Most of us have heard that falls are the No. 1 killer in construction, and that's true—Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that nearly 37% of all fatalities in construction are due to falls from height. That's a significant number, and certainly cause for increased vigilance when working at heights. However, did you know that same-level falls (commonly referred to as slips or trips) may have an even greater impact on overall employee safety and your company's bottom line?
Falls from height can cause death or grave injury and need to be prevented through proper training of employees, planning to prevent falls, and installation of effective controls. Guardrails should be the first thought, and personal fall arrest systems the last. In many ways, exposure to falls from height can be managed because of the perceived risk on the part of the exposed employee, who may think to himself or herself, “I don't want to fall from THIS height!”
Same-level falls, however, may be an overall greater risk in many ways. First, the industry needs to contend with the perception that slips and trips “aren't that big a deal.” The two arguments against that perception are slips and trips are more likely to occur on a frequent basis than significant falls from height; there simply are more tradespeople working and walking at ground level. Also these accidents can lead to significant soft tissue injuries, such as back strains, broken ankles, or torn ligaments—all of which are painful and take time to heal.
When you add the lack of attentiveness to the risk and the sheer number of exposures, then multiply it by the costs of responding to slip- and trip-related injuries, you end up with a hazard that can cause significant injury, cost, and lost time to your projects.
What can you do to prevent this?
Ensure that walkways, stairs, and ladders are free of debris, cords, and imperfections that could cause a slip or trip. Stack and store materials so they can't shift, blow around, or be dislodged, especially where employees walk. Be proactive about collecting debris, especially when stripping forms—have a barrel, a scale pan, or other container immediately available so debris can be thrown away, rather than being allowed to pile up.
Consider safe access to work areas as a key focus. Think about where employees have to travel to and from (the parking lot, storage, work, and break areas, etc.) and make sure they are using safe means to access.
This means no leaning stepladders, no forms used as ramps or ladders, no stepping across forms, and always maintaining a proper handhold when using steps or ladders. Providing a handline and a bucket for hoisting tools or materials at all ladders is a simple, cost-effective way to ensure employees climb with both hands. A planked walkway on re-bar mats makes the difference when employees have to traverse larger floor areas.
Little things can make a difference in preventing same level falls—but don't forget about those higher exposures. Protect against falls from height by using guardrails, hole covers, and fall arrest systems.
Fly forms into place with brackets, decks, and rails already installed. Use horizontal lifelines when performing cast-in-place decking or precast work. Retractable lanyards attached at column lines provide mobility and safety. Cast-in-place anchorage systems provide safety for all trades.
There are many ways to prevent (or arrest) falls from heights, and manufacturers have come up with many systems. Consult with your local manufacturer's representative, or your insurance carrier for more ideas. Many times, a fresh set of eyes can help provide perspective and innovation that can help protect your employees and your bottom line.
Above all, talk to your employees about risks associated with slips, trips, and falls. They know it is their life and livelihood on the line, and your genuine concern for their safety will help generate the attention to detail that is necessary in preventing all types of falls.
This is intended as a general discussion of certain types of risks in a construction environment. Zurich Services Corp. does not guarantee particular outcomes and there may be conditions on your premises or within your organization, which may not be apparent.
Marko Kaar(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior risk engineering consultant, and Regina McMichael is a certified safety professional for Zurich Services Corp. Visit www.zurichna.com for more information.