Construction is currently one of the largest industries in the United States, with nearly 6.5 million workers and total annual revenue of approximately $12.5 billion. However, the fatal injury rate among construction workers is higher than the national average for workers across industry categories, and these injuries result in around 2.2 million lost working days per year. While construction is not a risk-free industry, many of these risks could be minimized with proper training and procedural checklists. But what exactly are the primary health and safety hazards on a construction site?
Falls from height account for nearly one-third of all construction deaths annually and are caused by incidents such as unstable work surfaces, misuse/failure to use fall protection equipment, and unsafe use of scaffolding or ladders. Many of these injuries could be prevented by meeting safety standards, particularly with high-risk equipment. It is essential to ensure employees have access to the correct equipment, called Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as hard hats, non-skid boots, and correct uniform sizing. A good rule of thumb followed by construction project managers is the six-foot rule: if employees are working more than six feet above another surface, they need to be using fall prevention equipment such as safety nets and guard rails. Additionally, guard rail systems should be equipped with toe bars and warning lines to protect workers who are working near the edges of floors and roofs.
Nearly 2.3 million construction workers consistently work on scaffolding, which causes approximately 4500 injuries and 50 fatalities every year. Many scaffolding incidents come from failure to be erected or used correctly. OSHA guidelines say scaffolding must be sound, rigid, and sufficient to carry its own weight plus four times the maximum intended load without settling or displacement. Scaffolding should be supported using only stable objects and must be equipped with guard rails, mid-rails, and toe boards. Additionally, a scaffolding set up should be inspected by a competent person before use and must be a minimum of ten feet from overhead power lines at all times.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 24,882 injuries and up to 36 fatalities occur annually due to falls on stairways and ladders used in construction. Ladder injuries can be minimized by using the correct size ladder for each specific job and not loading it beyond the manufacturers rated capacity. Another essential safety measure is having the ladders inspected by a competent person for defaults such as structural damage, missing safety devices, or split/bent side rails. Stair injuries are primarily due to dangerous objects, debris, and materials. They can be primarily prevented by ensuring the stairway remains clear and providing tread covers which cover the entire step and landing.
4. Struck by Objects
Being struck by an object accounts for approximately 10% of all construction project deaths and the main culprit of this category is vehicle hazards. Vehicles, including heavy moving objects such as cranes and forklifts, can be deadly if not operated properly. It is important to inform workers of site safety rules which specify clear vehicle routes and adequately train them to avoid these routes on foot. All crane and forklift controls need to be checked before use to ensure proper operation, and manufacturers guidelines regarding maximum weight and load must be adhered to. Additionally, wearing head protection such as hard hats where there is potential for falling objects can help construction workers avoid a potentially dangerous situation thereby decreasing the health and safety hazards on a construction site.
5. Electrical Hazards
Electrical hazards, such as shocks or blasts, cause approximately 8% of all construction site deaths. Due to the significant hazard electrics prove to be to construction workers, it is essential for all workers to be adequately trained in dealing with electrical work in construction. Workers can help prevent electrical accidents by locating and identifying utilities such as power lines and maintaining safe distance requirements from them. Employees should only use portable tools that have ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) to prevent accidents, and should not operate portable tools unless they are grounded or double insulated. By being adequately trained on electrical hazards, construction workers can prevent many of the accidents related to them there by reducing the health and safety hazards on a construction site.
6. Caught-in-Between (Trenching)
Caught-in-between accidents, which usually occur during trenching, account for dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries every year. Many of these accidents are due to trenches collapsing. To prevent this from occurring, it is crucial to ensure that trenches, which are five feet or deeper, have adequate safety measures and wall support. Construction workers should mark all utilities before digging to ensure proper distance is maintained, have the site inspected for safety by a competent person, and be properly educated on how to protect themselves during a trenching accident. For trenches which are 20 feet or deeper, a registered professional engineer should be employed to design a protective system for the trench, and there should be trench exits no more than 25 feet away at any point in the trench.
7. Hazardous Materials
Construction project sites are filled with dangerous hazardous materials including toxic airborne materials, chemical spills, or physical hazards such as drills and heavy machinery. Workers should be provided a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each hazardous material on the construction site and use personal protective equipment (PPE) if necessary. An essential part of keeping the construction site safe from hazardous material accidents is having workers who are properly trained on the risks of each hazardous chemical being used.
The main takeaway from all of this is that properly training employees is key to decrease the health and safety hazards on a construction site. Many construction project injuries and deaths can be prevented with adequate training and by following workplace safety protocol. There are simple tools, such as safety checklists, which can greatly reduce the risk of accidents on a construction site due to human error. Additionally, using protective personal equipment such as eye, face, and head protection can help prevent minor injuries from becoming major ones. While is it impossible to eliminate health and safety hazards in the construction industry completely, risks can be minimized by following safety standards to ensure the safest work environment possible.