Hazards of the Fall

By Joe O'Connor | Oct 15, 2003




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The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that, in 2001, 27 people involved in electrical construction were killed by falls while performing their jobs. This places falls as the second leading cause of fatalities in our industry. They rank second only to “exposure to harmful substances or environments” (which includes electrocution).

These numbers are totally unacceptable, considering the steps that can be taken to prevent a fall and/or protect workers. It may be that the hazard of falling is not as easily recognized. So the best place to start is by looking at prevention and protection and identifying common fall hazards on the job.

Paramount to identifying fall hazards is acknowledging that construction creates a changing environment. Surfaces from which an individual can fall may only exist for a short period of time; nonetheless, the hazard must be addressed. Equipment, such as a ladder or scaffold, is introduced to perform a task and removed. Communicate with other tradespeople to learn when their activities may introduce a fall hazard. Train employees to be more attentive. They need to recognize a new fall hazard whether it is temporary or prolonged and created by them or another tradeperson.

In analyzing the various surfaces from which a fall can occur, three surfaces stand out. They are the ladder, scaffolds (including scissor lifts and aerial booms) and building structures. Altogether these surfaces accounted for approximately 50 percent of the 8,102 fall fatalities in all industries from 1980–1994. Of the ladder fatalities, construction accounted for 46 percent of the deaths. Constructions deaths were 70 percent of the scaffold fatalities.

Beginning with the ladder, there are three major causes for accidents. They are ladders in poor condition, improper selection and improper use. Defective ladders should never be used. Ladders must be inspected before and after each use. The weight capacities and height limitations of ladders must be known and observed. An interesting side note related to the ladder in a study performed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the fact that 42 percent of ladder fatalities involved employees who were 55 or older. Workers 25 or younger accounted for less than 7 percent of the deaths. NIOSH suggested that ladder use requires greater coordination and balance. The small decreases in reaction time, coordination and balance caused by aging may be enough to place the older employees at greater risk for an accident.

Scaffolds present an even greater risk to electrical contractors than the ladder. Various studies have been conducted on their use; electrical construction activities consistently ranks at the top of the list for most fatalities while using this equipment. The fall hazards associated with their use include improper maintenance and erection/dismantling, incorrect access and dismounting from the equipment, overloading, the absence of guardrails and defective parts.

The greatest number of fall fatalities across the board, however, comes from falls from a building or other structures. This includes falls from rooftops or working levels, through holes and from stairways. The major concern is simply the failure of the employee to recognize the hazard. Many falls occur when the employee overreaches or loses his/her balance. Another concern is poor housekeeping. Many falls occur when the employee trips or slips on debris or misplaced tools and materials. Of course, the lack or failure of equipment—such as guardrails—cannot be overlooked. Proper construction and maintenance of fixed protection systems is critical to fall prevention.

Understanding when a fall hazard exists is not limited to the type of surface. The role the height of the surface plays must also be recognized. In the NIOSH study noted above, more than half of the fall fatalities occurred at or below a height of 30 feet. The majority of fatalities occurred when employees fell from a surface between 11 and 20 feet. Another 20 percent died from falls between 21 and 30 feet. Even more significant is that death can come at lower levels. Eight percent of the fatal falls occurred at heights of 10 feet or less. One individual died after falling less than six feet.

On a final note, employers must relate the hazard to prevention and protection. Studies show in many cases this is not being done. In the NIOSH study, fall protection was not available in 20 percent of the fatal falls. Where fall protection was available, it was either not worn (accounting for 17 percent of fatalities), the employee was not using it (accounting for 18 percent of fatalities) or the employee was using it incorrectly (accounting for 13 percent of fatalities.) An effective program, which includes written procedures, proper training and a policy mandating the use of hazard prevention and protection measures, is needed. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or [email protected].


About The Author

Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or [email protected].

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