In 2013, 291out of 828 worker deaths were due to falls. That’s 35% of all fatalities in construction. This statistic has not changed much in recent years. This also doesn’t reflect the number of disabling injuries suffered by workers. Thousands more are temporarily or permanently disabled. These workers never recover, physically or financially.
You might ask if OSHA actually helps at all. The numbers show that OSHA is making a difference. Consider the population of the US in 1970, the year OSHA was created. Our country had 205 million people living here. We now have 318 million residents. That’s a 50% increase. If all else was equal, you would expect that worker injuries would be up 50% also.
The reality is far different. In 1970, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that approximately 1600 construction workers were killed each year on the job. That number has dropped to just over 800 deaths in recent years. That shows a 50% reduction. In reality, the decrease is even more impressive since we have more construction jobs now, more man hours being worked.
So how are people falling? Falls can occur from height, such as a roof, radio tower, wind turbine, or can be slips and trips. Common objects involved in falls include: ladders, scaffolds, heavy equipment, leading edges, floor openings, ramps, aerial lifts, through skylights and into trenches. Some people have fallen and died while wearing perfectly good harnesses, but they weren’t tied off.
There are several ways to protect workers. We can use active or passive systems. Passive systems are always present, guardrails fall into this category. Once they are installed, they protect everyone. Another benefit is that they only need to support 200 pounds. Active systems require workers to perform certain actions to protect themselves; don the harness, tie off each time they enter the area. Active systems are more likely to fail due to human error. Anchor points also need to be a lot stronger than guardrails, 5000 pounds. Other options include engineering
Once you choose the right system and are ready to work, there has to be a rescue plan. We must assume that someone will fall at some point. A rescue plan does not solely consist of calling 911. How do you take pressure off of the leg straps, what equipment can you use to support them and restore circulation? Do you have ladders or aerial lifts nearby? Can the worker self-rescue by climbing into a window or onto a ledge? A worker can die in 15-30 minutes if not rescued promptly.
What can you do to help prevent injuries in the workplace?
- Make safety a condition of employment – demand safe work practices
- Pre plan the work – AHA’s, pre task plans reviewed with workers
- Have the right equipment – harnesses, guardrails, retractables
- Train the workers on the equipment and the plan
- Solicit worker input, allow for questions and reporting of problems
- Avoid retaliation – it’s illegal
- Keep it clean – good housekeeping
- Encourage workers to protect themselves and each other
- Supervise properly and don’t allow short cuts
- Inspect gear and remove defective items from service
- Stop work authority – anyone can stop what they are doing to report problems
- Plan to fall – know your rescue plan
Even though we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the last 45 years, it’s still not good enough. Continual improvement is needed. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are the workers safe?
- Are we in compliance with OSHA, HIOSH, MSHA, EM385, etc.?
- Are we in compliance with our own safety program?
A yes answer to all three will protect the workers, the management and the company. A safe company stays in business and thrives, safe job sites have high productivity and morale.