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Why Fall Protection Continues To Be OSHA’s Top Offender Year, Over Year, Over Year

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Construction worker dies in scaffolding collapse.

Two construction workers nearly electrocuted, in serious condition.

Construction worker crushed to death by backhoe.

These recent headlines are not unusual. In fact, year after year they read nearly the same. And year-to-year OSHA’s Top 10 Most Cited Violations list changes very little.

At the top of the most often cited is fall protection. Believe it or not, it’s held this position for six years in a row. It’s not difficult to see why OSHA inspectors take this repeat offender so seriously. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training, between 1992 and 2010, nearly 6,900 construction workers fell to their deaths. That’s about 360 people killed annually from falls alone.

Yet despite concerted efforts by OSHA, like issuing more citations, steeper fines, and new reporting requirements, the number of fall fatalities has remained consistent for a quarter of a century. And those are just the fatalities. Thousands more workers are seriously injured from falls each year.

But if it’s the same every year, why do falls keep happening?

1. Profit Before Safety

There are numerous factors that play a part in this disturbing trend. Part of it is putting profits before safety, say construction experts. A group of residential contractors attending an OSHA fall protection workshop spoke openly about the choices some employers make to cut corners and the difficulty of competing with other contractors who build cheaply by skimping on safety resources.

Here’s what some of them had to say on the Contractor Coaching Partnership blog:

  • “It costs too much money for men to work with ropes, harnesses, and guard rail. If I follow and enforce the rules it’s going to be hard to compete with home builders who hire unsafe framers, roofers, painters, masons and siding companies,” a mass home builder contractor said.
  • “I’m going to do it because I do want to protect my workers, but the majority of roofers and siding companies I compete with do not use fall protection. Quite often, I see contractors working on weekends with the undocumented to avoid scrutiny as they know OSHA does not work on weekends,” said a roofing and siding contractor.
  • “I am here because I was fined, however, most of the painters I know and compete against are not using fall protection and are hiring undocumented immigrants,” a painting contractor said.

In New York City, an area that experienced a staggering 250 percent increase in construction injuries, including fatalities, from 2009 to 2014, a recent study found that a disproportionate number of Hispanic construction workers have died while doing their jobs. Hispanic workers, who account for 30 percent of the construction workforce, made up the majority of falls, according to a new report, “Deadly Skyline: An Annual Report on Construction Fatalities in New York State.

“Latino workers compose the majority of fall fatalities––57 percent in 2015––and there is a strong correlation between employers who steal workers’ wages and who force workers to work under unsafe conditions,” Charlene Obernauer, executive director of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit group that lobbies for worker safety, told EHS.

Safety experts point to another factor behind the higher injury rate. Hispanic immigrants, partly because many don’t speak English, often receive less job and safety training than American-born workers do. Language barriers often contribute to the higher Hispanic injury rate, said work safety authorities.

2. Character and Safety

What makes construction fatalities all the more disturbing is that they are largely preventable. There are a lot of reasons a hazardous work task can turn deadly. The most obvious being improper use of scaffolding and ladders, inadequate fall protection, lack of safety training, and work inexperience.

A recent study, “Falls from Height in the Construction Industry: A Critical Review of the Scientific Literature,” dug a little deeper and found there are other known factors that can hinder worker safety, like a worker’s characteristics.

A worker’s age, attitude, and even weight can have an impact on their safety.  

A worker’s age, attitude, and even weight can have an impact on their safety.  For instance, workers suffering from obesity or who are overweight are likely to get tired faster than their leaner coworkers. Fatigue is one of the major risk factors for falls. Older workers are also more susceptible to falls than younger crew members.

The size of a company can also be a factor. Small businesses take on riskier work than their larger counterparts. Researchers also found that the majority of falls happen in the afternoon due to the time pressures to finish the job.

Among one of the biggest contributors to injury or death from falling is a worker’s behavior. Carelessness, misjudgment, and overconfidence can threaten workers’ lives regardless of their experience, education level or position, according to the study.

3. It’s Not a Top-down Priority

Most, if not all, safety experts would agree that safety training, education and on-site precautionary measures can take your worksite from accident-prone to zero-incident zone.

“All jobsite incidents, including those most cited by OSHA, are preventable,” said Greg Sizemore, Vice President of Health, Safety and Environment and Workforce Development at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

When it comes to protecting the health and safety of workers, it’s about getting everyone on board with making safety a priority. And that begins at the top. An ABC 2017 Safety Performance Report showed that companies whose highest level of management was actively involved in their safety program had a total recordable incident rate (TRIR) that was 54 percent lower than those whose top management was not involved.

“All jobsite incidents, including those most cited by OSHA, are preventable.”

The report also found that contractors who held site-specific safety orientations reduced their TRIR by 45 percent and those who held daily toolbox talks had a 64 percent lower TRIR than those who only held them monthly.

“The data show that implementing these and other proactive safety best practices make jobsites dramatically safer,” added Sizemore.

Stiffer Penalties & Stringent Safety Standards

Earlier this year, New York legislators introduced a state bill that would make it easier to prosecute contractors and developers who violate construction safety rules. Courts already have the ability to charge companies with crimes, but the bill would create a specific set of violations for the construction industry, which will be triggered whenever a safety rule is not followed. Under the bill, fines for misdemeanors and felonies would increase five-fold to as much as $50,000 per incident.

OSHA recently took a tougher punitive stance when it comes to repeat offenders. Also known as “willful” violators, these types of violations can result in some steep fines. In August, OSHA’s maximum penalties increased by nearly 80 percent. The maximum for willful or repeat offenses jumped from $7,000 to $12,471, per violation.

In some instances, punishment can also include jail time as in the recent case of a senior project manager in Jacksonville, Florida. The Department of Justice indicted the Pinnacle Roofing project manager for allegedly making false statements to OSHA investigators involving an accident where a roofer died after falling through a skylight.  If convicted, the project manager faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison. The company, Pinnacle Roofing Contractors, Inc. is also facing $154,000 in fines.

OSHA As Safety Guide

“OSHA’s Top 10 Violations: How does your compliance program stack up?” read one recent whitepaper on the agency’s Top 10 list. Becoming OSHA compliant, as we all know, is critical for your business. But this list is also a way that OSHA can push employers to keep their jobsites and workers free from harm. Turning to OSHA as a safety guide is a sure bet to getting your jobsite accident free and protecting your workers.

Construction, as we all know, is an inherently dangerous business, which is all the more reason to be proactive about safety.

There’s no better time to start than now. OSHA will again hold a National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction May 8-12. You can go to OSHA’s falls stand-down webpage to learn more. For a best practices safety guide, OSHA’s safety and health programs web page is a great resource.

OSHA has also produced fact sheets, web-based interactive E-tools, and compliance assistance products that are available on the agency’s construction safety webpage.

Construction, as we all know, is an inherently dangerous business, which is all the more reason to be proactive about safety. As safety experts repeatedly point out: all jobsite incidents are preventable. Making safety a priority can mean the difference between life and death.

If you liked this article, here are a few eBookswebinars, and case studies you may enjoy:

The Future of Construction Safety

Building a Safety Culture: Improving Safety Management in the Construction Industry

Prime Build Study


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