- Deaths related to construction work accounted for 21.1% of all workplace fatalities in 2018.
- Fatal and nonfatal injuries cost the construction industry an estimated $13 billion annually.
- Six of the top 10 most cited OSHA standards in construction relate either directly or indirectly to fall prevention.
The importance of preventing falls in construction
Each day, construction businesses face numerous hazards on the job site that threaten the health and safety of their workers. In fact, deaths related to construction work accounted for 21.1% of all workplace fatalities in 2018, making construction one of the most dangerous professions in the United States.1
While every contractor wants their employees to return home safely from the job site, incidents can and still do occur. To safeguard their workers and prevent potentially deadly injuries, employers have a duty to educate themselves — as well as their staff members — about the most common on-the-job risks. Of all the various construction hazards, falls consistently rank as the top contributor to worker injuries and fatalities.
Employees are a construction firm’s greatest asset, so taking steps to prevent falls can help businesses improve employee morale and also build a strong safety culture. This article will examine the cost of falls for construction firms, and common best practices that businesses should consider to prevent on-the-job injuries.
A closer look at the numbers
Falls account for about one-third of all fatalities in the construction industry, underscoring the importance of implementing clear fall prevention policies.2 But beyond troubling injury and fatality concerns, poor fall safety protocols can also be financially devastating for construction firms. Not only do fatal and nonfatal injuries cost the construction industry an estimated $13 billion annually, but there are also significant compliance fines for those who fail to protect their workers from fall hazards.3 Notably, six of the top 10 most cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards in construction relate either directly or indirectly to fall prevention.4
Furthermore, businesses that fail to protect their employees will not only face irreversible reputational harm, but they could lose out on projects. That’s because many project owners and general contractors have standards related to a business’s incident frequency and severity. Put simply, a poor incident record can impact a firm’s ability to secure work.
Falls have the potential to seriously injure employees whenever they work on elevated platforms, in areas with exposed edges, with machinery, near trenches, on ladders, on roofs and in other similar construction scenarios. To ensure safety on the job site, it’s critical that employers train employees, enforce safety protocols, and ensure that workers are using the right tools for the job. Let’s review some common best practices that construction firms should consider to prevent on-the-job injuries related to falls.
Best practices for preventing falls
While some fall incidents are unavoidable, many of them can be prevented by taking a systematic approach to workplace safety and investing time and money into the process. In fact, there are some basic strategies that construction firms can use to keep their workers safe, including the following:
- DEVELOP A WRITTEN FALL PROTECTION PROGRAM — Having a written fall protection program is essential. It should be used as a road map that construction firms can follow to protect their employees from fall hazards. While the specifics of fall protection programs will vary by business and by the work being performed, they should — at a minimum — outline policies and procedures around:
- Working at heights
- Maintaining, inspecting and using fall protection equipment
- Conducting job hazard assessments
- Responding to and investigating incidents
- Training employees
- Updating the fall protection program
Above all, to build a strong safety culture, employers need to ensure that employees are trained on safety concerns and that they are regularly following any and all established policies outlines in the program. It’s one thing to create a fall protection program, but it’s another to enforce it consistently. In other words, a fall protection program should be more than a piece of paper; it should be ingrained in company culture and reflected by the behavior of both supervisors and general employees. To further promote worker buy-in, employers should distribute the program to employees and require them to sign a form acknowledging that they understand what’s expected of them.
- ASSESS EACH WORK SITE FOR FALL PROTECTION NEEDS — The best way to prevent falls is to eliminate the risk by using engineering controls. However, this isn’t always feasible. Fall hazards can change from job site to job site, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to fall prevention. As such, the next best option is to plan every aspect of the job ahead of time. This can be accomplished through a job hazard analysis (JHA), which, when conducted for fall hazards, allows businesses to identify and prioritize hazard control options. A JHA can involve checking that all walking and working surfaces can easily support workers or reviewing individual work tasks to determine appropriate fall protection strategies. Remember, protocols that work for one job site may not work for others. For instance, when on work sites where conventional fall protection equipment — such as lanyards, harnesses and safety nets — is ineffective, firms will need to create a work site-specific fall protection plan.
- ACQUIRE THE NECESSARY FALL PROTECTION EQUIPMENT — When protecting employees, it’s important to choose the right protective equipment for the job. There are many types of fall protection equipment, including rope grabs, beam straps, butterfly anchors, concrete plunger anchors and retractable lanyards — all of which can ensure employees’ safety when they work at heights. It’s important to note that, while basic fall protection equipment such as harnesses and lanyards may work for certain tasks, other situations may require more specialized tools. This is particularly true in circumstances where employees can’t tie off to a strong anchor point. Protecting employees from falls can present some unusual and challenging situations. Thankfully, protective equipment has evolved greatly over the years, and firms have access to the tools they require to handle almost any fall prevention needs that may arise.
- TRAIN EMPLOYEES ON FALL PROTECTION — Fall protection procedures and equipment will be effective only if employees are properly trained on them. Specifically, employees should be trained on what fall hazards exist on the work site, when fall protection is required, what the limitations of fall protection equipment are, how to inspect and care for fall protection equipment, and how to use fall protection equipment. Additionally, employees should be trained on any new fall protection equipment utilized on the job site and they should be encouraged to speak up if they have concerns regarding job site hazards. For training to be effective, it must be engaging, conducted on a regular basis, and tailored to each job site. For instance, if fall arrest systems are used on a job, specific training considerations need to be accounted for and emphasized with workers. Furthermore, construction firms with non-English-speaking personnel must make their training materials available in languages their workforce understands. This can involve ensuring that a translator is present during training sessions, providing safety talks in multiple languages, or hiring a bilingual individual to conduct and manage employee training.
- ADDRESS COMPLACENCY — One often-overlooked factor in many fall incidents is complacency. From a safety perspective, complacency can be viewed as self-satisfaction or a sense of security in one’s own abilities that is accompanied by unawareness of hazards. Employees who often work at heights (e.g., using ladders) can become desensitized to the hazards they face on a consistent basis. However, when working at heights, just one mistake can lead to a serious incident that could have potentially been prevented. That’s why it is important to regularly remind employees to slow down, take fall protection seriously, and properly plan out their work in advance. Additionally, reminding employees that their well-being is a priority can help combat complacency by demonstrating a shared commitment to safety and fall protection.
- DESIGNATE A COMPETENT PERSON FOR EACH JOB SITE — In order to protect employees from fall hazards, construction firms need to designate a competent person who has the experience to identify hazards and the authority to correct potential issues. While this responsibility often falls on supervisors, the competent person needs to be qualified to provide guidance on the following:
- The nature of fall hazards in the work area
- The correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling and inspecting fall protection systems
- The use and operation of guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems, safety net systems, warning line systems, safety monitoring systems and controlled access zones
- The role each employee plays in fall protection plans
- STRESS COMMUNICATION ON MULTI-EMPLOYER JOB SITES — Construction sites are dynamic environments with a lot of moving pieces, and multi-employer job sites present a huge challenge from a fall protection perspective. One of the best ways to control fall exposures in these environments is through frequent communication. Communication among general contractors and subcontractors regarding upcoming work and the potential hazards is vital. Each party needs to understand what’s expected of them in terms of fall prevention. This can involve holding sitewide safety talks, ensuring that contractors have identified a competent person to prevent falls, and confirming that there’s a site-specific fall protection plan in place for each party performing work at heights. Put another way, contractors should get in the habit of communicating early and often when it comes to safety issues. If this is done correctly, it can help prevent potential incidents.
- MAINTAIN AND INSPECT FALL PROTECTION EQUIPMENT — To ensure that fall protection equipment is in good condition and safe to use, employees must inspect it before each use. However, it’s important to keep in mind that some equipment may require a more in-depth inspection by a competent person. Additionally, equipment should be stored in a location that protects it from damage and helps extend its life span. This is often a clean, dry area that’s free of solvents or chemicals. For details regarding the life span of equipment, be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions for service.
- LOOK FOR LADDER ALTERNATIVES — Ladders are commonly used in the construction industry for various tasks. However, they aren’t always the safest option, particularly if workers choose the wrong ladder for the job, set the ladder up improperly, or fail to inspect the ladder for damage. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, around 500,000 people are treated for ladder-related injuries each year. Of these incidents, approximately 300 prove fatal.5 Increasingly, construction firms are implementing ladder alternative programs.6 These programs encourage construction firms to avoid using ladders wherever possible, opting instead for safer alternatives such as podium ladders, man lifts and mobile scaffolds. It’s all about selecting the right tool for the job. This approach can help improve worker safety by reducing the amount of time workers spend on ladders and increasing the amount of time they are working from more stable positions.
- DEMONSTRATE A TOP-DOWN COMMITMENT TO SAFETY — A strong safety culture is essential to preventing workplace fall incidents. Health and safety start at the top, and preventing fall incidents is no different. Strong leadership and a firm commitment to continuously improving health and safety performance, backed by action, are the foundations of a strong health and safety culture. Furthermore, safety culture tends to be more effective when everyone — including supervisors and senior management — buys into the program (not just the safety manager). This can make a huge difference to employees when they know their company cares about their well-being.
The National Safety Stand-Down
In addition to all of the best practices listed above, businesses are encouraged to participate in OSHA’s National Safety Stand-Down To Prevent Falls in Construction week. The timing of this annual event changes each year, but it always reinforces the importance of fall prevention and encourages employers to host safety talks, conduct equipment inspections, develop rescue plans and discuss job-specific hazards.
While the National Safety Stand-Down is just one week long, it’s a great time for businesses to refocus their fall prevention efforts. Just remember, workplace safety should be an ongoing, everyday priority — one that organizations constantly revisit to protect their employees long after awareness week ends.
- Each day, construction businesses face numerous hazards on the job site that threaten the health and safety of their workers.
- Of all the various construction hazards, falls consistently rank as the top contributor to worker injuries and fatalities.
- Employees are a construction firm’s greatest asset, so taking steps to prevent falls can help businesses improve employee morale and also build a strong safety culture.