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By: Kendall Jones on December 18, 2020

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Combating Worker Deaths in the Construction Industry

Construction Safety

The construction industry is responsible for more fatal occupational injuries than any other industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, there 899 fatal injuries occurred in construction work. That’s one out of every five worker deaths.

A major emphasis, justifiably, is placed on reducing the number of fatal injuries that make up OSHA’s Fatal Four: falls, electrocutions, being struck by objects and getting caught in or between equipment and objects. Combined they account for just over 60% of all construction worker deaths.


Falls are the leading cause of all construction worker deaths. In 2014, falls were responsible for 359 fatal occupational injuries in construction. That’s nearly 40% of all construction worker deaths.

A majority of these fatal falls, 255 of them, were classified as simply other falls to a lower level. Most fall fatalities occurred from falls between 16 and 20 feet. This is unacceptable given the fact that OSHA requires fall protection for employees working at a height of six feet or more. (About 9% of all fatal falls occurred from falls from a height of fewer than six feet.)

This means either employers hadn’t installed fall protection systems, workers weren’t using personal fall arrest systems, were in restricted areas where the employer had not yet set up fall protection systems or that the fall protection failed.

Employers must provide and install fall protection systems to protect their workers on walking or working surfaces with unprotected edges or sides that are six feet above a lower level. This should be done before any work is started. Fall protection includes protecting workers from falling into openings such as elevator shafts, skylights and excavations.

Fall protection can include guardrails, safety net systems and personal fall arrest systems. Guardrails are the only method approved that actually prevents falls from occurring. Safety nets and personal fall arrest systems merely prevent workers from falling a great distance.

Employees need to familiarize themselves with all potential fall hazards on a jobsite. Employees should not start work in an area where fall protection systems have yet to be installed. Workers using personal fall arrest systems should inspect them before each use to ensure they are working properly and are free of damage.

If a safety monitoring system is used, the safety monitor should be a competent person who remains on the same walking/working surface and in visual sight and hearing distance of the worker they are monitoring. The monitor should be able to identify fall hazards and warn workers when they are working unsafely or may be unaware of a fall hazard.

When conventional fall protection methods are infeasible or create a greater hazard and a worker is performing leading edge work, precast concrete erection or residential construction work, the employer must have a fall protection plan. The plan must be site specific and developed by a qualified person. These areas must be classified as controlled access zones and only workers designated to perform work in those areas should be permitted access.


Scaffolding was the primary source of fatal injury for 58 worker deaths. Ladders were the cause of 90 deaths and roofs were the primary cause of 109 deaths.

Scaffold training must be administered by a qualified person and include identification of electrocution, fall and falling object hazards. Training must also cover the proper use of the scaffold, how to handle materials and the load capacities of the scaffold. Retraining is required when additional hazards present themselves due to changes at the jobsite or if the type of scaffold, fall protection or falling objects protection changes.

A competent person must inspect scaffolding before each work shift to verify it is in good working order and safe to use. Scaffolds can only be erected, dismantled, altered or moved by trained personnel under the direct supervision of a competent person.

Hard hats should be worn when working on, under or around a scaffold. Workers should also wear sturdy, non-skid work boots and use tool lanyards when working on scaffolds. Never work on scaffolding covered in ice, water or mud. Boxes, ladders or other objects should never be used to increase the working height when using scaffolding.


Employers should provide training by a competent person. Training should cover recognizing ladder hazards, proper use, handling and placement of ladders and the maximum load-carrying capacities of ladders. Ladders should be inspected before each use. Damaged ladders should be taken out of use and properly marked so they won’t be used again until they can be repaired or replaced.

Ladders are rated for different load capacities so it’s important to select the right ladder for the job. The weight of the worker along with any tools or materials being carried should be considered. If exposure to electrical hazards is possible, select a ladder made of nonconductive materials such as fiberglass.

Always maintain three points of contact (either two hand and a foot or two feet and a hand) at all times when climbing up and down a ladder. Tools and materials should be carried using a tool belt or hauled up by rope once a worker has stopped climbing. Also, be sure to wear non-slip shoes when working on ladders.

If using ladders to access another level, they should extend at least three feet above the upper landing surface. Ladders should be placed on level surfaces and secured at the base and top support whenever possible to prevent slipping. Make sure ladder rungs are locked into place on extension ladders and spreaders are locked into place on stepladders.

Remember to read and follow all the manufacturer’s instructions and labels on the ladder. Ladders aren’t always the right tool for the job. Consider erecting some scaffolding or bringing in a scissor lift to meet your needs.

Another big contributor was from falls through surfaces or existing openings such as skylights, elevator shafts, manholes, etc. They accounted for 57 worker deaths. OSHA is pretty clear that openings should either be guarded or covered to prevent workers from falling through to a lower level.

There were 29 fatal falls attributed to collapsing structures and equipment. These include things like scaffolding, ladders, aerial lifts and buildings. Before any workers are given access to equipment or structures they should be inspected to ensure they are structurally sound enough to carry the weight of employees, tools, materials and any equipment being used or stored on the walking surface.


Employers should establish an assured equipment grounding conductor program to cover all temporary receptacles, power cords and equipment. Detailed records of all tests and inspections. Visually inspect all power tools, equipment and extension cords for cuts, frays and exposed bare wires. Ensure that ground prongs have not been removed or become defective. Conduct continuity tests on all equipment grounding conductors.

All receptacle outlets not part of the permanent wiring of the structure are required to be protected by ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). GFCIs monitor the electrical current flow from hot to neutral and will trip the circuit to shut off the electricity if an imbalance is detected.

To avoid accidental electrocution implement lockout/tag out procedures when equipment and circuits are not being used. A qualified person is required to ensure that all equipment and circuits are de-energized before a lock and/or tag is applied. A qualified person should be available when it is time to remove locks and tags and re-energize equipment and circuits.

Death can occur from exposure to as little as 50 – 100 milliamperes of current. The maximum current that a person can grab and release a live wire is only 16 milliamperes. Any higher and they will not be able to release their grip. Paralysis of respiratory muscles occurs when exposed to 20 – 30 milliamperes of current. Most 120 Volt circuits carry 15 to 20 amperes of current. 15 amperes of current is 300 times what is necessary to cause death. Other causes of death from electrical hazards include burns, arc flash and blasts, explosions and fires.

Contact with objects and equipment

Contact with objects and equipment encompass the last two of OSHA’s Fatal Four, struck by and caught in/between events. Contact with objects and equipment were the cause of 114 fatal work injuries.

Struck by hazards

Being struck by objects or equipment resulted in 73 construction worker deaths in 2014. Employers should alert all workers of areas where there is greater potential for struck by accidents to occur and limit access to those areas. OSHA requires that employers provide employees with proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). All PPE should meet current American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. PPE should be inspected prior to each use to ensure that it’s in proper working condition and free from any defects or damage.

Rolling object hazards typically involve being struck by a vehicle or heavy equipment while it’s in motion. They also include any object that rolls, moves or slides on the same level as a worker.

Equipment operators generally have limited or no visibility when operating in reverse. Workers need to be made aware of areas where heavy equipment is being operated so they can avoid them. Struck by accidents involving heavy equipment often occur when operators have not received proper training on how to safely operate the machinery.

Falling object injuries typically occur when tools and materials get knocked off from unprotected edges by employees working at height. Employees should be prevented from working or walking in areas where work is being performed overhead. Toeboards and screens should be used to keep tools and equipment from falling to a lower level. Debris nets and catch platforms can be used deflect falling objects.

Examples of flying object hazards include thrown tools or materials, accidental nail gun discharges and using unguarded power tools. Workers should stay out of the line of sight when a nail gun is being used. Avoid working on the opposite side of a wall of plywood or sheetrock. Misfires have enough force to easily penetrate both materials and kill someone on the other side.

Inspect power tools before use to ensure protective guards have not been removed and are in good condition. Workers should always wear eye, face and head protection when using power tools or working near them.

Two of the most cited OSHA violations in construction involve the standards for head protection and eye and face protection. Issuing workers proper PPE and enforcing their use can go a long way in protecting workers from flying and falling hazards.

Swinging object hazards generally occur when something causes loads being mechanically lifted to sway. Accidents can also occur when a worker enters the swing radius of a piece of heavy equipment like a crane. Employees should never be allowed to walk under a suspended load. Barriers should be erected to keep employees from accidentally stepping inside the swing radius of heavy equipment.

Caught in/between hazards

Deaths caused by getting caught in or between objects or equipment resulted in 39 worker deaths in 2014 in the construction industry. Getting caught in moving parts of machinery and power tools are common types of caught in accidents. Safety guards that are missing or have been intentionally removed are the most likely cause. Loose clothing can get caught in moving parts and pull workers in. Equipment should be de-energized when not in use, especially when making repairs, performing routine maintenance or changing accessories.

Heavy equipment is commonplace on construction sites and can lull workers into a false sense of security. Never allow workers to place themselves in between a moving vehicle and an immovable object such as a wall.

Caught in or between accidents can also occur when you are behind the wheel of heavy equipment. Never overload or overwork a piece of equipment since it can lead to tip overs. Always wear seat belts or safety restraints when operating equipment. The cabs of those machines are designed and reinforced to protect the worker. Jumping out or being flung out could result in being crushed underneath tipping equipment.

Unprotected trenches and excavations are another leading cause of caught in accidents. Trenches deeper than five feet must have protective systems in place. A professional engineer is required to design protective systems for trenches or excavations over 20 feet deep. Sloping, benching and shoring trenches can be used to prevent collapses. Trench boxes and shields protect workers from being buried alive or crushed by cave-ins.

OSHA requires trenching and excavation work be inspected by a competent person trained on the requirements of the OSHA standard, the use of protective systems and soil classifications. They are responsible for identifying and eliminating any hazards before workers enter the area and while work is ongoing.


A very small number of construction deaths are the result of true accidents. Most fatal occupational injuries can be prevented through a combination of proper safety training and adhering to the rules and regulations laid out in the construction industry standards developed by federal and state OSHA programs.

Construction worker deaths have been on the rise the past four years, increasing 22% in that time. Part of this can be attributed to growth in the industry, both in number of jobs being created and the amount of construction activity taking place. As the industry continues to grow, more inexperienced employees will be added to the workforce. Those workers need proper training in order to do their job safely. Employers also need to have a strong commitment to creating safe jobsites through training and comprehensive safety programs.

About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.