In a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report on workplace fatality statistics from the 1990s, falls were the fourth-leading cause of death in the workplace. Unfortunately, more recent statistics show that falls are now the No. 1 cause in both construction and general industry. Most industry workers are aware of the hazards associated with falling from a height, such as a scaffold, ladder or roof, but it’s always good to review safety tips.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has clear expectations when it comes to keeping employees safe from fall hazards. When there is the possibility of an employee falling from a specified height (minimum 6 feet for construction, 4 feet for general industry) to a lower surface, OSHA requires some type of fall protection. It could be a guardrail system, safety net system or personal fall arrest system.
It also is important to remember that walking and working surfaces can present hazards for slipping, tripping and falling. While fatalities may stem more often from falls from heights, falling on a walking or working surface can sometimes cause serious injuries, such as bone breaks and dislocations.
The NIOSH report identified several interesting trends about fall-related fatalities in addition to the somewhat obvious relationship between height and the likelihood of a fatality.
Of the total fatalities the report examined, 97 percent were male and ranged in age from 16 to 96 years old. The highest number of fatalities was in the age range of 25 to 34 years old, which may be because it is the most common age range of those working in the trades. Another explanation, however, could be that individuals in this group have been on the job for a while and have become complacent about their safety.
Another interesting trend also involved age. From ages 55 to 64, fatality rates increased sharply over other age groups. There was an even steeper increase in the 65 and over age bracket. There are two possible reasons. First, as employees age, their reaction times slow, negatively affecting their ability to right themselves if they begin to fall. Second, there tends to be many fewer 65-year-olds on the job site than 25-year-olds. This influences the fatality rate, which focuses on the number for an age group compared to the number of employees in that age group on the job site.
The report also found that more fatalities occur in smaller companies, which could be explained several ways. First, there may be no one individual in the company that has been assigned to act as the safety coordinator to train employees. Second, since time is money, smaller companies may be more likely to take safety shortcuts to get the job done faster. Third, owners might be unaware of the need for safety training since they might not have been given safety training early in their own careers. Owners tend to run their companies the way that they were trained. If safety wasn’t a priority then, it may not be now.
There is a link between length of employment with the current employer and the likelihood of a fall fatality. Forty percent of all fatal falls were individuals who had been with their current employer for six months or less. The reasons for this statistic are unclear, but it may be due to lack of safety training for new hires. Also, you can never assume a new employee will use common sense when working at heights or that he or she has been previously trained to work safely at elevations; new employees are less likely to ask for help. First-time employees with six months or less experience may be less comfortable with the tasks they must perform, and this uncertainty puts them at risk. When someone is nervous, their body tends to tense up, which could affect reaction times.
The NIOSH report analyzed many fatality reports to look for trends and justify its recommendations:
• Employers should train their workers to recognize and avoid hazards that they may encounter during the workday.
• Employers should encourage workers to actively participate in monitoring workplace safety. Many incidents can be avoided if an observer brings safety issues to someone’s attention.
• Employers should instruct new employees in the proper method to be used in the performance of assigned tasks.
The NIOSH report reveals chilling trends when applied to our own job sites. It’s important to be aware of these issues and pay attention to the safety training programs available to you.
KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe O’Connor edited this article.