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Falls in the Construction Industry

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The construction industry is generally associated with high rates of occupational hazards, accidents and workplace injuries, including falls from heights, trench, scaffold collapses, electric shocks, motion injuries, etc. Moreover, despite advances in technologies, strict official regulations, organizational changes, improved working conditions and utilization of proper protective equipment, falls are identified as the most frequently occurred cause of fatalities in construction (“Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction”, “Welcome to OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign”). Falling from workplaces and through fragile roofs is the main cause of preventable fatal accidents in the construction industry. Thus, preventive solutions and effective safety programs should be developed and consistently implemented, involving empowered officials, public policymakers, leaders of labor unions, stakeholders, OSHA’s inspectors, construction employers, supervisors, contractors and construction workers of all qualifications.

The issue of safety and labor protection is one of the most actual and socially significant aspects of the construction industry due to today’s heavy losses. Labor protection in the construction industry is the complex system of interconnected legislative, social, economic, technical, hygienic, and organizational actions; their generalized multifaceted purpose is to protect the health of builders from work-related accidents, traumas and occupational disorders and also provide optimum working conditions, while increasing productivity and quality of performed works. Since the time of its foundation in 1970, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) assures “the safety and health of America's workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training, outreach, and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continual process improvement in workplace safety and health” (66). Despite the significant progress in occupational safety and health related to the construction industry, unsafe working conditions and hazards still induce falls resulting in fatalities and injuries.

In the USA, approximately 6.5 million people work at roughly 252,000 building sites every day. “Multiple investigations of accidents point to so many different causes” (Summerton and Berner 67). Falls from height are the main contributing factor to serious traumas and preventable deaths of workers in the construction industry. In conformity with statistical data provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “In 2010, there were 264 fall fatalities (255 falls to lower level) out of 774 total fatalities in construction” (“Welcome to OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign”). Moreover, Michael states that fall from heights in the construction industry “cause not only physical and emotional hardships for workers and their families, but can each cost well over $100,000 in lost wages and medical costs”.

The construction industry is a branch consisting of the state-owned and private companies that erect buildings for different purposes. “Large corporations and government agencies—the owners that regularly invest in capital facilities and infrastructure—are in the best position to lead an effort to drive change in the construction industry” (National Research Council, “Advancing the Competitiveness and Efficiency of the US Construction Industry” 6). Although the US construction industry is subdivided into residential, commercial, industrial and heavy construction sectors, standards of safe work developed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulate performance of the entire industry.

 Construction workers build, repair, reconstruct, modify and destroy residential and office buildings, plants and factories, hospitals, temples, roads, bridges, tunnels, stadiums, docks, the airports, etc. They also clear building sites of harmful waste. Construction projects, especially large, are complex and dynamically developing organizations. Several contractors and employers, who are carrying out a set of contracts at various stages of implementation of the project, can supervise and coordinate workers in the same construction site simultaneously.  Bricklayers, carpenters, glaziers, design engineers, fitters, painters, plasterers, roofers, paviours, pointers and many other workers can perform construction operations in the same site. In the process of the development of construction, working conditions and requirements for safety change in accordance with works completed and professionals involved. 

Falls from height can be caused by slippery or wet surfaces, instable footing, improper scaffold construction, unsafe ladders, floor holes, unprotected openings or skylights, utilization of defective equipment and insufficient construction workers’ knowledge and training. Roofing falls are the principal cause of construction-related injuries and fatalities. Consequences of falls from height can result in tensions of ligaments, close wounds, different types of fractures, paralyses and lethal outcomes. Falls from height can be caused by irrelevant working conditions, individual predisposition to falling due to certain diseases related to the central nervous system, blood circulation, skeleton and muscular system. Moreover, a person can fall due to general changes in his organism, accompanying the normal process of ageing.  Thus, all construction workers must be thoroughly examined by healthcare professionals before their employment.

Occurrence of injuries and fatalities is closely connected with engineering procedures and labor organization, though these factors are not always considered in fall prevention. Excessive manipulations, streams of transport communications, irrational or even dangerous warehousing of raw materials, semi-finished and finished products, dangerous working methods, irrational or inappropriate processing equipment, tools and their malfunction can cause falls, resulting in traumas and fatalities. Construction workers are constantly exposed to fall hazards. Those include all objects at worksites that can cause a worker to lose his balance or bodily support and lead to a fall (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

According to OSHA requirements, fall protection must be provided at six feet in construction. All works must be performed on non slip surfaces. Furthermore, workers must be protected from falls, while working over dangerous substances, machines and equipment, irrespective of height. Thus, the rates of fall-related fatalities and injuries in the construction industry can be eliminated by reducing “the whole potential to cause harm to workers or other persons affected by the enterprise arising from an identified cause of harm” (Elsler 16).

Therefore, in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), the OSHA launched the national campaign in order to prevent falls in construction in 2012. The campaign is designed to exclude psychological and physical risk factors. The high rates of falls-associated injuries and fatalities can be reduced by implementation of the PPT strategy, which consists of  planning the safety of construction projects ahead, providing fall protection and the right equipment for the job, and training employees to use the equipment safely (“Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction”, “Welcome to OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign”).

The stage of planning must precede all works in the site of construction.  In accordance with the OSHA’s recommendations, measures of protection from falling have to be planned in advance. Planning of safe works at height should be exercised in accordance with hierarchical structure of staff, involving all professionals. In addition, contractors, construction-workers and their immediate supervisors should plan protective procedures collaboratively. The first precautionary measure includes strategy-oriented steps, such as the correct design of work performance and technological specifications. While planning, employers should assess the potential hazards of construction sites, examine ladders, scaffolds, and roofs, precisely identify a job and its cost, determine levels of employees’ training, specific tasks of workers, requirements for their personal protective equipment, its amount, and means of fall protection, develop fall prevention practices. “Commercially successful organizations usually have good health and safety management systems in place. The principles of good and effective management provide a sound basis for the improvement of health and safety performance” (Hughes and Ferrett 20). Each construction organization must develop and implement practices of risk assessment and risk management.

Provision of fall protection and the right equipment for work in construction is the second obligatory stage of fall prevention. Contractors and employers should provide construction workers with the right fall protection and personal equipment. Means of individual protection from falling should be checked before each application in compliance with established norms of safety measures in the construction industry. Methods of fall protection and personal protective equipment (PPE) must correspond to the Interim Fall Protection Compliance Guidelines for Residential Construction (STD 03-00-001) developed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (“Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction”). In accordance with these guidelines, construction employers must provide workers and worksites with guardrails, gantries, loading bays, safety nets, and personal fall arrest systems in order to prevent or minimize risk of any fall occurring.

Construction works at height must be safe for those who perform them and must not endanger anybody at the site. Safety nets protect all construction workers from falling tools, construction materials, construction garbage and dust. Besides, safety nets esthetically make out a building site. Safety nets are made of specific polyethylene threads by nodal weaving; they must be chemically inert and nontoxic, while being resistant to high temperature. Safety nets are impregnated with specific substances, protecting them from rotting. The obligatory requirement to safety nets is the absence of metal inserts. Utilization of safety nets allows contractors to strictly follow all obligatory requirements of safety measures, while carrying out construction works at height and providing protection to people on the ground. Safety nets significantly reduce the occurrence of fall-associated injuries and fatalities in the construction industry.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an integral component of protection against falls from height; in addition, it can prevent or reduce the influence of construction hazards on a worker. A personal fall arrest system includes a full body harness, deceleration device, lanyard, and anchor device. Lanyards and lifelines should have a breaking strength of no less than 5000 pounds. A full body harness provides the support necessary for an entire body at the moment, when falling from height stops.

Anchor devices are designed to prevent falls; they differ depending on a type of construction works, specificity of works, types of their design and ways of installation. Different anchors are applied in various situations. A choice of a suitable anchor device is a complex challenge for contractors. The best full body harnesses and lanyards cannot prevent falling, if anchor devices are incorrectly chosen. Free falling has to be limited to 2 and less meters. Specific connectors, such as loops and carbines, are used to connect anchor devices and a full body harness. Slings limit a worker’s free falling; they should be rather short to avoid risk of falls. Today, the state-of-the-art personal protective equipment is manufactured to provide workers with additional functionality, comfort and simplified utilization. The OSHA supports and promotes the implementation of innovations in personal protective equipment (PPE).

Thus, “the employer is responsible for requiring the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment in all operations where there is an exposure to hazardous conditions  or where  the  need is  indicated  for  using such  equipment  to  reduce  the hazard to the employees” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 31).

Training is the third obligatory component of the national campaign designed to prevent falls in the construction industry. “Contractors and workers need to be trained to use the equipment and to work safely” (”Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction”). Taking into consideration a substantial number of immigrants employed in the construction industry, instructions should be written clearly and in different languages, so that all employed workers can be aware of their contents. All workers must be professionally competent and qualified to perform their jobs in construction. Therefore, instructions, training methods and education programs should be comprehensive, technologically relevant and based on pertinent documentaries. Contractors should select the most appropriate training courses, videos, presentations and other educational resources among those existing today. Utilization of personal protective equipment requires construction workers to possess relevant skills, knowledge and experience.

Today, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has designed a wide range of instructions, training and educational sources in order to increase construction workers’ knowledge and awareness of construction falls and their prevention. A specifically designed website has been created to promote useful information about fall prevention. In addition, a great number of supplementary materials, such as posters, fact sheets, stickers, training courses, videos, booklets and others, are regularly released by OSHA.

However, workers’ progress and level of training should be thoroughly monitored and supervised by contractors, instructors or empowered experienced construction workers. Furthermore, employers should control whether the work is covered with the existing instructions and recommendations, and whether other activities can create hazards to people working at height. In accordance with statements promulgated by Hughes and Ferrett,

Safe systems of work should be monitored to ensure that they are effective in practice and relevant to the actual task being undertaken. This will involve:

  • reviewing and revising the systems themselves in order to ensure they stay up-to-date;
  • inspection to identify to what extent they are being implemented. (Hughes and Ferrett 90).

Development of safety regulations and pertinent instructions on fall prevention in construction can be performed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration or federal inspectorates of labor protection in conformity with the existing laws and official regulations. For instance, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health of California (Cal/OSHA) has designed its federal regulatory guidelines on fall protection. The regulations specify requirements for personal protective equipment and installation of equipment for work in construction such as scaffolds, toeboards and railings.  In accordance with the Fall Protection Plan developed by Cal/OSHA, federal regulations allow “work to be carried on in a designated area, without conventional fall protection, and requires alternate measures to be used to reduce any fall hazard. There must be constant observation by a safety monitor” (California Division of Occupational Safety and Health). Thus, the national and federal regulatory guidelines can differ in specific requirements.

Moreover, it is essential to note that federal requirements establish an insufficient number of standards of fall prevention in construction. Compliance to these standards allows contractors to avoid possible penalties imposed by these regulations. However, trends to expand the existing federal regulations can be observed today. Contractors strengthen and improve protective equipment, precisely evaluate risks associated with falls from height and implement diverse practices in order to reduce rates of fall-related injuries and fatalities in construction.

Injuries and fatalities, arising out of construction organizations activities, can lead to compensation claims. OSHA strictly monitors employers’ abidance by the established norms and standards. In conformity with regulations designed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, violations of the state requirements for fall protection result in litigation and penalties. Extent of punishment varies depending on level of violations. In case violations repeat, cause deaths or severe injuries, they lead to legal claims and significant penalties. For instance, OSHA’s inspection in Boston has revealed that DeMoulas Super Markets Inc., doing business as Market Basket, does not provide the company’s employees with the equipment preventing falls. Violations of protective requirements by the company resulted in proposed OSHA fines totaling $589,200 (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “DOL Files Complaint…”).

Constant monitoring or dispatching management is one of the best ways to protect workers in the construction industry against fall-associated injuries and fatalities, while following official regulations and avoiding violations of requirements. Employers should regularly inspect workers’ utilization of their protective equipment and implementation of safety regulations. In case of non-compliance, contractors should train their employees to correctly perform their operations. Workers, who neglect safety measures, should be warned, trained or dismissed. Employers or empowered workers should correct errors and misconduct at work in construction. The process of fall prevention is a long lasting complicated phenomenon, involving both employers and employees.

In conclusion, falls from height are frequent accidents that can occur in various industries. Falls are determined as the most frequent cause of injuries and fatalities in the construction industry. There is nothing more valuable than a human life. Deleterious consequences of falls can result in irreparable health losses. Therefore, contractors’ compliance with requirements for fall prevention is an obligatory practice in the construction industry. “There is no single reliable measure of health and safety performance. What is required is a ‘basket’ of measures, providing information on a range of health and safety issues” (Hughes and Ferrett 347).

Thus, interrelated legislative, social, economic, technical, hygienic and organizational actions should be performed within the construction industry in order to reduce overwhelming rates of fall-associated injuries and fatalities. Following the strategies of fall prevention developed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers can increase profitability of their construction organizations and eliminate fall-related hazards. However, effectiveness of the strategies are inextricably linked with the active participation of empowered officials, public policymakers, leaders of labor unions, stakeholders, OSHA’s inspectors, construction employers, supervisors, contractors and construction workers of all qualifications in the process of fall prevention.

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