Slips, trips, and falls account for many worksite injuries in the construction industry. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 6.5 million people work at approximately 252,000 construction sites in the country and fatal injury rates in the industry are higher than the national average for all industries.
This guide will cover the main causes of slip, trip and fall accidents on construction sites as well as accident prevention, legal ramifications, and specific guidelines for safety.
Common Causes of Slip, Trip & Falls on Construction Sites
Unprotected Sides, Wall Openings, Floor Holes
The nature of a construction site puts workers in inherently dangerous situations. Most sites have unprotected sides and edges, floor holes, or wall openings where insulation and wiring is being installed. If openings are not protected, workers may be exposed to undue risks for falling, tripping, being cut, hitting their head, or other slip-related injuries.
Unguarded Steel Rebars
Steel rebar is used to reinforce concrete for a variety of applications. Unguarded or protruding steel reinforcing bars pose a special and serious injury risk for workers. Stumbling risks are especially dangerous because they may result in impaling-related injuries or death.
End-caps typically used at construction sites are not sufficient protection against fall risks, as these caps are made of plastic and could be completely destroyed or pushed through the end of the rebar with the force of an average human being falling on them.
Improper or Unsafe Scaffold Construction
Scaffolding is used in construction as a way to provide workers with a safe platform to work on while performing elevated work activities. However, they can also be very dangerous structures when used improperly and can lead to serious accidents.
Specifically, climbing the structural cross-braces, a practice which is prohibited by federal standards, is sometimes observed on job sites and is a cause of many falls. OSHA does permit direct access from one scaffold to another, however.
Accidents occur when ladders are not properly attached to the scaffolding, when the incorrect ladder type is used to access the scaffolding, when guardrail systems are not used or are installed improperly, or when personal fall arrest systems are defeated by workers or are not used or not available.
Misuse of Movable Ladders or Support Devices
Employees risk falling when portable ladders are not secure before climbing. Ladders may move or shift while workers are on them, and they may fall or lose their balance while getting on or off an unsteady ladder. Falls from ladders are a major cause of injury on construction sites and can lead to injuries like sprains, broken limbs, or even death.
The biggest risk factors for accidents involve ladder position – ladders must extend at least 3 feet above the landing. When they’re too short, they may shift or fail to provide proper anchoring at the top. Secure side rails provide a rigid support structure, and when they are not there, or they are non-functioning, the ladder may shift.
Ladders that are not periodically checked may be cracked or broken from previous use. Rungs, steps, side rails, feet, and locking components that are not inspected may cause injury or death. Finally, accidents are caused when ladders are used to support more weight than its rated capacity.
Other causes, which are not equipment-specific, include environmental conditions like working in extreme weather such as heavy rain or snow, where hydroplaning, slipping in water or on ice, or working in extreme heat, where heatstroke can cause a worker’s balance to be disrupted.
A job site may also contain numerous hazards which increase the risk of accidents, such as uneven walking surfaces, inherently slippery flooring or object which can cause a worker to trip.
Finally, working conditions where workers are cramped and must work in crowded areas, or must carry heavy equipment or objects which exceed their strength capacity pose serious injury risk. On many job sites, workers are expected to carry heavy objects while moving, twisting, or subjecting their body (specifically the spine) to uneven loading and sheer force.
These can cause, or contribute to, thoracic or lumbar injuries, including facet joint bruising or other related injuries like disc herniation, which, in turn, may indirectly cause slipping, falls, or other accidents.
Slip, Trip & Fall Prevention
Prevention always includes planning, education, and in some cases, training. Employers should establish set, safe, access and egress routes so that workers have safe passage to and from construction areas, and so that they are not unnecessarily put in harm’s way going to and from a job site or work area.
Workers should be cleared from construction areas when taking lunch breaks or other breaks.
Access routes should be clearly marked to keep workers informed of changing routes or dangerous conditions near them. Inspectors and third-party auditors should be brought on-site to inspect access routes and ensure their maintenance.
Debris, and construction materials, should have a designated place on a construction site. Maintenance should be performed at regular intervals, complete with inspection and training to reduce slips, falling, and trip-related accidents.
Special attention should be paid to stairs, ramps, ladders, equipment maintenance, fencing, walking areas, wall openings and visitor areas.
Exposure control is one of the best ways to prevent accidents because it focuses on raising awareness of dangers and preventing accidents before they occur. By keeping employees away from inherently dangerous situations, falls, trips, and slips can be reduced dramatically.
For example, workplace auditors and safety inspectors should focus on marking elevation changes for walking or working areas. Identify uneven surfaces where workers may be expected to carry heavy objects through. Using high contrast, high-visibility, paint, perhaps reflective paint, as well as signage, is an important first step.
Discuss uneven surfaces in pre-work meetings and briefings. Smooth any uneven surfaces where possible, and when not possible there should be an effort to graduate the change as much as is feasible for the work site.
Use an employee reporting system to report any problems or safety concerns.
Areas that are known to be wet should be marked as such. Areas which are prone to water or slipping should have signage indicating such. Empower employees to put down temporary signage for unexpected water, snow, or obstacles so that he or she may proactively alert other employees.
A safety inspection should be done prior to each work day to ensure the safety of all employees.
Legal Ramifications, Safety and Medical Considerations
Safety and Medical Attention Necessary
If an employee is injured at work, he or she should seek immediate medical attention for injuries. Additionally, an injured worker should report the issue to the employer, obtain a copy of the accident report, obtain names of any witnesses and take notes immediately following the accident, if possible. It is important to document any unsafe working conditions and take photos of the scene.
Obtaining immediate medical attention is especially important if a worker suffers an injury to the head. Even if the employee “feels fine,” head injuries may still be serious and include bruising or a concussion which may not be immediately apparent. Bruising is especially dangerous because it can cause internal bleeding.
Symptoms that are indicative of a serious head injury include nausea, loss of balance, ringing in the ears, memory loss, vision problems, dizziness, headache that manifests either immediately or up to several days or weeks after an accident, and confusion.
The treatment for a concussion is usually rest, but a doctor must diagnose a worker to ensure that there is no risk of hematoma or other trauma to the head or other tissues. Hematoma of the brain can cause serious injury, including death.
Possible Exclusion of Non-negligent Acts
Employers are generally responsible for providing a safe work environment for employees, but in many states, that safety requirement excludes non-negligent acts.
For example, in Dow Chemical v. Bright, an independent contractor, Larry Bright, was working on a job site for Dow Chemical in a project which involved the construction of an off-gas compressor. A pipe fell on Bright, which was improperly secured by Bright’s co-worker.
The court initially found that Dow Chemical was not responsible for the accident, but during an appeal, the court revered the original opinion, citing a fact issue concerning supervisory control employed by Dow Chemical. Ultimately, the court found that Bright had no case because he was an independent contractor and, as such, Dow Chemical could not control the means, methods, or details of how the work was performed.
The implication by the court is that, if a worker is an actual employee for a company, then the company does have a duty to ensure safety for the worker. If the employee is a subcontractor, those same duties may not apply.
Depending on the amount of control the employer has over the premises, or the employee or subcontractor, the landowner may not be liable for any damages suffered by employees. This becomes important in cases where the company is working on a job site not owned by the construction company, as is typical in building contraction.
However, in situations where an intrinsic danger posed by the land or property owner is apparent, the property owner may be liable or may share liability, depending on the state laws concerning accident liability.
The general contractor, or subcontractor, has a duty to inform even contracted workers that a site is reasonably safe for them to work on. They also have a legal duty to inform them of any defects or hazards at the site that they must watch out for. This includes informing them of any inherent dangers in the work they are performing.
Some Final Thoughts on Prevention
Employers and managers should audit all major areas of the construction zone regularly. They also need to provide clear guidance to employees and subcontractors about what to do when a safety issue arises. Safety prevention should encompass checking floors for uneven areas and debris, as well as for water or ice. Proper lighting is essential, as is ladder, cord and hose safety precautions. Employers, managers and workers need to keep up with the latest safety measures and OSHA guidelines.
The highest return on investment for preventing accidents is clearing the floor of debris. Trips, falls, and slips most commonly occur under unsure or unsteady footing, where debris makes it difficult to walk safely, or where water, ice, oil, or some other substance creates hazardous walking conditions. This is where every team member’s efforts pay off. From the newest member of the crew to the top echelon, everyone can do their part to increase safety.
One of the best resources for up-to-date information is OSHA, which also provides a worker safety series for employers to leverage. Education is the best safety tool, but teamwork and setting solid guidelines in the case of a safety issue is effective for reducing accidents, as well. If you think the construction site that you work at doesn’t include these safety measures, or if you have been injured on a construction job, you should seek help and discuss your situation with a professional who can advise you of your options.
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