How to Prevent Construction Accidents: OSHA Guidelines for Fall Hazards
If you’ve been injured after falling on a construction job or other work site, contact the personal injury lawyers at Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P. for expert legal advice and representation.
Of all the hazards construction workers face, falls are the most formidable. In spite of improved safety standards and stricter regulations, falling remains the leading cause of injury and death among construction workers, causing one out of every three fatalities. Longshoremen, shipyard workers, warehouse workers and others face similar dangers.
The tragedy is that most accidents are preventable with the proper planning, equipment, and training. The burden of ensuring workers’ safety falls squarely on the shoulders of employers. It’s their responsibility to adopt proper procedures and supply all the necessary safety equipment. Failure to do so constitutes nothing short of negligence.
What Is a Fall Hazard?
A fall hazard is defined as anything that might lead to loss of balance or body support and which eventually results in a worker falling from a height. Many worksites are susceptible to fall hazards, but construction areas are particularly rife with risks.
Potential fall hazards include:
- Floor holes
- Elevated open-sided floors, platforms, and runways
- Dangerous machinery located below a workspace (vats of boiling liquid or acid, conveyor belts, etc.)
Fall Protection Standards
In construction, falls to a lower level are a major cause of fatalities. Protecting workers should be priority number one for companies. Unfortunately, many businesses put profits first. They cut corners in an effort to reduce costs. That’s why the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets strict fall protection standards for each industry. Official guidelines specify when protection is needed and what kind of protection is sufficient.
OSHA requires employers to provide fall protections at the following elevations:
- General Industry: 4 ft.
- Shipyards: 5 ft.
- Construction: 6 ft.
- Longshoring: 8 ft.
If workers will be moving on platforms above dangerous equipment and machinery, employers must make provisions for falls, no matter the elevation.
Stage 1: Planning
Preparation is critical when it comes to minimizing risks. Lack of planning is one of the most egregious errors a company can make. If managers are following through with due diligence, most of the hard work will be completed before the job even begins.
Step 1: Assessment – Planning begins with assessment. Construction sites are full of fall hazards, and employers must use all the resources at their disposal to spot potential dangers, from leading edges and slippery roofs to holes and skylights. A comprehensive fall hazard assessment checklist can guide the evaluation.
To help employers identify dangers, OSHA has developed extensive training materials and work site appraisal forms. Once they have the full OSHA fall hazard assessment answers, an employer will be better able to determine how much protection is needed and what kinds of safety measures are appropriate.
Important questions include:
- What permanent structures pose a falling hazard (e.g., ledges, roofs, etc.)?
- What temporary structures pose a falling hazard (e.g., ladders, scaffolding, etc.)?
- Are there any conditions that may increase the risk of falls (e.g., dust, oil, water, etc.)?
- Is there proper lighting?
Step 2: Strategizing – Once they’ve created and filled out a fall protection hazard assessment form, construction companies should move on to a comprehensive fall protection plan. Construction workers shouldn’t have to wait to receive the proper training and equipment. Procedures should be prepared ahead of time, training should be completed, and all safety equipment should be on site by the time work starts.
In order to develop a successful fall prevention strategy, employers and on site managers must consider every aspect of the job. At the very least, they should ask the following questions:
- What kind of job is it?
- Where will employees be working?
- What tasks will they be engaged in?
- What safety measures are needed to ensure adequate protection against falls?
Part of planning is taking all contingencies into account. Thinking through all the possible dangers and including safety expenses in the budget can help employers prevent accidents and even minimize long-term costs.
From guardrails to warning lines, there are many different types of safety equipment specifically designed to prevent falls. Some protections are mandatory; others are strongly recommended.
The Basics – OSHA requires work sites with fall hazards to have certain basic safety equipment—systems and tools that directly prevent workers from falling and injuring themselves. OSHA fall protection height equipment includes:
- Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS) – Stops workers from falling from vertical heights. Includes a safety harness and line. Can feature temporary or permanent attachments. On site managers must identify attachment points and train workers to properly use systems.
- Guardrails – Used on elevated floors, platforms, and runways, as well as above dangerous machinery. Can come in the form of stair railings or hand rails.
- Safety Nets – Designed to catch workers before they fall to the ground from vertical heights.
- Toe-Boards – A long piece of wood nailed horizontally along an exposed ledge or another fall hazard.
- Floor Hole Covers – Guards floor holes and openings so workers don’t risk falling through.
The key is to match the equipment to the nature of the hazard. OSHA, for example, demands that employers protect workers from floor holes by deploying railings and toe-boards or floor hole covers. Guard rails and toe-boards are also mandatory for elevated platforms and anywhere a worker risks falling into dangerous machinery.
Advanced Safety Equipment – Other safety measures prevent workers from unnecessarily exposing themselves to hazardous conditions. Such equipment includes:
- Warning lines that clearly indicate a fall hazard
- Signs that mark off designated work areas
- Supplies for creating special control zones
Finally, employers must constantly maintain and regularly inspect their safety equipment to ensure that it’s in working order. Old or defective equipment can pose an even greater danger than missing equipment since it gives workers a false sense of security.
If workers don’t know how to mitigate risk and use equipment properly, then the most robust safety precautions will come to nothing. Once again, employers bear the burden of ensuring proper training. If employees suffer injury because they went to work unprepared, then it’s the employer who must face the consequences.
Workers must know how to:
- Identify fall hazards (e.g., holes and ledges).
- Avoid dangerous conditions (e.g., slick surfaces and unguarded areas).
- Use safety equipment.
- Inspect safety equipment.
At the very least, construction workers should know how to secure ladders; how to set up and maintain scaffolds; and how to attach, wear, and inspect fall protection equipment (e.g., harnesses and attachments). Training should also give employees the knowledge they need to be able to spot common dangers, such as whether a ladder is covered with oil, grease, or other slippery substances.
Injured Workers Can Seek Redress
When employers fail to take all the necessary precautions, workers suffer. Injuries can range from mild to severe, from sprained ankles to broken backs and even death. While OSHA does what it can to regulate dangerous work sites, it’s the responsibility of each employer to create a safe work environment.
When construction companies negligent of their duties, the only recourse for injured workers is to file a claim. When insurance companies and corporations refuse to deal fairly, injured workers have a right to hire an expert legal team to represent their interests and ensure that justice is served.
Contact Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P.
If you’ve fallen from a height while on the job, it’s important to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer. The personal injury law firm of Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris, L.L.P. is here to help. Our top personal injury lawyers can advise you on your legal rights, evaluate your case, negotiate on your behalf, and fight for justice if necessary.
Contact us today to receive a free case evaluation from a seasoned personal injury attorney. Tell us a bit about your case, and we’ll tell what your options are.