With the coming of warmer temperatures in most of the country comes an increase in construction activity. Unfortunately, if history teaches us anything, with increased construction activity comes increased worker injuries and fatalities. Falls continue to top the list of fatalities in construction year after year, so OSHA has once again decided to roll out its “National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction.”
For the past few years, OSHA has led this effort to get employers to talk to their workers about the hazards of falls and the administration’s desire to reach increasingly larger numbers of workers has been paying off. The Stand-Down reached 2.5 million workers last year for the first time and now OSHA hopes to double that number. If successful, they will be reaching half the construction workforce in the United States. This year the National Safety Stand-Down runs from May 2nd to May 6th.
The event is voluntary and is whatever you make of it. This is your opportunity as an employer to take time out from your busy
schedule and talk to your workers about falls. Help them understand, through a tool-box talk, equipment inspections, a training class, or some other safety-related activity that falls kill – all too often. Make them understand how severe the consequences of one mistake can be, find actual incidents to relate to them to make it personal, let them know the cost – in life – that fall protection violations can incur. In other words, make them understand – pun intended – the gravity of the situation.
We have a ton of safety resources and articles on this site to help your employees understand fall hazards. Take advantage of them, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Signup on the email list, and we’ll make sure you get them in your inbox on a weekly basis.
Don’t assume that your workforce knows and understands this just because you believe it to be common sense. The idea of common sense is a fallacy. Common sense is learned information, not something we’re born with, so if somebody has been learning something incorrectly his or her whole life then “common sense” could easily get them killed. Taking the time to have this conversation will be well worth not having to find a body on the ground, to not have to look into the eyes of a grieving spouse and children, to not have to counsel your workforce on how to handle the traumatic death of a friend and co-worker. Taking the time to have this conversation is well worth the value of saving somebody’s life.
There was a time where death was an accepted side-effect of construction. That time is long gone. Many companies now understand that their people are their greatest resource, but I say forget that. You should be operating safely and training your workforce not because your people are a good resource for your company, but because your people are just that: people. Human life is not an expendable commodity. If you are in a position to protect it, then you should make every effort to do so. If you’re not already making those efforts, then don’t wait for the Stand-Down. You can start saving lives today.
To find ways to participate, see what’s been done in the past, or share your story, go to https://www.osha.gov/StopFallsStandDown/. Once complete, you will be able to download a certificate of participation. And don’t stop at your own employees. Spread the word on Social Media using the hashtag #StandDown4Safety. Your voice could convince another employer to participate. Your voice could save lives you never thought you could affect.
As I set out to write this article, I Googled the phrase “worker died,” figuring I would be able to find a couple of articles from the first quarter of this year to use as examples of the men and women we honor on Workers’ Memorial Day. Instead, the first five fatalities I found barely took me back to mid-March. I am a safety professional who is well aware of this country’s worker fatality rate, yet I was still astounded.
On April 2, 2016, a 56 year-old Georgia man died after becoming trapped in a machine during routine maintenance.
On April 1, 2016, a 21 year-old Brooklyn man plunged to his death down a shaft after being struck by falling debris.
On March 29, 2016, a 28 year-old Ohio worker died in a trench collapse.
On March 27, 2016, a rail yard worker died after getting pinned between two trains during a shift change.
On March 23, 2016, a worker in a seafood warehouse in Boston was found dead. The fatality was attributed to an ammonia leak.
On March 21, 2016, a 32 year-old fire technician died while inspecting fire extinguishers. The cause of death was suffocation as a nitrogen leak had brought the Oxygen levels in the area down to 4% (breathing air contains approximately 28% oxygen).
On March 15, 2016, a 40 year-old electrician was electrocuted in Kansas City, Missouri during construction.
Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. During my research, I refreshed my Google search and brand new articles popped up. The fact is, we lose more than 4500 workers a year in the United States (in 2014, the number was 4679). That’s 4500 men and women that were just going to work, trying to provide for their families. That’s 4500 husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. That’s 4500 best friends. 4500 favorite aunts and uncles. 4500 people who will leave a gaping hole in the lives of countless others.
And, for most, they will be a newspaper headline read today and forgotten tomorrow. But the families can’t forget. That seat will be forever empty at the dinner table. Somebody has to explain to little boys and girls why Mommy or Daddy will never be there to tuck them into bed again. Grieving parents have to do what no parent should ever have to do – bury their children. Husbands or wives will need to rebuild their lives and raise their children alone.
Why? Because the equipment cost too much, or because the project was behind schedule, or because training took too much time away from the jobsite, or because nobody bothered to find out how to operate safely. Sure, sometimes the loss seems to be squarely on the shoulders of the victim, but is it really? Could better training have prevented their deaths? Better management? Better planning? Better oversight? More than likely.
Employers everywhere have the power to ensure that nobody dies on their watch, yet it keeps happening – again and again and again. It needs to stop. We are failing these workers. We are failing these families. We need to do everything we can to send our employees home each night to their loved ones and if “everything we can” isn’t enough, then we need to do more. More than 4500 fatalities a year. It’s unacceptable. Be a voice for those we’ve lost. Be a voice for the loved ones left behind. Join together to cry out in one unified voice, “No More.”
And, on April 28th, let’s take the time to honor those we’ve already lost. Let’s take a moment with our workforce to remember them and talk about them. If you knew them, tell a story about what they liked to do and who they were to you. If you didn’t, read up on them and share their stories with your workforce because they are your workforce. They are you and me. Let’s make sure they are remembered as people and not just words in a newspaper headline. They are no longer with us, but we can help to make sure their memories remain alive – on Workers’ Memorial Day and every day.
We’ve said it before on this blog, and I’ll reiterate it now: the illusion of safety is often much more dangerous than no safety at all. Of course, we’re not advocating for no safety, but when somebody is given a false sense of security, they’re bound to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take. However, if they believed there were no safety precautions at all in a situation, they would probably be much more careful about what they were doing (probably).
One good example of where we often tend to see a false sense of security is at the top of fixed ladders. How often have you seen a good, solid safety system on a building’s roof? Most often, there’s nothing at all except maybe a couple of handholds.
Here are some of the biggest offenders we’ve seen:
Remember the old adage: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Obviously, when dealing with a plastic chain, that weak link is going to be much weaker than when you’re dealing with a steel chain. Plastic may not only fail to hold you when it’s new, but over time it could be affected by weather, UV light from the sun, and physical abuse. Even on steel chains, links stretch, twist, or otherwise lose integrity. It’s no different with plastic, it just happens faster. Remember, OSHA allows for chains at the top of ladderways in lieu of railings, but they must offer the same protection and be able to withstand 200 lbs. of force. Do your plastic chains do that?
Chain Attached with an S-Hook
There’s a reason why safety hooks exist: because somewhere along the line, S-Hooks and other less-safe products failed to do the intended job. Not only is it easy for an S-Hook to get knocked free of its eye-bolt, it’s also easy for it to stretch and lose its shape. Soon, your S-Hook is looking like a fancy cursive J-Hook on its way to a simple lower-case L hook. But, let’s say it holds shape. The very fact that it’s open ended on both ends, gives double the opportunity for a failure. Now, let’s just say it holds its shape AND you never allow enough slack in the chain for it to come off, you’ve still got to remove the chain to pass through. At this point, there is slack and the hook can come off falling to the ground. How is that a problem? Well, now, with no protection in place whatsoever, somebody is bending over at the top of the ladder to get the hook back. Overall, S-Hooks are a bad option.
The very nature of a chain means that the worker has to unhook and re-hook the chain. Often, that second part is left undone, thereby completely negating any protection you’d intended to have in the first place. A protective system should be like a safety power button on a tool – it fails safe. The reason you have to keep the trigger depressed on a drill is so that if you let go, the drill stops. This is because you may not always be letting go intentionally. If you had a heart attack, say, the last thing you need is to drop a running drill onto yourself. Gates should operate the same way. They fail safe. You walk through and it closes behind you. It opens outward so that nobody can back into or stumble their way into the ladderway. A chain can’t do that. The human factor now comes into play and whether that factor is error or laziness, it can create a very dangerous situation.
We’re not saying gates are the best solution, we’re saying properly installed gates are the best solution. And, unfortunately, gates are not always properly installed. We’ve seen gates installed right at the top of a ladder so that in order to access the roof or platform you are climbing to, you need to manipulate the gate while holding onto the ladder. This should never be the case. There should always be an offset at the top of the ladder. This way the climber can access the roof safely, then open the gate once they are away from the ladder. Some installations will have an offset without a gate. While this isn’t the perfect solution, it is still better than plastic chains, bad hooks, or no protection at all.
Your facility needs to be safe, but offering a false sense of security is only inviting disaster. Review your safety controls. Were they put in place after careful thought and planning or was something just thrown up there to look like worker safety had been considered? Was the money spent to buy the proper protection or did you go with something cheap that might not meet the necessary requirements? Remember, your workers will take risks they otherwise wouldn’t have taken if they believe they are protected. Don’t allow an employee to lose their life because somebody was unwilling to spend the extra money or because appearance was more important than effectiveness. Gates require no training. They are a simple and effective tool to provide your employees the actual protection they need – and deserve.
If you’ve been trained in Aerial Lift operation (if you’re operating aerial lifts at all, then you should have been), you should already know that fall protection is required, according to OSHA and according to the lift manufacturers. But why? You’re completely surrounded by rails, right? Why is it different than a scissor lift? Sure, you’ve heard the rumors that a bounce or a bump can catapult you from the basket, but is that really true? Well, let’s go to the videotape:
Unfortunately, videos like this aren’t all that difficult to find on the internet. They’re probably as easy to find as a construction site with boom lift operators that aren’t using any personal fall arrest systems. It’s a common sight – from maintenance crews changing light bulbs in a shopping center parking lot to sign installers, to construction workers, a great number of them don’t know…or don’t care…that they’re supposed to be “tied-off”. In fact, I’d venture to say that from a purely anecdotal standpoint, boom lift operators that properly utilize fall protection are in the vast minority.
This could be for a number of reasons. Sure, it could be the “it won’t happen to me” mentality, but more than likely there are other factors: lack of concern on the company owner’s part which translates to lack of training, and lack of proper equipment is probably the most common reason. Lack of oversight by somebody who is properly trained is probably another. Being rushed for time contributes, I’m sure, as it does for many workplace safety violations and incidents. Regardless of the reason, it is all too common and, as we can see here, extremely dangerous.
As you can see from the above video, it really doesn’t take all that much. Sure, you might know not to drive off a curb, but what about a small pothole you hadn’t noticed? When you’re operating a boom lift, you’re probably at least 40’ away from the base of the machine if not a great deal more. How can you be 100% positive that your surface is flat…and solid? You should have done a walk-around of the machine and checked out the ground where you’ll be working, but people make mistakes. People miss things. Ground conditions change. Voids collapse. Machines have to be moved further than planned.
What if we take our own mistakes out of the equation altogether? This type of incident doesn’t just occur from driving off a curb or into a depression. Construction sites can be crowded places. If that loader backs into your lift, or if that crane accidentally drops a load on your boom, or any number of other things, you can be thrown. Most of the lifts I’ve seen used in parking lots to change bulbs have no traffic control around them and the parking lots are active. If a car or truck loses control or isn’t paying attention to where they’re going, the same results will occur.
The fact of the matter is this: accidents can and will happen. It is up to you to protect yourself and your workers as best as you possibly can. This includes being compliant with OSHA regulations, and possibly going above and beyond their requirements. You can find out more about what you need to be compliant in our previous article found here. Read it, buy what is necessary, train your workers, and enforce your safety program before one of your employees ends up like the man in this video.