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Preventing Construction Tragedies from Above

Preventing Construction Tragedies from Above

Here are three steps toward better safety at heights.

By Charles D. Johnson

Several high-profile incidents this year brought workplace safety-at-heights failures into public view. Two construction-crane collapses made national headlines: one on April 27 in downtown Seattle, Washington, the other on June 9 in Dallas, Texas, both with fatalities. On May 15, two window washers in a lift basket found themselves spinning and slamming into the side of Oklahoma City’s tallest building until rescuers reached them. And a Broadway theater in New York City was the scene of serious injuries on June 27 when a piece of rigging equipment fell on three stage hands, leaving one with a fractured skull, another with a partially severed ear, and a third with a possible broken arm plus neck and back trauma.

All of those examples showed how dramatic — and sometimes deadly — the consequences can be when something goes wrong at heights.

Examples of similar tragedies abound:

  • In August 2018, two construction workers were pouring concrete six stories up for a new building near Orlando, Florida, when their scaffolding collapsed. They died from the fall.
  • In 2012, two workers in Dallas died as they were disassembling a construction crane when it suddenly collapsed, under circumstances similar to this year’s Seattle disaster.
  • Several years ago, a construction worker on the ground in Jersey City, New Jersey, was killed by a tape measure that was accidentally dropped by another worker from 50 stories above.

According to government stats, falls and being struck by a dropped object are among the top causes of workplace injuries and fatalities:

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2017, “fatal falls were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), accounting for 887 (17 percent) of worker deaths.”
  • BLS reported that being struck by falling objects or equipment resulted in 45,940 injuries in 2017 (5.2% of all workplace injuries).
  • According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) dropped objects are the third leading cause of injuries in construction.

Thankfully, Murphy’s Law doesn’t strike workers down like this every day, but even near-misses are way too common. Just ask Henry Skjerven. He was working at the base of a tall grain elevator one day when he felt something heavy fly by his face on its way to the ground. It was a nail-puller tool, and it missed him by less than an inch. Another worker had dropped it from 90 feet above.

“I could have ended up as just another statistic,” said Skjerven, “so I’m glad somebody is trying to do something about the problem. I shudder every time I think about having been an inch or so away from severe injury or even death.”

Construction sites, factories, cell towers, wind-energy turbines — any workplace that sends workers up to build, install or service structures or equipment at heights — all hold the potential for catastrophe. One slip, one dropped object, one unexpected wind blast is all it takes. Gravity is unforgiving.

Addressing Safety at Heights

It’s bad enough when a safety lapse puts workers at risk. But the results can be even worse when a fall or dropped object harms the public. Neither workers nor innocent bystanders should be injured or killed by hazards from above.

That’s why the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) launched the “Safety at Heights” campaign this year. ISEA is the trade association in the U.S. for personal protective equipment and technologies. Member companies are world leaders in the design, manufacture, testing and distribution of protective clothing and equipment used in factories, construction sites, hospitals and clinics, farms, schools, laboratories, emergency response and in the home. Since 1933, ISEA has set the standard for the personal protective equipment industry, supporting member companies united in the goal of protecting the health and safety of people worldwide.

The “Safety at Heights” campaign focuses on helping employers reduce the risk of fatalities and injuries from falls and dropped objects in industrial, construction and other occupational settings. The campaign kicked off during Construction Safety Week and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sixth annual National Safety Stand-Down, but it continues throughout 2019, in partnership with the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) and The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

“The timing of this campaign is perfect,” said NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway, “as NATE member companies are currently on the front lines of the 5G deployment cycle leading to technology and equipment upgrades at thousands of communication tower sites around the country. We want to ensure that this protracted, next-generation deployment cycle is conducted in a safe and quality manner and that tower technicians are able to return home safely every night.”

“We want to make sure workers are safe at all times and all heights when working in this industry,” added Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America. “The best way to do that is to make sure everyone involved in construction has the right training, the right tools and right information to work as safely as possible.”

Employers & Workers Can Help

How can employers achieve better safety at heights? First, they need to follow best practices. That includes implementing the American National Standard for Dropped Object Prevention Solutions (ANSI/ISEA 121-2018), which ISEA developed in conjunction with industry stakeholders. Employers can also use ANSI/ISEA 121-2018 as a tool to help them comply with existing OSHA regulations to keep their work sites safe from falling objects. The standard addresses four active controls: anchor attachments, tool attachments, tool tethers and containers (e.g., buckets, pouches). It does not, however, include passive controls. Copies of the standard can be purchased online from ISEA and from ANSI’s licensed resellers.

Second, companies should reject the notion of “acceptable risk.” Injuries and deaths are not a cost of doing business, they’re human tragedies that affect families and communities, not to mention companies themselves. Employers — from the C-suite to every employee and contractor — need to nurture and support an internal culture that prioritizes safety over productivity. That means establishing a company-wide no-fault communication policy that encourages workers to bring risks and problems to management attention, while holding supervisors and managers accountable for responding to those issues appropriately.

Third, workers need to recognize that the laws of physics don’t discriminate. Safety at heights not only affects them and their coworkers, but also bystanders, pedestrians and drivers down below. Workers need to remain alert and aware, use the right personal protective equipment, such as safety harnesses and equipment tethers, and help hold one another accountable to best practices.

Learn more at SafetyAtHeights.org.

Charles D. Johnson is president of the International Safety Equipment Association.