Study Discovers Downward Trend in Fatal Falls in the Construction Industry

A new study examines the risk factors for fatal falls in the construction industry, looks at the impact of OSHA fall protection standards on fatalities.

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It is no secret that falls are a serious occupational safety and health challenge in the construction industry. From 1980 through 1989, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the construction industry accounted for nearly half (49.6 percent) of all U.S. occupational fall fatalities.

In 1986, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began the process to strengthen the fall protection standards found in its construction safety standards (29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1926). Subpart M, which deals with fall protection, was implemented in February 1995.

A group of researchers from the School of Public Health at the University of Chicago examined the impact that Subpart M had on fatal falls in the construction industry. Another important objective of their study, which was published in the October issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, was to determine the risk factors involved in fatal falls.

Using OSHA''s data, the researchers determined that there were 6,660 construction fatalities from 1990 to 1999. Of those, 2,353 fatalities, or just over 35 percent, were coded as either a fall from the same level or a fall from elevation. The researchers discovered that:

  • 77 percent of the fatalities were in special trades;
  • 16 percent were in general construction; and
  • 7 percent were in heavy construction.

Roofing, sheet metal and siding workers had the highest rate (18.6 per 100,000 workers per year), and highway and street construction workers had the lowest rate (1.3 per 100,000 workers). Researchers noted that residential building construction, operative builders, highway and street construction, plumbing/heating/airconditioning, and electrical work all had fewer fatalities than expected. Painting and paperhanging, carpentry and floor work, roofing/siding/sheet metal work, and concrete work/water-well drilling all had more fatalities than expected.

Union workers were more at risk from fatal falls than expected, said researchers. Researchers speculated that the higher rate for union workers was due to the fact that they probably work on larger projects involving more work at heights. They also noted that the SIC codes with higher fatal fall rates may reflect more heavily unionized workforces. Plus, union worksites are more likely to report an occupational fatality to OSHA, say researchers.

Workers aged 16 to 19 had fewer fatal falls than expected, according to the study, as did women. Researchers speculate that both women and younger workers are concentrated in less risky SIC codes, or are assigned less dangerous jobs within a given SIC code. Older workers, over the age of 65, were more likely to suffer a fatal fall, a fact researchers attribute to diminished ability, overconfidence in their own skill/experience, lack of receptiveness to fall protection devices, and assignment to riskier jobs. They may also be more likely to suffer fatal injuries as the result of a fall, say researchers.

Although researchers admitted that "an inability...to control for important confounding variables" limited their ability to determine if being an older worker or a union worker was definitely a risk factor, they did note a downward trend in fatal falls in the 1990''s. The study found an 11 percent decrease in fatal flaws during the last two years of the decade, noting that fatal falls accounted for nearly 20 percent of the 6,023 occupational fatalities that occurred in the United States in 1999; quite a change compared to the 1980''s, when construction falls accounted for nearly 50 percent of all U.S. occupational fall fatalities.

by Sandy Smith

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