Hammering Away at Construction Hazards

As the construction season heats up, make sure your workers won't get nailed by the most common causes of injuries.

When it comes to lost-time injuries, construction firms hold a dubious distinction: In 2004, construction was the undisputed leader in injuries caused by contact with objects and equipment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction's incidence rate of 82.5 lost-time injuries per 10,000 full-time workers in the category which includes struck-by and caught-in-between injuries surpassed mining (which was second with a rate of 75.4) and manufacturing (56.6), among other sectors.

It's enough to earn such hazards a spot on another dubious list the Associated General Contractors of America's "Focus Four Hazards" but it isn't the only thorny category for construction.

In 2004, construction also had the highest lost-time incidence rates for back injuries (51.2), sprains and strains (91.2) and eye injuries (10.6).

Safety professionals, better than anyone, know the stories behind the numbers: the once-productive worker forced to retire early by a nagging back injury; the worker whose life is forever changed when an on-the-job accident leaves him blind in one eye; the worker whose hip is crushed under the waist-high weight of a trench collapse as he tries to rescue a co-worker.

With construction season heating up in many areas of the country, let's set the stage for a safe one by revisiting some of construction's most common hazards.

Back Safety is a Stretch

Back injuries have been on the radar of Bechtel Corp. for at least a decade, says Kevin Berg, principle vice president and manager of environmental, safety and health services for the San Francisco-based construction services company, which Occupational Hazards named one of America's Safest Companies in 2003.

While back injuries weren't the most frequent injuries a decade ago, company officials noticed that they were the most expensive because of the lost workdays they entailed as well as the high cost of treatment and follow-up visits.

Today, preventing back injuries remains a "high-focus" area at Bechtel, but the company has seen dramatic improvements in the number and cost of back-related injuries, Berg notes.

Bechtel's program begins with educating workers on safe-lifting techniques through new-hire orientations, toolbox talks and safety topic cards that are discussed during daily pre-work meetings and continues with a culture that encourages workers to ask for help if an object is difficult for them to lift or move. (For tips on safe lifting and other ways to prevent back injuries, see Figure 1.)

Bechtel also encourages workers at its sites to stretch their muscles before work begins.

Typically the sessions are organized crew by crew or, on some sites, craft by craft, Berg says. At Bechtel sites, stretching is one component of a pre-work routine that includes discussing the work plan for the day and conducting daily "safety task and risk-reduction talks" (STARRT), which are "mini job-hazard analyses performed by each crew at the beginning of each morning."

While stretching isn't mandatory, Berg notes that participation typically is high.

Pre-work stretching has worked wonders for Parsippany, N.J.-based Skanska USA Building Inc. Since launching morning stretching (known throughout the company as "Stretch and Flex") at some of its sites in the western and southeastern states, Skanska has experienced a dramatic drop not only in back injuries at those sites but also in other "soft-tissue" injuries such as shoulder, calf and knee sprains, explains David Korman, CSP, environmental health and safety director.

To Korman, it makes perfect sense.

"We warm up before we exercise," Korman says. "Why not before work?"

Contact With Objects and Equipment

No industry sector had a higher rate of lost-time injuries from contact with objects and equipment than construction. But while such incidents are a common source of injury in construction, they also can be deadly accounting for 258 construction deaths in 2004, according to preliminary data from BLS.

Last year, for example, a 56-year-old construction worker in North Carolina was killed when he was run over by a bulldozer traveling in reverse. In 2004, a 22-year-old carpenter in Michigan died from asphyxiation when the walls of an 8-foot trench collapsed and completely covered him.

Both cases, which are detailed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) reports, involved breakdowns in fundamental safety measures that are crucial for preventing injuries and fatalities from struck-by and caught-in-between hazards.

Struck-By Hazards

In order to prevent struck-by incidents similar to the one in which the worker was run over by a bulldozer, NIOSH recommends that employers:

  • Have policies that require workers on foot to maintain a safe clearance from mobile equipment.
  • Have policies that require mobile equipment operators to follow the safety instructions in the equipment operator's manual and provide additional safety training to all mobile equipment operators. (The bulldozer's operating manual noted that operators always should know the location of all workers in the area.)
  • Consider conducting pre-work safety meetings each day to discuss the work on tap that day, the potential safety hazards and safe work procedures.
  • Ensure that PPE such as high-visibility clothing is provided and used in accordance with company policy.

Justin Crandol, senior director of safety and health services for the Associated General Contractors of America, adds that an important strategy for preventing struck-by injuries particularly ones involving mobile equipment is to develop a traffic-control plan for the construction site before the project begins. Then, during safety meetings or toolbox talks throughout the course of a project, supervisors or foremen should be making sure that workers are aware of the site's traffic flow, where the entrances and exits of the job site are, etc.

Crandol also suggests providing defensive driver training to mobile equipment operators and even job site foremen, "who are going from one end of the job site to the other in a pickup."

Overhead Struck-By Hazards

Construction vehicles and equipment aren't the only potential source of struck-by hazards. Whenever materials are being hoisted overhead especially on bridge or multi-story building projects workers can be injured if any of those materials are dropped or knocked off. An improperly rigged or overloaded crane could result in materials falling and hitting workers.

Pre-planning a common theme when talking about construction safety is the key to minimizing overhead struck-by hazards. OSHA 29 CFR 1926.753(d)(1) part of Subpart R, Steel Erection directs employers to pre-plan routes for suspended loads "to ensure that no employee is required to work directly below" them.

For example, firms might decide to hoist materials via crane or derrick before a shift begins to minimize the number of tradespeople working in the area, Crandol explains.

Another simple solution can be found in OSHA's fall protection standard for construction, 1926 Subpart M. One of the measures prescribed by OSHA 29 CFR 1926.501(c)(1) is installing toeboards, screens or guardrails to prevent objects from falling.

"You could take a 2-by-4, flip it up, nail it down," Crandol says, "and when things go flying across the floor, it would stop them from falling off."

Staying Safe in the Trenches

Trenches are nearly as common on construction sites as coffee thermoses and hard hats. Unfortunately, trench work not only presents all the special challenges of a confined space environment, but it also puts workers at risk of being struck by objects or a backhoe and of being caught in a trench cave-in.

Consider this: One cubic foot of soil can weigh 100 pounds or more, and each cubic yard of soil can weigh more than 1 ton. Clearly, working in a trench presents the potential for serious injury or death.

In 2004, 39 construction workers died in excavation or trenching cave-ins, while 44 construction workers died the year before, according to BLS. One of those deaths in 2004 was the 22-year-old carpenter in Michigan, who was working for his dad's small contracting firm on the replacement of some residential sewer pipe.

The ensuing investigation by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) revealed a number of safety deficiencies, several of which resulted in citations.

The construction firm, according to MIOSHA, did not provide adequate sloping (positioning the soil away from a trench at an angle that would prevent a cave-in) or shoring (using structures such as a metal hydraulic, mechanical or timber shoring system or shields such as trench boxes to support the walls of the trench and prevent cave-ins). Had the employer implemented either of those measures, MIOSHA concluded, the 22-year-old carpenter still might be alive today.

The investigation also revealed that the excavation site lacked a competent person, which Crandol views as the No. 1 way to prevent injuries and fatalities in trench work. (For more, see Figure 2.)

The Eyes Have It

When working on a construction site, eye hazards lurk around every corner. Nails, grinding dust, insulation fibers and welding fumes are just a few of the threats to construction workers' eyes during the course of a project.

While eye hazards abound on construction sites, the solution usually boils down to one thing: protective eyewear. Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit eye safety advocacy group, estimates that nine out of 10 job-related eye injuries can be prevented by wearing appropriate eye protection. (For tips on setting up an effective eye protection program, see Figure 3.)

The simple strategy has worked well for Bechtel Corp., which for years has required all workers on its construction sites to wear eye protection, Berg says. In high-eye-hazard job tasks such as welding, grinding and buffing, company policy calls for double eye protection a welding hood with safety glasses underneath it, for example.

Similarly, Skanska requires everyone working on its sites to wear ANSI-approved safety glasses, which has made eye injuries a bit of a rarity.

It seems simple enough. Yet, there were 6,650 reported cases of lost-time eye injuries in construction in 2004.

Mike Myrick, product trainer and analyst for Memphis-based PPE manufacturer MCR Safety, attributes the persistence of eye injuries in construction to inadequate training for workers on when and where they need eye protection as well as on the selection of proper safety eyewear.

"Many construction safety directors just post a sign that says, 'Eye protection required,'" Myrick says. "Guys have no idea what that means."

Another barrier to getting workers to wear eye protection, Myrick explains, is that "if people don't like the way glasses look, they're not going to wear them."

That's one reason why Bechtel Corp. involves workers in the selection of safety eyewear, Berg points out.

"They have a real strong voice in choosing the style and making sure their eyewear is comfortable, so they're getting something they're more likely to use," Berg says.

Fortunately, getting workers to feel "cool" in their safety glasses is becoming less of a burden, in the eyes of Berg and Korman. The two safety professionals credit eye protection manufacturers for improving the style, comfort and quality of safety eyewear in recent years, making it much easier to get workers to comply with eye protection requirements.

"The state of safety glasses is hugely different than it was a decade ago," Berg says. "Now you can't tell a pair of ANSI-approved safety glasses from a pair of designer Oakleys. The comfort and style have improved so much that employees aren't reluctant to wear it."

Eye protection manufacturers such as MCR Safety have utilized technology to overcome some of workers' biggest beefs with wearing glasses. For example, MCR's safety glasses now provide high levels of optical clarity to minimize headaches, Myrick says, and some models feature bayonet temples that wrap around to the back of the head to alleviate pressure on the mastoid bone (the bone behind the ear).

Getting workers to use protective eyewear isn't just a matter of making sure they feel "cool" or comfortable in their safety goggles, though. Korman notes that achieving PPE compliance also is a function of a strong safety culture. He adds that Skanska has adopted a culture it calls "Injury-Free Environment," which is practiced and reinforced on every project.

"People need to choose to wear safety glasses," Korman says. "They have to choose to follow the rules. Part of that is creating a culture where workers believe people care for them, where doing the right thing becomes an internal value with them not because a safety person is telling them to do that, or a foreman is telling them to do that, but because they want to go home and see their kids."

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