According to OSHA, about 6.5 million Americans work at more than 250,000 construction sites across the United States on any given day. With injury and fatality rates higher in construction than most other industries, proactively addressing the main safety concerns these workers face is critical.
Specific hazards can vary depending on the work site, but there are a number of safety concerns that are common throughout much of the construction industry. These include:
- Falls from heights
- Scaffold and trench collapses
- Heavy equipment incidents
- Failure to use (or improper use of) personal protective equipment
- Repetitive motion injuries
In this article, we’re going to delve a little deeper into each one to find out what the key concerns are and how to address them before they become problematic.
Takeaway: Providing fall protection (and making sure workers use it properly) is one of the most important steps you can take to protect workers on construction sites.
Year after year, falls from heights are the most significant cause of injuries and fatalities in construction. Last year, a newly-created database showed that between 1982 and 2015, 42 percent of fatalities on construction sites involved falls. More than half of the workers killed did not have access to a personal fall arrest system, and an additional 23 percent had access to fall protection equipment but did not use it.
The evidence is clear: using fall protection devices like guardrails, fall arrest systems, safety nets, and restraints helps prevent accidents that can result in serious injury or death. Employers must take specific measures to ensure that workers cannot fall off overhead platforms or elevated working surfaces:
- Providing fall protection for all walking or working surfaces more than six feet from the ground and for all employees working above dangerous equipment and machinery
- Covering all floor holes
- Erecting a guardrail and toe board around every elevated, open-sided platform, floor, or runway
- Employing the use of safety nets or personal fall arrest systems
- Posting signs clearly advising of the weight capacity of elevated working surfaces
- Providing training on the proper setup and use of fall protection equipment
The construction industry commonly uses scaffolding to support work crews and materials during the construction, maintenance, and repair of buildings and other structures. OSHA notes that approximately 2.3 million construction workers frequently work on scaffolds, resulting in about 4,500 injuries and 50 fatalities each year.
To mitigate the possibility of collapse, scaffolds must be set on sound footing not within 10 feet of power lines and be fully planked. Scaffolds should not be altered and any parts that are damaged and may negatively impact the strength of the scaffolding must be removed from service. Employers and workers should observe the following safety precautions:
- Never move scaffolds while workers are on them unless they are specifically designed to be mobile
- Do not work on scaffolds in poor weather or high winds, or when the scaffolds are covered with snow, ice, or other slippery materials
- Do not use any type of makeshift platform to raise work height, including ladders, boxes, barrels, or buckets
- Do not load scaffolds with more weight than they were designed to support
Unprotected trenches can be extremely dangerous and can collapse without warning, posing an asphyxiation risk to workers who get caught inside. For this reason, it’s important to follow standard safety protocols.
OSHA requires that trenches five feet deep or greater have a protective system unless the excavation is made entirely in stable rock, while trenches 20 feet deep or greater must have a protective system designed by a registered professional engineer.
There are a few different types of protective systems that construction firms may employ during trenching operations:
- Sloping: Cutting back the trench wall at an angle inclined away from the excavation in accordance with sloping requirements for the type of soil present
- Shoring: Installing supports to prevent soil movement in trenches less than 20 feet deep
- Shielding: Using trench boxes or other supports to prevent soil from caving in
Workers should always have access to a ladder, stairway, or ramp to exit the trench and heavy machinery should never approach trench edges. After a rainstorm or excessive vibrations, a competent person should inspect trenches before workers enter.
Heavy Equipment Incidents
Construction sites often make use of a wide range of heavy equipment and machinery, including dump trucks, cranes, excavators, and pavers. And from struck by and crushed between accidents to equipment malfunctions, the hazards are numerous.
In order to reduce the chances of an incident occurring, workers and supervisors should observe the following practices:
- Check all vehicles and equipment for proper operation at the beginning of each shift
- Use traffic controls any time a vehicle enters a public thoroughfare
- Place flaggers wearing high-visibility gear at all appropriate locations
- Ensure that loads do not exceed the capacity of vehicles and equipment
- Only make repairs once workers are protected from the movement of equipment and its parts
- Stop engines during refueling
Personal Protective Equipment
Employers must provide workers with the appropriate PPE for the job. However, it’s up to the workers to ensure that the PPE is worn, without fail, every shift. Protective equipment differs drastically between jobs, and can be anything from a high-visibility vest to a hard hat to respiratory and hearing protection.
The following best practices are general guidelines that can lessen the risk of preventable incidents occurring
- Wear hard hats whenever there is a risk of objects falling from above, bumping one’s head on a fixed object, or accidental head contact with electrical hazards
- Wear safety glasses or face protection if work operations may result in foreign objects entering the eye area (e.g., cutting, grinding, nailing, welding, and working with chemicals that may splash)
- Wear protective boots that are slip resistant and have puncture-resistant soles; steel-toed boots are essential when working near heavy equipment or falling objects
- Wear the right gloves for the job at hand (e.g., heavy-duty gloves for concrete, insulated gloves with sleeves for electrical hazards, welding gloves for welding)
Repetitive Motion and Ergonomic Injuries
Many construction jobs involve repetitive movements such as lifting, holding, carrying, raising and lowering, and pushing and pulling materials and loads. After a while, these motions can cause injuries. While bruises, punctures, and broken bones are possible, the most common issues are soft tissue damage and musculoskeletal disorders. Onset and intensity can vary from person to person, and it can disrupt a worker’s ability to work and engage in personal activities.
The best way to prevent these issues is to train workers on proper techniques for lifting, carrying, and pushing or pulling loads. However, it’s also important to inspect the worksite often for improper material storage, unsafe ladder use, poor equipment maintenance that could increase physical demands on workers, and the inappropriate use of equipment (like boxes used as platforms) for overhead work.
Look around any construction site and you’ll be able to spot plenty of hazards. The nature of the industry means that work at heights and the use of things like scaffolding, trenches, and heavy machinery is necessary. However, with appropriate precautions and effective worker training, employers can significantly mitigate the risk to workers.