Falls and human fall traps: Fatalities in the construction industry

August 15th, 2005 by Julie Ferguson

Falls are one of the leading causes of injury and death, both on and off the job. As one might guess, construction workers are particularly at risk – falls are the most prevalent source of fatalities in that industry, dwarfing other sources.
An Analysis of Fatal Events in the Construction Industry 2003 is a study that William Schriver of the Construction Industry Research and Policy Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, conducted for OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control. In the study, Schriver lists the leading causes of death:
OSHA inspected 707 fatal construction incidents (excluding non-work related causes), involving 730 fatalities, in calendar year 2003. Five of the 30 proximal causes classified in this report accounted for 296 (41.9 percent) of the fatal events investigated. They were: (1) Falls from/through Roofs: 76 events (10.7 percent); (2) Falls from/with Structures: 74 events (10.5 percent); (3) Crushed/Runover of Non-Operator of Construction Equipment: 56 events (7.9 percent); (4) Electrocution by Equipment Contacting Energized Wire: 47 events (6.6 percent); and (5) Electrocution from Equipment Installation/Tool Use: 43 events (6.1 percent).
Human Fall Traps
J. Nigel Ellis has spent his career studying falls and why they occur. In Fall Protection: Traps that Workers Can’t Avoid, a recent article in ENR.com, he discusses the phenomena of what he calls “human fall traps” or HFTs. These are situations in which falls are almost inevitable. Examples include hole covers that present the illusion of a solid walking surface, vertical handgrips, and open pits.
“There is no defense against HFTs because we can’t perceive them until it is too late. This is because we are human; a good analogy might be to say “you needed eyes in the back of your head” to see that rock coming. It is worse than that with HFTs. The cautionary phrases “Watch Your Step” or “Be Careful,” often used in toolbox meetings or training programs, don’t help. Training can’t protect against hazards that can’t be seen before it’s too late.”
In this excellent article, Ellis describes 14 specific HFT scenarios. He appeals to architects, engineers, and building contractors to be aware of and eliminate these hazards at the work site. Graphic examples of some of the hazards Ellis discusses are illustrated in a 2004 NIOSH alert that presents five case studies of worker fatalities from falls through skylights and roof and floor openings. This report also offers some recommendations for prevention.
Thanks to rawblogXport for the pointer to the Ellis story. We find a lot of interesting items at this fine weblog that outlines its mission as “union news, workers rights, construction, safety, and irony” – a tip of the hat to the authors.