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Keep An Eye on Construction Safety

Construction falls and trench collapses might occur at any time during the year, but they typically peak during the summer.

When the National Association of Home Builders commissioned a study to determine fatality rates and causes in the U.S. residential construction industry from 2003 to 2006, the researchers found deaths were most frequent in the summers and peaked at 164 in August -- with falls being the leading cause.

Summer is the season when safety authorities turn their full attention to the construction industry, which experiences more fatalities than any other industry sector:

  • OSHA on April 21 announced an enforcement action with $143,000 in penalties against a Connecticut steel erection contractor in connection with fall hazards at a hotel construction site. Employees were exposed to falls of as much as 53 feet while working on the project's roof, OSHA said, adding that floor holes were unguarded and stair railings were missing or inadequate.
  • The NIOSH NORA Construction Sector Council is planning a national campaign to prevent fatal falls in construction. The NORA Construction Research Agenda, completed in October 2008, listed three traumatic injury events as focal areas: falls, electrical hazards, and struck-by injuries -- together, they represent about 65 percent of fatal injuries and 43 percent of non-fatal lost-time injuries, according to the April 2011 LifeLines newsletter from the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America.
  • OSHA has signed numerous trenching safety alliances with pipeline and utility contractors' associations and the American Society of Safety Engineers, among others. OSHA issued $112,000 in penalties and two willful citations in March 2011 to an Alabama contractor for allegedly failing to protect workers from cave-in hazards during a sewer line project.
  • OSHA begins enforcing new fall protection compliance guidelines for residential construction on June 16, six months after the new guidelines were issued. They withstood a court challenge.

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries will include demonstrations on forklift safety, fall protection, and the vibration of hand-held tools during its fourth annual Construction Safety Day. The event takes place on May 4, 2011. The day also will offer workshops for supervisors and workers about fire extinguisher training, the state's Dig Law, tool safety, and confined spaces. L&I says seven workers died in 2010 in the state in construction-related accidents, while OSHA says Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that an average of 40 workers die per year because of falls from residential roofs.

The Indiana Department of Labor's INSafe Division devoted much of its March/April 2011 INdiana Labor Insider newsletter to residential fall protection. The agency said five construction workers in the Hoosier state died in falls in 2009; IOSHA will begin enforcing federal OSHA's new fall protection rules on July 1. (INSafe provides free, on-site consultation and training to small businesses and high-hazard employers in the state.)

The newsletter includes a brief report about a worker's March 26, 2010, fatal 30-foot fall from a roof. It says contractors should learn these lessons from such incidents:

  • Train employees to recognize hazards associated with each job, task, and work site.
  • Provide personal fall arrest equipment, provide employee training on it, and ensure it is used and inspected regularly.
  • Install and maintain perimeter protection.
  • Use all equipment, including ladders and scaffolds, safely. Conduct and document regular inspections of such equipment.
  • Have supervisors, foremen, safety supervisors, or senior employees deliver regular safety toolbox talks on site.
  • Investigate all near-miss incidents to determine the causes, and perform root cause analyses.
  • Foster a culture of workplace safety and health. Hold yourself accountable for your employees' understanding and following all written safety and health policies, rules, procedures, and regulations.

Falls are the leading cause of death in construction and the leading cause of deaths and serious injuries in residential construction. A report published last fall by CPWR - The Center for Construction Research and Training, found smaller construction firms "appear to suffer a disproportionate share of work-related deaths from injuries. Establishments having fewer than 20 employees reported 56% of construction deaths from injuries while employing only 38% of the wage-and-salary workforce in construction on average from 2003 to 2008," it said. A second CPWR report, "Fatal and Nonfatal Injuries among Hispanic Construction Workers, 1992-2008," said deaths among Hispanic construction laborers in American averaged 122 per year from 2003 to 2008, representing a very high rate of 135 per 100,000 full-time employees during the period.

Details of the New Fall Protection Guidelines
OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health, the association of state plans, and the National Association of Home Builders supported the new OSHA fall protection guidelines, Standard 03-11-002, which replace the Interim Fall Protection Compliance Guidelines for Residential Construction, Standard 03-00-001. Standard 03-00-001 allowed employers engaged in certain residential construction activities to use alternative fall protection method instead of what 1926.501(b)(13), but the new guidelines require all residential construction employers to follow that regulation.

In general, the new OSHA guidelines (also being followed by state plans) require construction employees working at least 6 feet or more above lower levels to use guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) is putting this into effect June 16, 2011. "We know that most fatalities and serious accidents can be prevented when employers follow the rules and apply effective worker safeguards on every job site where hazards are present," said MIOSHA Director Doug Kalinowski. MIOSHA partnered with the Michigan Association of Home Builders and local home builder associations to launch a "Residential Fall Protection Initiative" to help employers protect their workers and comply with the new requirements. "By working together to reach out, educate, and lead our members and their employees in improving and advancing workplace safety and health we can make a difference in construction safety," said Lee Schwartz, executive vice president of governmental relations for MAHB. "We want to see every residential construction worker return to their families at the end of the day without injury. The best way to achieve that goal is through a safe and healthy work environment."

According to MIOSHA, falls accounted for nearly one-third of the construction workplace fatalities investigated by the MIOSHA Construction Safety and Health Division during the past five years, and the third-most-frequently cited violation was Rule 1926.501(b)(13), where employees engaged in residential construction activities were not protected from falling 6 feet or more.

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