I’ve been in many warehouses. Many, many warehouses. The difference in safety culture from one to the next is as varied as the products they store. Some are in pristine, new buildings with clear lines painted on the floor, have only safe, certified forklift operators driving the machines, and have meticulously stacked products on their shelves.
Others…well, not so much.
Then there are those that fall in-between. These are the ones that have some sort of safety program that kind of addresses their hazards. In these situations, the obvious problems are the ones that are most likely addressed: operator training, safely stacking product, wheel-chocking of trucks, and things like that. However, things that take a little more depth of knowledge might be missed. What are some hidden hazards that might be looming over one of these warehouses, waiting to strike?
Because the vast majority of work in a warehouse takes place at ground level, fall protection sometimes fails to be a consideration, yet there is a potential for falls in many situations. In many warehouses, forklifts place the product up high and retrieve it, but in some, pallets and cases need to be broken to fill orders. Some of these are at heights and it is simpler to use a lift to put a person up there than it is to bring the pallet down, select what you need, and return the product to its original place. In this situation, fall protection would be needed. The employee being raised would not only need to be on something designed to lift a person (in other words, no standing on a pile of coffee bean sacks on a pallet on the forks of a forklift – I’m not saying this did actually happen…), but may also be required to be tied off, depending on the type of lift being used.
But your fall protection concerns don’t end there. Do you have mezzanines? Elevated walkways? I’m sure you’ve already addressed the need for rails – but if you haven’t, now is the time. The part that is more likely to get missed, though, is your loading area. If you have a break in the rails with no way to close it up when a loaded forklift is not present, then you have a violation. Mezzanine and pallet gates solve this problem. Self-closing gates ensure that nobody leaves the gate open, exposing your employees to a fall you thought you’d protected against.
The same issue may exist at the top of fixed ladders. Do you have any locations where there is a break in the railing to access the ladder? Depending on the layout, you may want to – or need to – consider a self-closing safety gate as well.
Struck By Hazards
Hopefully, your forklift operators have been properly trained, so that they know the best practices to help avoid collisions with other forklifts or pedestrians. Staying to the center of aisles, stopping at intersections, using provided mirrors, keeping a safe distance from other forklifts, travelling the proper speed, and ensuring any spills are immediately cleaned up definitely help prevent injury from direct collision, but there is always room for human error. Certain safeguards can help further reduce the chance for human error, as well as injury from indirect contact (for example, a forklift bumps into a rack knocking product off onto a pedestrian).
Strategically placed bollards can help protect product, utilities, and personnel from your forklift traffic. This forces your equipment to give a greater safety cushion when travelling. You can use impact barriers or safety rails to line sections of your pedestrian walkways as well, eliminating any chance that somebody passing through your warehouse wanders into traffic or on the opposite side of a rack that is being loaded.
Just because you don’t store product known to be hazardous materials, doesn’t mean you don’t have hazardous materials. Even small amounts of flammable liquids need to be properly stored so they don’t present a hazard. Your maintenance team could have materials that fall into this category. Ensure that you have the proper flammable liquid storage cabinets as is required by OSHA for any products you are storing. And, if you haven’t been diligent about the type of materials being stored in your warehouse, now’s the time to check. Even materials just passing through need to be properly stored in a separate barricaded part of the warehouse to prevent accidental contact. Signage needs to be posted as required to inform employees of the fact that this is indeed hazardous material and to prevent smoking near flammables. Employees handling this material need to be properly trained and SDSs need to be available. Finally, depending on the type and amount of material, can you legally store such material in your building and is your fire suppression system sufficient to fight a fire involving what you have on site?
There are many regulations that apply to the handling, transfer and storage of hazardous materials. Warehouses that deal specifically with this are usually well-equipped. It’s those that only handle some here and there that often find themselves lacking the resources to properly handle compliance. If you have hazardous materials, seek out the advice of somebody familiar with the regulations to ensure you are not opening yourself up to fines and your employees up to illness and injury.
In the end, full hazard assessments are the key to ensuring that you are properly prepared for any situation. If you do not have somebody capable of doing this thoroughly, seek out the expertise of somebody who does. Abating some hazards is never a satisfactory solution. Don’t wait until you are experiencing employee injuries or a warehouse fire to perform the due diligence you should already be performing.
Homeowners and building managers cannot be expected to be experts in every area of maintenance and repairs that need to be performed on their building. Day in and day out, contractors around the country are hired to perform such work because they are the experts. Some of this work takes place in dangerous places – such as roofs – and, as we all know, falls occur. Injuries occur. So, who is responsible when that happens? Can you be sued?
I know you’ve heard this answer before, but – as is often the case – it depends. Let’s be honest, if the answer was a simple yes or no, this wouldn’t be much of an article!
Generally speaking, a building owner is not responsible for the actions of contractors working on their building, but there are exceptions. From an OSHA standpoint, unless the building owner was taking on the role of construction manager, they would be free of responsibility in the event of a contractor’s injury. If they were assuming the construction management role, that could put them in line for a citation as a Controlling Contractor under OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite policy. Yes, contract language would need to be parsed even in that case, but at the very least the possibility arises.
What about legally, though? From a litigation standpoint, is the building owner liable? Again, the answer is maybe. Technically, no, the building owner can’t be liable for a contractor’s actions – unless it can be proved that the incident occurred due to the building owner’s negligence. The best thing you, as a homeowner or building owner, can do, is reduce your exposure. How?
- License and Insurance: If your contractor doesn’t have them, look elsewhere. These are in place to help protect you, so, if your neighbor, Fred the teacher…cop…IT guy…etc., wants to help by climbing onto your roof with his tool belt, you’d better think twice about this. And, don’t just take the contractor’s word. Ask to see the current license. Any hesitation to produce this should raise a red flag. Also, ask to see a current insurance policy. You could always call the insurance company to verify the contractor is covered.
- Do not lend any personal tools or equipment to the contractor. This may seem like a nice thing to do, but the moment something goes wrong with that tool, you’re exposed. Besides, any good contractor is going to have what they need to do the job. If they don’t, maybe they’re not as professional as they claim to be.
- Fix up their work area. If you, as a building owner, know of any problems that could present danger to the contractor, take care of it or have it taken care of prior to the beginning of work. Has one of your skylight cages come loose? You’d better repair it before a contractor steps foot on your roof. If you can’t because there isn’t time and they are up there doing some type of emergency repair, you had better, at the very least, notify them of it. Barricade it if you can or ask them to, but whatever you do, don’t just ignore the problem.
- Offer up all necessary information to the contractor about things you are not able to fix. Is there an infestation of some kind that could be affecting the integrity of the roof? They’d better know this before they begin work so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary to protect their workers.
- Require your contractors to abide by OSHA regulations (unless you’ve got a more stringent set of rules). This does not mean you have to be out there auditing their performance (you may not, in fact, have the knowledge or ability to do so even if you wanted to), but you want them to know that you expect it of them.
- Documentation, documentation, documentation. First, is there a contract in place in which the contractor releases you from liability? If not, try to get this in place. Did you meet with the contractor to explain the hazards you could not correct? Write up a summary of that meeting and put it in a letter or email to the contractor. Remember, if it’s not on paper, it might as well have never happened.
The last thing you want to do is put yourself at risk when there should have been no risk to you at all. Due diligence is the key. Make sure you have selected a solid, professional contractor, check their paperwork and create your own. If your contract or agreement with the contractor does not call for you to direct their work, don’t. Let them do their job and be on their way to the next one.
Fear of falling is natural. Once believed to occur only as a result of a traumatic experience, it has more recently become considered a condition you are born with. Most people fear falling because – well – gravity. We can’t fly. We don’t bounce. We fall, we land – sometimes harder than others. With falls still hanging onto their crown as the king of construction fatalities as well as a leading cause of all occupational fatalities, this fear isn’t unjustified. How, then, can somebody get over their fear of falling?
The first question to ask is “Should I get over my fear of falling?” Yes, if your fear is an irrational one that paralyzes you and keeps you from doing your job, without a doubt you should do what you can to get over it. However, before assuming that is the case, you first need to understand why you have this fear.
- Does this fear occur when you are on a roof completely surrounded by railings or does it occur only when you’re asked to work at the edge of a roof with no fall protection?
- Does this occur when you climb a properly secured ladder or does it occur when you are climbing a ladder that is rocking and heaving with each step?
- Does this occur when you’re properly tied-off in an aerial boom lift or does it only occur when there were no harnesses available so you went up without one?
- Does it occur when you’re standing behind a railing over a piece of machinery that you could fall into or only one with no rail?
Obviously, the point I’m getting at is that if things are done right, and you have the proper protection, perhaps your fear doesn’t even exist. Maybe your “phobia” is simply your subconscious mind trying to tell you that something isn’t right – that what you are doing is dangerous. Heed this warning and assess your situation. Make sure all the proper protection is in place before you proceed.
If your fear exists even in the best of conditions, this fear of heights, or fear of falling, should be addressed. Sure, you could always get a job that doesn't require you to work at heights (and to be honest, if your fear is severe then you should consider doing this if it’s a possibility), but let’s assume that’s not an option at this point. The method psychiatrists often use to cure people of an irrational fear is called desensitization. This is the gradual exposure over time of the patient (you) to that which he or she fears (falling). No, I’m not suggesting people knock you off of things that keep getting higher, rather, just expose yourself to increased heights for increased amounts of time.
First, find out where you start to get nervous. This is the height you want to begin at. Whether it’s on a scissor lift, boom lift, work platform, or any other height, force yourself to go up to that height and stay there for a brief period of time. Try to take your mind off the fact that you are up in the air. You can do this by taking in the view (though, since this fear is often sparked by visual cues, that might not be the best idea at first), speaking with whoever is helping you out with this exercise, or attempting to do some work. Make sure that all of your fall protection is in place. Remind yourself constantly that you are protected - that the equipment has been inspected - that the machine is being operated properly. When it all gets to be a bit overwhelming, come on down. Next time, see if you can stay up there longer. When you get comfortable at that level, move higher. Keep in mind, this could be time consuming and may not be something you are able to do during your work day.
If you find yourself in a situation that requires you to work at heights while you still aren’t 100% comfortable, look at your fall protection options. There is nothing to prevent you from doubling up if it’s possible. If you fear falling through or over a railing, see if there is a way to also wear a harness and tie-off. Do whatever it takes to make yourself comfortable, but don’t try to be a hero. Don’t withhold your fear from your supervisor because you’re embarrassed. If you are uncomfortable at heights and nothing is abating the fear, you could be putting yourself and others in danger because you are not properly focused on the task. Worse yet, you could pass out, causing that fall you fear.
Fear of heights could also be a medical issue and you should speak with your doctor if it’s extreme. A body’s failure to be able to properly balance itself could lead to a fear of heights. In this case, the fear is valid and something else is wrong that needs to be addressed. From a medical standpoint, even if your fear isn’t a physiological issue, a doctor can still treat the symptoms. Most likely, what you experience due to your fear of heights is anxiety. A doctor can prescribe an anti-anxiety drug to help you overcome this fear…or, at least, be able to temporarily manage it. If you go this route, you need to discuss your occupation with your doctor to see if the medication has any effects that will interfere with your work, or put you or somebody else in danger.
In the end, the only one who can know how much of a problem this is, is you. Speak up about it and ask to be reassigned, if possible, until if and when you have the situation under control. If you suspect a co-worker is dealing with this fear, talk to them. Refusing to acknowledge it only puts you and those around you in danger.
For many years now, falls have been the leading cause of death on construction sites. From small, residential projects to large commercial structures, people continue to add to the fatal fall statistic – regardless of the focus placed on this epidemic. Sometimes this is the result of a well-trained and properly equipped worker not doing what they were supposed to do, but more often than not, it’s a result of a lack of planning. For seasoned construction professionals, fall hazards should come as no surprise, but, just in case they do, let’s review where you may encounter them – from the ground up.
Excavations, Utilities and Foundations
Some fall hazards get missed early on simply because nobody has considered that anybody could be “working at heights” while the structure hasn’t yet risen from the ground. Unfortunately, digging a big hole in the earth starts to turn “ground level” into “elevated”. While there is no specific requirement to provide fall protection around an excavation unless the excavation is not readily visible, you still need to provide a safe working environment. If you have a heavy foot-traffic area, consider barricades whether it be Jersey barriers, stand-alone railing, or another means. If you’ve got vehicular traffic, you need to prevent those vehicles from accidentally rolling into your excavation (as you must also do with materials that could roll in such as pipe). Consider some type of curb-stop or berm to keep this from happening. And, if your excavation will be open overnight and there is any chance somebody could wander into it, barricade it thoroughly or cover it in accordance with the OSHA regulations (secured against movement, able to support 2x the maximum possible load, and clearly marked “Hole” or “Cover”).
While your excavations are being dug, your pipe and other materials usually begin to arrive on site. Be aware of fall protection situations that arise during loading and unloading of this material. Does somebody have to climb up on top of a flatbed and then up on top of pipe to rig it up so it can be picked off the truck? If so, what are you doing to protect them? Some of these activities are exempt from the 6’ fall protection rule, but you need to be aware which of them are and which aren’t, as well as if you’re willing to take the chance in allowing that to occur. If you’re not, be prepared to attempt some creative solutions to the problem as an overhead anchor point is often not available.
Heavy equipment can also be an issue. While you’re not expected to have to have a personal fall arrest system on just to climb into some of these large machines, you do want to make sure that all of the safety components of the machine itself are in place. Ensure that your operators are inspecting the machines, including all the necessary handrails, grab bars, and stair treads to safely access and exit the machine. Also, where guardrails exist on equipment to protect mechanics and operators during maintenance and repairs, inspect those as well.
At some point, concrete pouring will begin. Sometimes this is a blessing and eliminates the previously mentioned excavation fall issues. Sometimes, it creates more. Depending on the concrete pad being poured, you could have new fall hazards. Most buildings aren’t going to have a six-foot thick slab, but some structures – such as certain power plant structures could. Or, if they’re not six feet above grade, the combination of the slab and the surrounding excavation could give you a greater-than-6’ exposure. Be prepared for this before it becomes an issue and protect the perimeter.
One of the most confusing fall protection requirements belongs to Subpart R – Steel Erection. In my experience, even the steel erectors themselves don’t fully understand what is required of them – or they use the confusion to their advantage and claim they are exempt from fall protection up to 30’. This is only partially true.
Let’s attempt to simplify. First, all personnel involved in steel erection are exempt from needing any fall protection up to fifteen feet if they are on a walking/working surface. Not thirty. Note the “walking/working surface” part. This does not mean that workers in aerial lifts, for example, are exempt. For that, the aerial lift section of Subpart L still applies (lifts are discussed later in this article). This also does not mean that all people working on the construction site on the day that steel erection takes place are exempt (trust me, they will try this). It means those involved in steel erection.
Great, now that that’s clear, let’s get to the confusing part. At 15 feet, all those people who are not deckers or connectors must be protected. Yes, you, the guy bolting up. Yes, you, the guy welding. Anybody that is not actively receiving steel or is not a decker (we’ll talk about deckers in a moment) must be tied off. For connectors (the one or two guys actively receiving steel), they must be provided all aspects of a personal fall arrest system but they may choose not to tie off. Don’t ask me the purpose of this, I didn’t write the rule, but they must have the ability to tie off if they want to, between 15 and 30 feet above the nearest level or 2 stories, whichever comes first. That doesn’t mean that they wear a harness and all is good. That means that they must wear a harness, have a lanyard, and have a proper anchor point available to them that they can tie off to at any point. If you have to go get a beam clamp when you decide to tie off, you are not doing it properly. It must all be there with you, ready to use.
Deckers are allowed up to 30 feet or 2 stories as well. During this time they must establish a controlled decking zone (CDZ). The rules for this are many, but they require a marking of the area, only certain personnel being allowed in there, maximum dimensions and other requirements.
The final aspect of steel erection is that the steel erector is responsible for perimeter protection of the building, which is often accomplished with wire rope guard rails. They are the ones responsible to install and maintain this protection for the entire time they are on site. When they are finished on site, they must get written notification that somebody specific will be taking over maintenance of the rails. If nobody is willing to take this on, the steel erector must REMOVE the wire rope rails from site. This eliminates the false sense of security workers would get from seeing wire rope rails in place that may be sagging or loose from lack of maintenance.
If the steel erector is on site, or has gotten somebody to take over perimeter protection, than that’s one less concern for you, but as the building goes up, it is important to look for all possible fall exposures greater than 6 feet. This could be the perimeter of the building, it could be window openings, balconies, elevator shafts or pits, and other floor openings. Stairwells are also a concern as some will be installed without the proper rails. Stairs should not be used until proper rails are in place and if they are the tray style stairs that get concrete poured into them, they should not be used unless those trays are temporarily filled with planks or permanently filled with concrete.
Ladders also become more of a concern at this point. First, proper ladder usage could prevent many falls that occur. Ladders, whether A-frame or extension, need to be set-up and used in the proper manner. This includes extending 4 feet above the level being climbed to, having a proper 4:1 ratio for extension ladders, securing the ladder near the top, maintaining three points of contact as you climb/descend, and keeping your center of gravity between the side rails. This also includes setting up the ladder on a level, sturdy surface, keeping it clear of obstruction, and not standing on the top steps of an A-frame or straddling it (oh, and yes, it does need to be opened all the way and locked into place.
Scaffolds will begin to appear. Remember, scaffold users have up to ten feet before fall protection is required. This pretty much allows them to work on top of one bay of scaffolding without worrying about rails or personal fall arrest systems. Even so, scaffold falls still occur. Fully planking any level on which you are working, having all of the proper pins and braces in place, ensuring base plates are in place – and mud sills where necessary, and ensuring your scaffold is plum and level will help eliminate these falls. Once fall protection is required, remember that all open edges, including the sides, must be guarded if you’re using rails. Also, the cross braces can only be used as EITHER the top or mid rail, not both. Measure the height at which the cross braces come together. If this is closer to 42” then it is your top rail and you must install a mid-rail. If this is closer to 21” then it is your mid-rail and you must install a top rail. Finally, ensure proper access to your scaffold. Properly secured ladders that extend high enough work as well as stair towers or access through the structure. Some scaffolds are designed for the sides to be used as ladders, but the rungs must be evenly spaced, of equal width (no tapering), and continuous to the level you are climbing. In no situation should anybody be climbing the cross braces.
Speaking of scaffolds, scissor lifts are covered by the scaffold regulation, so you don’t need to be tied-off (unless your site has a requirement to do so) as long as you are completely surrounded by rails. This includes closing the gate or hooking the chain. Fail to do so and you are out of compliance. Aerial lifts get their own section in the scaffold regulation. The long and short of it? Tie-off. From the moment you are in the basket until the moment you exit the basket, tie-off using the provided anchor points. Do not wrap your lanyard around a rail or tie off to anything that is not designed to be an anchor. Check your operator’s manual if you can’t find your anchors. In fact, check your operator’s manual anyway…just because.
And, with all lifts, keep your feet on the surface of the work platform. Do not climb the rails. Do not use a step ladder. Do not stand on your partner’s back (oh, come on, you don’t think they’d do this?) – keep your feet on the platform. Both of them.
We’re at the top. The roof is being installed. Roofing fall protection rules can be as confusing, if not more confusing, than steel erection rules. Warning line and monitor systems may ONLY be used for roofers doing roofing work. (See this article: When is a Warning Line Sufficient Fall Protection?) So, if you are the roofing contractor, be prepared to let the HVAC guy know that your flags do not make him compliant and your monitor is not responsible for his workers. Remember that a roof monitor must be able to communicate with and see everyone he/she is responsible for and must have no responsibilities that take away from his/her duties.
But, it’s 2015. Technology has improved vastly. Standalone rails exist. Parapet clamp rails exist. Roof fall protection carts exist. Using a warning line and monitor should be a last resort because it doesn’t actually stop anybody from falling or slow/stop a fall once it has occurred. Invest in some equipment that will actually keep your employees safe. They will be better off for it and, in the long run, so will your company.
Keep in mind that what is referenced here is the bare minimum required by OSHA. I do not necessarily support these rules. For example, I feel if a steel erector has to have all the components of a fall protection system available to him or her, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be tied off. On my jobs, there is no choice. There is no additional cost to the erector for this because all of the equipment must be there anyway. Some places will require 100% tie-off at 6 feet. Make sure you know what your site requirements are because they may be above and beyond what you’ve read here.
There are a LOT of fall protection considerations in construction, but all the preparation in the world will mean nothing if your employees aren’t properly trained in fall protection. From general knowledge of what makes something a fall hazard to how to properly use their fall protection equipment, your workers must be armed with knowledge. Then they must be armed with the proper tools. Then you must enforce your policies and the OSHA requirements. Then, and only then, will the statistic begin to drop. Then, and only then, will we begin to lose fewer people to falls.
As safety professionals, our focus needs to be on prevention: proactivity keeps workers from being hurt in the first place. In recent years, with incentive programs under fire, there has been a push for companies to focus on leading indicators (such as safety meetings attended, near misses reported, training courses completed, etc.) to give us an evaluation of our programs rather than the traditional lagging indicators (recordable rates, lost time incident rates, etc.). Despite all of this, as they say, accidents do happen (as evidenced by the more than 4000 workplace fatalities that still occur in the United States annually). So, what should we, as safety professionals, do to prepare for an accident / incident?
Have a Plan
What does your Emergency Action Plan (EAP) say you should do? What’s that you say? You don’t have one? Well, time to get writing. Each company should have an EAP that addresses the types of situations most likely to occur. Do you work in Southern California? What is your plan to deal with earthquakes? Is your office in a flood plain? How are you evacuating your personnel if necessary? Where do your people go in the event of a fire or bomb threat? And what about events smaller in nature? Does 9-1-1 work where you are or does a different number need to be called? Are other important numbers, like poison control, posted where people can quickly find them?
There are countless questions to be answered to properly develop an EAP, and one person working on it may not be enough. Assign a committee to analyze the work you perform and your location (with respect to its history of natural disasters) so that nothing is missed. However, remember that your health and safety program should be a living document. If you write and release your EAP today, but tomorrow realize that you forgot your facility is down-wind of a chemical manufacturer with large stores of ammonia gas, then figure out how you’ll handle it if the plant had a catastrophe and add it to the plan.
Finally, train. What good is a document on a shelf if nobody knows what it says? Your workforce needs to know what they are expected to do in case of an emergency. Keep in mind that in a best case scenario, your personnel will rarely, if ever, have to follow these procedures in a real-world situation. That means that they will get rusty and they will forget what to do unless you periodically refresh their memories. The most effective way to do this is to run drills which takes the plan from an abstraction on a whiteboard in a classroom to a real-life possible scenario. Also, consider first aid, CPR, and AED training for your personnel so that somebody may be able to begin care while waiting for professional help to arrive.
Have the Supplies You Need
Somebody gets hurt at your facility, what do you do? Some of you would answer that you’d begin First Aid/CPR if necessary, which is good, but what if the equipment wasn’t available? Suppose you suspected somebody was going into cardiac arrest but the AED battery was dead (assuming you had an AED). Suppose a worker was bleeding badly, but no bandages could be found. Being prepared is the Boy Scouts’ motto for a reason – because it’s good advice. Be prepared with whatever you may need – based on your assessments and EAP – to care for a victim (or multiple victims) and make sure those supplies are periodically inspected or inventoried. Things tend to disappear quickly from first aid kits. Defibrillators get left open and batteries die. Some supplies expire. Somebody must manage your supply inventory, because you don’t want to find out you don’t have what you need when it’s already too late.
Invite Emergency Services
If you’re in an office building, getting an ambulance or fire truck to your site is probably relatively simple, but if you work in a manufacturing facility, at a construction site, or on some type of large campus, valuable minutes could be wasted trying to get emergency personnel from your front entrance to where the injured or ill person is located. Unfortunately, many companies don’t consider this until too late. Don’t be those companies. Instead, invite a member of the fire department out to your site. Do the same for your local first aid squad and police force. Make sure they get a good tour of the facility and have an idea of what could go wrong. Distribute maps – accurate, up to date maps – to help them get where they need to go. They may be able to find your street address, but will they know which one is “Building 6G North”?
This is even more important if you perform confined space entry work. Determine if the fire department does rescue work and, if so, what procedures you need to follow in order to ensure they have you covered. Show them your confined spaces so they can ensure they have the right equipment to perform a rescue should the need arise.
Develop a Relationship
Once the incident occurs, case management is key. You should already have a relationship with your worker’s compensation carrier. Nurture this. Don’t expect them to do everything. They do not know your personnel like you do. Stay on top of cases to ensure they are brought to quick resolution. Make sure your carrier understands your return to work policies. But before you even get to insurance, you need to have a relationship established with your occupational clinic. Do you want drug testing done for everybody that walks through the door? Do you have restricted duty available? These and other issues should be addressed with your clinic before an employee ever ends up in their waiting room. If you don’t have an occupational clinic, find one. You shouldn’t be relying on hospital emergency rooms for every little work injury. It is not efficient or cost-effective to do so.
An ounce of prevention, they say, is worth a pound of cure. As true as that is, that doesn’t mean we don’t worry about the cure. If we did, we’d teach cleanliness, diet, and exercise but wouldn’t have antibiotics. We’d preach safety, but wouldn’t have surgery. We’d teach you to not drink the poison, but wouldn’t waste time developing an antidote. Fortunately, we have the foresight to know that even the best means of prevention aren’t foolproof. So, prevent, prevent, prevent, but be ready with a plan….just in case.
In March, OSHA released a report detailing what they call the true cost of not protecting employees. This report goes far beyond the usual business case for safety that most of us are taught to make when we first assume a title that includes the word “safety”. In that business case, we are taught about direct versus indirect costs (remember the iceberg? Direct costs are the tip that you can see (medical costs and wages), and the indirect costs (like retraining, lost production, counseling, etc.) that amount to four times as much as the direct costs are hiding beneath the surface. So, when you first see this title, you couldn’t be blamed if you expected a re-hashing of that idea. I certainly did.
Not Quite What We Expected
Yet, delving into this report, it was clear that that wasn’t the angle OSHA was going for. They were looking far beyond that. In fact, they were looking at not what costs the employer bears, but what costs – what burdens – are borne by the injured employee and society as a whole. Sounds lofty, but the information is compelling.
The report starts where most reports on occupational health and safety begin: with the fact that thousands of workers are killed in the US each year and millions more are injured. This is not news. What is news is the fact that in a country whose states have been implementing worker’s compensation systems for decades, the injured employees, their families, and taxpayer-supported programs are still paying most of the costs. In fact, workers are bearing about 50% of the financial burden straight out of their pockets, while worker’s compensation only covers 21%.
Getting to the Heart of the Issue
The report goes on to tie this fact to income inequality.
The report goes on to tie this fact to income inequality. According to OSHA, these injuries occur more often to low-income earners (because they tend to have the more dangerous jobs) whose career advancements are, subsequently, hindered by their physical and/or emotional limitations. As a result, these same people can’t break free from a lower economic class because the financial burdens they are forced to absorb are too great. The report points to a study done in New Mexico that shows that injured workers earn 15% less over the ten years following their injuries than they would have if they hadn’t been injured…on average, $31,000.
All of this is attributed to a few things. First, it has become increasingly difficult to get the full payout due an injured worker due to changes in the states’ worker’s compensation systems (and that’s in instances where the system is actually being used – only 40% of eligible injured workers apply for the benefits). The reasoning for these changes probably depends on your political point of view with one side of the fence blaming greedy corporations sticking it to the little people while the other side would blame the need for tighter restrictions because of all of the fraud and abuse of the system. In reality, the truth – as always – is probably somewhere in between.
Also, the misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors as well as the vastly increased use of temporary workers has changed the work landscape so that companies are not responsible for providing worker’s compensation insurance. Add to this that these companies feel freed from the need to provide safe working conditions and/or training since these are not technically their employees and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
While it may be easy to turn a blind eye to this as something that doesn’t affect you, the reality is that it does. Those injured employees falling through the cracks of worker’s compensation insurance programs end up enrolling in SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and Medicare. The payer of those programs? You, the taxpayer.
Who is really being injured by workplace injuries?
The conclusion? More effort needs to be put into injury and illness prevention. There is no better solution than keeping these tragedies from happening in the first place and, despite 40 years of an obligation to provide a safe work environment, many companies still fail. The report suggests that worker’s compensation programs need to work to remove the roadblocks to proper pay as well. In the end, the report shows that the cost is great – not just to the employer as we are traditionally taught, but to the injured and the taxpayer.
The headline out of Jacksonville, FL reads, “OSHA: Roofing worker’s death ‘preventable’”. As an EHS professional, I feel like I should be able to come up with a better retort then, “Well, duh,” but it seems to be awfully appropriate here. Preventable incidents – preventable deaths – are what we do. All incidents, injuries, and fatalities are preventable and we believe that to be true, because if we didn’t, why would we be doing this in the first place? The sad truth is that the very existence of that headline shows that the idea of preventing incidents, injuries, and fatalities in the workplace is an alien concept to the non-EHS professional.
The preventable death in question occurred when a roofer fell 24 feet to the ground through a skylight that didn’t…wait for it…have a safety cage!
Had somebody done an evaluation of the work area, had somebody been knowledgeable enough to know that skylights are a fall hazard, had somebody with authority insisted that the skylights be protected, had the workers felt empowered enough to refuse to work in a hazardous situation,
roofer John W. Miles III would probably be alive today.
The good news is that OSHA stuck the employer, Pinnacle Roofing Contractors, Inc., with two willful and two serious violations worth $154,000 (would that be a satisfactory value on your loved one’s life if their employer willfully did something – or failed to do something – that led to your loved one’s death?). The bad news is that those penalties do nothing to bring Mr. Miles back from the dead.
As we’ve written about before, in articles such as this and this, skylights are an often overlooked hazard. Whether it’s because people tend to believe the skylight itself is strong enough to support them or because they’re more worried about the roof edge, time after time companies put their employees in danger around these fixtures. Yet, abatement of this hazard is simple. Whether a company decides to build or purchase rails to protect the skylights or install nets or cages, a solution could be in place in just a few hours. Instead, workers continue to die.
For those of you who own buildings with skylights, consider installing permanent rails or cages that will support a worker’s weight. This will save tons of headaches when it comes to planning your roof work and, perhaps, prevent a tragedy when a maintenance person heads up to the roof for “just a minute” with no planning whatsoever to look for a leak. Maybe this will be the difference between somebody who just lost their balance and somebody who plunged to their death. Maybe you will save a life.
Roofing fall protection regulations are complicated, so planning ahead is important. Performing a rooftop safety audit is a necessity and, without one, you are almost guaranteed to miss something – like skylight protection. You can read the full story of Mr. Miles’ preventable tragedy on the OSHA web site.
If you’ve been a safety professional for any amount of time, you could probably write a book based on the excuses you’ve heard regarding why a worker or a company failed to adhere to safety rules and regulations. The excuses range from ignorant to absurd – from entertaining to frightening – yet, day after day, we continue to hear them.
What’s worse is that many companies or workers actually believe that these excuses aren’t excuses at all, but rather are valid reasons for doing things the way they do them. Part of our job, as safety professionals, is to get these people to understand why their excuse is just that – an excuse – and how dangerous their behaviors really are. So what can you say, when faced with this situation, to help the offender know that he or she is just making excuses?
I’ve Been Doing it This Way for XX Years
Ok, raise your hand if you haven’t heard this one. Nobody? Good. That’s what I thought. Old-Schoolers are resistant to change. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be called Old Schoolers. The Old Schooler is the guy that tells you that what he’s doing is just a-ok because he’s been doing it that way forever and he’s never gotten hurt. Well, that may be true. Maybe he hasn’t gotten hurt, but if there’s a regulation for it, then there’s a really good chance somebody has gotten hurt doing it that way. This is an example of anecdotal evidence – a situation where a person’s personal or observed experiences override actual facts and statistics.
For a man walking the steel 40’ in the air without any fall protection, the fact that he’s never died before from falling tells him it’s okay to continue to work that way when, to the rest of the sane world, it is obvious that it is not okay. All it takes is that one accident, that one loss of balance, that one unexpected condition to make this situation tragic. And for those who think their balance is infallible, what if their blood sugar drops or spikes and they get dizzy? What if they crouch or sit to do something and stand up too fast? Some things are just out of your control.
When I first got into the industry, I had a particularly difficult superintendent on a job who just did not want to change the way something was being done in order to comply with OSHA regulations. One day we both happened to be at the corporate office and got in a heated discussion over this. At that moment, the Executive VP for his division walked by and asked what was going on. I explained the situation and the superintendent immediately followed with, “I’ve been doing it this way for twenty years!” At that point, the VP gave one of the best retorts to that line I’ve heard: “Then it’s about time you learned something.”
Now, I would not recommend that you, as the safety professional, respond with that. It can only sour your relationship with the very people you need to work with you, but coming from his boss, it was exactly what was needed. As a safety professional, it’s best to point out to this difficult player that every single person that has ever died on the job could say, prior to their accident, that it had never happened to them before. Not one of them had been killed on the job prior to being killed on the job. But for each, unfortunately, there was that first – and last – time. Your job is to help them prevent that first – and last –time from ever occurring.
Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
Did it? I never buy into this one. If something is dangerous or risky, then it was dangerous or risky when they decided to do it in the first place. This statement says to me that the employee never stopped to think about what they were about to do. As safety professionals, one of the biggest tools in our toolkit is planning.
We must find ways to make sure the workforce plans their work even when we’re not looking. Whether this is through formal daily pre-work planning meetings, pre-work JSA reviews, or something more informal, one look at what an employee is doing will tell you whether or not they spent any time planning. And rest assured, it never seemed like a good idea.
I Have a Job to Do / I Wasn’t Thinking / I Forgot
These? These say to me that the worker in question doesn’t take his or her own safety seriously. This is a problem. Somebody who really means one of these things is either saying, “When push comes to shove, safety is less important than finishing the job,” or “My safety isn’t important enough to worry about.” Both of these are unacceptable. If a worker has this attitude, then they have not been properly educated on the true risks of their job. They need intervention in the form of training and they need it quickly.
This person can be a challenge. Sometimes they truly do not care if they end up getting hurt, but most often just don’t believe anything will happen to them. One way I’ve been successful in getting through to these types of people is to show them how their actions are a hazard not just to themselves, but to others. Often, a person may not be too concerned with his own safety, but would never want to be responsible for getting somebody else hurt. The trick in addressing these attitudes and excuses is finding the approach that will work.
This is How I was Told to Do it / The Boss Said…
When you receive these excuses, the problem is two-fold. If the excuse is accurate, it means you have a culture problem within your organization. Your supervision is putting your workforce in danger, intentionally or not. First, your challenge is to get the employee to understand that they have a say in their own safety. They need a channel to speak up without consequence if they feel they are being forced into a dangerous situation. And, most importantly, they need to understand what a dangerous situation is.
If they can’t recognize a hazard, they can’t correct it, or protest the instruction they’re being given. After that, you have the challenge of addressing your organization’s culture. You need to ensure you have top-management buy-in so that you can begin working on the company supervision. Supervisors need to hear it from their bosses that safety compliance is not optional and that nothing – not budget, not schedule, not anything, is an acceptable reason for putting an employee’s life at risk.
You Caught Me the ONE Time I Did This
This one cracks me up. Either I have the most impeccable timing on the planet, or many, many…many…workers have lied to me over the years. I can’t count the number of times I have caught a person the one time they weren’t wearing their safety glasses, or the one time they forgot a GFCI, or the one time they decided to straddle an A-Frame ladder, or the one time…well, you get the picture. The fact of the matter is, if you catch somebody during a spot inspection, odds are they’re doing the very same thing when you’re not around.
Take this as an opportunity to correct a behavior and identify re-training needs. Also, it’s a good opportunity to remind the workers you’ve got your eye on them. If you’ve observed them doing the same thing before, let them know that. Personally, I make light of the excuse with them in a way that makes them realize just how ridiculous the claim is without my coming out and saying it’s ridiculous. By the time our conversation is done, they know I didn’t believe a word of it. If they think they’ve pulled the wool over your eyes once, it will encourage them to try to do it again. Sometimes we need to remind them that we’re not as stupid as they think we are.
It Was Only Going to Be a Second
This one is frustrating because it shows there is no concept of how accidents occur. “It only takes a second,” is the quick and easy response to this excuse. In my experience, though, it doesn’t take much convincing to get through to this person. The person who uses the “only for a second” excuse tends to know it’s a flimsy excuse and just felt they had to say something because they’d been caught red-handed. Take a moment to talk to this person and let them tell you what the better way to handle the situation would have been. Most likely, they already know.
Excuses occur every day in every aspect of life, but as a safety professional we tend to hear them constantly. What’s important is that we’re able to counter them – to show employees that what they were doing is dangerous. Being able to do that hinges on our ability to communicate. We must be able to determine approaches that are effective for each worker (and those approaches could be different for each worker).
We must be able to speak in a way that they can comprehend without feeling like they’re being condescended to. We need to know what we’re talking about, so that information conveyed to our workers is accurate information. Workers also need to be able to trust us. They need to believe that we have their best interests in mind. If that’s the case, they’ll be more open to us and more willing to discuss what’s wrong or unsafe. Communication and trust. With them, perhaps we can move beyond the excuses.
The recent accident in Westwood, MA regarding the fall of a worker clearing snow from the roof of a business, underscores just how dangerous this job can be. In this particular instance, the worker fell through a skylight and landed on the ground 25’ below. In light of the situation, OSHA has issued an advisory on snow removal urging people to review the OSHA Hazard Alert Documentation.
Roof work is dangerous enough when all of your hazards are visible, but poorly protected fall hazards blanketed in snow are a recipe for disaster. Had this skylight been properly protected, this worker would not have been able to fall, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other dangers. In the past, OSHA has responded to incidents regarding workers falling through tarp covered elevator shafts or even just sliding down a sloped roof. This is why it’s imperative to come up with safe solutions for snow clearing.
Is It Necessary?
This is the first question you need to ask yourself and, undoubtedly, in many situations the answer is yes, it is necessary. Reasons usually range from emergency roof repair and maintenance to the prevention of overloading and collapse. If it is not necessary, wait, but if it is, then find the best way to do it.
Is It Necessary To Go ON The Roof?
There are many ways to perform snow clearing. Shoveling from the roof itself might be the most dangerous. If your concern is that the roof might become overloaded, how is adding the weight of workers and equipment going to help that? Depending on the type of building you have, you may be able to utilize a snow rake. These long-handled devices give the user the opportunity to clear a roof from the ground or from an aerial lift. These rakes should NOT be used while standing on a ladder. The movement and length of the rake could cause you to lose your balance. As always, with any long-handled tool, be aware of surrounding electrical hazards and stay the necessary distance away.
If It IS Necessary, What Fall Hazards Might Be Encountered?
No worker should ever enter any situation blindly. Prior to accessing a roof, they should be fully aware of what hazards they might encounter. Are there skylights? If so, are they protected? Is the roof flat or sloped? Is there a parapet high enough to act as fall protection? What is the load capacity of the roof and how close to exceeding it are you? Workers should remain off the roof until these questions are answered. Once on the roof, they should clear off the roof uniformly, and avoid making snow piles on the roof to prevent overloading.
What Needs To Be Done To Protect The Workers?
Simple. There are no fewer requirements for fall protection during snow removal than during any other type of rooftop work: fall arrest systems, fall protection carts, railings, whatever it takes. Emergency situations do not give companies the right to forego regulatory compliance. In fact, emergency situations probably need closer attention to safety because of their nature: everyone is working quickly to rectify the situation. It’s understandable that if there is a concern that a roof is going to collapse that the work needs to be done quickly, but it should never be at the cost of a worker’s life.
In addition, some simple planning could prevent injury and death later on. Ensuring that fall hazards are properly protected before the snow comes is critical. If a snowstorm is coming, perhaps going to the roof before it arrives to mark potential trip hazards will be of great benefit after the storm.
- Roof Access: If ladders are the way to go, then make sure they are inspected and set up properly, the rungs are clean, and you avoid any electrical hazards.
- Slips, Trips and Falls: Clear off the bottom of your boots to ensure that you get the best grip possible on ladder rungs. Also, remember that ice can be hiding underneath the snow. Walk slowly and deliberately to avoid slipping.
- Equipment: If using an aerial lift to perform the work, ensure that the operator is properly trained and qualified.
- Exposure to Cold: Train your workers on hypothermia and frostbite. Ensure that they are aware of the signs and symptoms, as well as what to do should they suspect either is occurring.
- Back Strains: Shoveling can lead to back muscle issues. In order to avoid this, ensure that workers are using ergonomically designed shovels, are scooping or pushing smaller amounts of snow, are using proper lifting techniques.
- Dehydration: People tend to forget that hard work in cold temperatures can lead to dehydration just as it does in high temperatures. Take frequent breaks and drink fluids (avoiding caffeine and, of course, alcohol).
Be prepared as you would for any other weather event. Know what your plan is and work that plan. Do not take shortcuts with the well-being of your employees.
Complex fall protection situations arise all the time. Workers find themselves in scenarios where they need to have fall protection and a personal fall arrest system (PFAS) seems to be the only solution available, yet there is no suitable anchor point. This always comes up at the last minute; work is in full-swing, a deadline is looming, and somehow, someway, this crazy fall protection requirement sneaked its way up on everybody.
What we've got here is failure to plan. Yet, that doesn't change the fact that we still need a solution given the current conditions. Time and again, when difficult fall-protection situations arise, companies will ask me, "Can't we just tie-off to that lift?"
And, as in so many situations, the answer is a solid, resounding, "It depends."
If you notice, in all boom lifts there are angles welded into the rails either in front of or behind the users. These also exist in some newer scissor lifts. Alternatively, some scissor lifts have rings built into the floor of the machine. These are all engineered anchor points, built with the intention of being used as part of a PFAS. However, that does not mean that they can be used in all situations. In fact, according to the manufacturer there is only one situation in which they can be used: when a user has both feet on the floor of the basket.
The anchor points in lifts are designed to keep users in the basket in the event of a collision, sudden movement, or other situations that can result in ejection. They are not designed to be used so that workers can climb onto the rails, ladders, or other elevation devices, nor are they designed to be used as an anchor for anybody working outside the basket. The reason being that most lift manufacturers have not tested their lifts in situations where such forces as those applied in a fall – from an object outside of the basket – are exerted on the machine. Without testing, there is no way manufacturers will approve this type of use and OSHA will always defer to the manufacturer. In addition, the tipping point of the machine is figured based on workers being IN the basket. Once you begin to elevate yourself, those calculations no longer apply.
This situation occurs often in existing buildings that are being renovated or that are having maintenance work done that can only be reached via a lift. It is common for there to be many obstructions, such as piping, duct work, or even the roof joists themselves depending on the size of the basket you are in. But there are solutions. Sometimes it might be using a mobile work platform that can get closer to a working level and other times it might require lift attachments. Whatever the solution, it's not going to be determined by the guy that's just trying to get his job done with a boss breathing down his neck. As with all fall protection, it needs to be discussed and determined in the planning stages of the job.