Meeting the Challenge

A typical working day in America involves four to five construction deaths and 900 serious injuries. At least 20 percent of those incidents are falls.

FALLS have long been the bane of construction work in this country. Last fall, the third edition of "The Construction Chart Book" from the Center to Protect Workers' Rights pinpointed falls as the leading cause of death for two construction occupations in 1999. Falls caused 30 of the 40 deaths among ironworkers that year and 48 of 56 deaths among roofers. The fatality rates per 100,000 equivalent full-time workers for those two occupations were 16 times and six times higher, respectively, than the rate for all construction, CPWR reported.

The center is the research and development branch of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, which cautions its members that a typical working day in America involves four to five on-the-job construction deaths and 900 serious injuries. Because falls are the leading cause of deaths and rank second among causes of non-fatal construction injuries, we know that at least 20 percent of these daily incidents result from falls.

A Variety of Causes
Construction falls have many causes (see the accompanying chart, "Causes of Lost-time Construction Injuries from Falls, 1999"), and several factors make them difficult to manage.

Rate of Non-fatal Falls By Industry, 1999

The chart shows the number of work-related falls per 100,000 full-time workers.

Construction

68.5

Transportation

53.2

Agriculture

41.1

Mining

37.6

Retail trade

35.6

Wholesale trade

32.8

Service

27.9

Manufacturing

25.7

Finance

14.0

All industries

32.9

SOURCE: The Construction Chart Book, Third Edition, The Center to Protect Workers' Rights.

Sites are temporary, constantly changing, and each is unique. Multiple contractors and craft groups share a site, posing a communications and oversight challenge that may rise if several languages are spoken. Poor lighting, inclement weather, and noise are liable to increase safety risks.

Failing to clean up debris and scraps routinely left lying around a job site allows slip-and-fall hazards to proliferate. Hurrying to complete a section may cause workers to leave floor holes uncovered or unguarded, to neglect trench boxes, or to work at elevation without donning fall harnesses. Haste is a major danger in all types of construction.

Finally, recent surveys have confirmed lamentably low usage of personal protective equipment by construction employees.

"Almost all sites have unprotected sides and edges, wall openings, or floor holes at some point during construction," OSHA notes in its construction eTool (available at www.osha.gov). "If these sides and openings are not protected at your site, injuries from falls or falling objects may result, ranging from sprains and concussions to death."

Causes of Lost-time Construction Injuries from Falls, 1999

On same level

34.4 %

From ladder

20.7 %

From scaffold

8.9 %

From roof

5.8 %

Other

30.2 %

SOURCE: The Construction Chart Book, Third Edition, The Center to Protect Workers' Rights.

Whenever employees are exposed to a fall of 6 feet or more above a lower level, employers should make use of guardrails, safety nets, or fall arrest systems, OSHA advises. Generally, the agency says, fall prevention systems such as guardrails are preferable to safety nets or fall arrest devices "because they provide more positive safety means."

Employers should be well aware of their responsibilities to perform site inspections and analyze hazards, to educate workers about the hazards, and to enforce PPE use and safe work practices. The best contractors insist on 100 percent compliance, tolerating nothing less.

Checklist: Preventing Construction Falls

This checklist was prepared by Linda F. Johnson, a former technical editor of Occupational Health & Safety. Items in it are for evaluation purposes only, and are not meant to substitute for a comprehensive safety program or audit.

Yes

No

Is management actively committed to providing a safe work site?

Yes

No

Is the site inspected daily or more often for housekeeping problems that may cause a fall from elevation or a same-level fall?

Yes

No

Is the entire site surveyed regularly for changing conditions that may create a tripping or slipping hazard?

Yes

No

Are spills cleaned up immediately?

Yes

No

Are walkways kept clear and free of combustible materials?

Yes

No

Is loose granular material, such as sand, swept up and removed immediately?

Yes

No

Is stored material stable and secure from tipping or falling over?

Yes

No

Are workers' tools and tool boxes/gangboxes properly located and stored? Are all stray tools gathered and stored properly at the end of each shift?

Yes

No

Is a safe clearance for material handling equipment provided through aisles and doorways?

Yes

No

Are openings to outside walls adequately barricaded and labeled before any work begins in the area?

Yes

No

Are employees prohibited from sitting on ledges of openings to outside walls?

Yes

No

Are all floor openings identified with appropriate signage and covered or barricaded prior to worker exposure in the area?

Yes

No

Are floor openings guarded by a standard railing or a person posted on guard at all times when employees are exposed?

Yes

No

Have all employees been advised about how to report unsafe conditions at the site?

Yes

No

Do they know whom to contact in such cases?

Yes

No

Are reported items or unsafe conditions documented?

Yes

No

Do employees wear appropriate safety footwear for the floor conditions?

Yes

No

Does their footwear fit properly, to prevent slips caused by excessive wear or damage?

Yes

No

Is damaged or defective footwear replaced or repaired?

Yes

No

Is the level of lighting adequate for safe employee movement and for the work being performed?

Yes

No

Are temporary hand railings checked for protruding nails and splinters?

Yes

No

Are floors and walkways evaluated for evenness? Are changes in elevation, such as joints, labeled to prevent falls?

Yes

No

Are covers or guardrails in place and marked around open trenches, pits, tanks, or other surface interruptions?

Yes

No

Are ladderways and other unfinished wall openings guarded by a railing?

Yes

No

Are plans in place for fencing and barricading the work site from public use and vehicular traffic? Is the perimeter wide enough to protect outsiders from debris and potential fall hazards?

Yes

No

Do workers for your company or subcontractors who use scaffolding utilize a competent person for its set-up, use, and removal?

Yes

No

Are scrap bins monitored for spillover that could create a slip/fall hazard?

Yes

No

Are adequate cleanup supplies and absorbents available for spills?

Yes

No

Do employees know where to find first aid supplies on the site?

Yes

No

Are emergency numbers posted as required?

]

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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