glued laminated timber girders and trusses to blend with the trees and their canopies in environmentally sensitive surroundings, according to the engineering report that was released in 2015.

After the incident, a structural engineer from the OSHA Directorate of Construction (DOC) staff in the OSHA National Office, Washington, D.C., was asked to visit the site in order to examine the bridges and investigate. The investigation included a review of drawings, computations for erection methods, glue usage, and more. The investigation resulted in the following conclusions:

1. The failures of the bridges were due to a design flaw in the girders, which were severely notched at each end. When a full load was applied, horizontal cracks appeared, causing the failure.

2. None of the consultants on the project noticed the impact those notches would have.

3. The notches were not in compliance with ANSI standards.

4. The contractors did not share knowledge of the notches with the structural engineer.

Delayed Enforcement for Electric Power Generation
In 2014, OSHA put a final rule into effect that revised the general industry and construction standards for work on electric power generation, transmission and distribution installations. The agency later entered into a settlement agreement with the Edison Electric Institute, Utility Line Clearance Coalition, and the Tree Care Industry Association to resolve legal challenges to that final rule.

A memorandum dated February 18, 2015, adopted a delayed enforcement date for certain minimum approach distance requirements in 29 CFR 1910.269 and 29 CFR Part 1926, Subpart V. Those delayed dates have now been pushed back even further, stretching into 2017.

Until Jan. 31, 2017, no citations will be issued under 29 CFR 1910.269(l)(3)(ii) or 29 CFR 1926.960c(1)(ii), which require the employer to determine the maximum anticipated overvoltage, for voltages of 169.1 kilovolts or more. OSHA will also accept compliance with minimum approach distances as illustrated in the rule.

Given that there is such a wide variety of hazards that can cause problems for construction safety workers, it's important to take a broad look at issues plaguing the industry. While some of these are much more deadly than others, being informed of many of the instances on the job that are dangerous will help to protect workers in the future.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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