A Construction Worker Died Today. . . Preventing the Five Greatest Construction Killers

Feb. 1, 2010
Falls, electrocution, struck by, caught between and transportation-related incidents are the top five killers of workers on construction sites.

In approximately 0.21 seconds, a Google search returns over 473,000 hits for “construction worker killed.” It only takes 0.31 seconds to return 501,000 hits for “construction worker dies.”

According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction workers suffered 969 deaths in the workplace in 2008, the most recent year information is available.

Although this represents a 20 percent decline from the 1,204 deaths in 2007, 969 families still lost loved ones in 2008. Construction has the highest rate of deaths of any private sector occupation, and accounted for one-fifth of all workplace deaths in 2008.

So, what can we do to prevent these needless deaths in our workplaces? OSHA's construction standard, 29 CFR 1926, is a good start.


Falls are the leading cause of worker deaths in construction, and have been for many years. Why is this so? We have a fall protection standard, 29 CFR 1926, Subpart M. Are we ignoring the standards, or have we learned ways to outsmart them for production's sake? When the standard calls for fall protection, are we simply putting the worker into a harness and lanyard and calling it “fall protection” to meet the minimum requirements? And is this the best way to ensure the safety of the worker? Can we do more, such as engineer the hazard out with guardrail systems or some other means of protection?

One of the marvels of early 20th century construction is a testament to safe work practices and fall protection.

In 1933, during the middle of the Great Depression, work began on the 4-year project to build the world's longest suspension bridge, at a cost of $35 million. The workers who were hired to perform this dangerous work at great heights, in strong winds over roiling water and with fog moving in and out regularly, largely were inexperienced with steel erection or with construction in general.

Because of the economic situation in the country at the time, a well-paying job like this was much sought after, even if it was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Those who claimed to be ironworkers often came from very different backgrounds, but would buy identification from local residents so they would be allowed on the job. They would, however, claim to be “experienced” ironworkers, and therefore didn't need any training.

At the time, contractors estimated one fatality for every million dollars. As this was a $35 million project, 35 deaths were “budgeted” from the start.

The man charged with the design and engineering of the bridge was Joseph Strauss. He was a leader in bringing safety to the jobsite, especially in fall protection. He required workers to tie off with a lifeline, and those who didn't were fired.

The best-known engineered fall protection device on the project was the safety net Strauss had installed prior to beginning work on the roadbed segments. This cantilevered net ran the entire length of the roadway, and extended 10 feet out from either side, protecting workers from falling to certain death in the choppy waters of the bay. This net was installed at a cost of 130,000 Depression-era dollars. But the value added in saving lives proved worth it. Of the 19 men who fell into it and were later dubbed the “Halfway to Hell Club,” any one of those who hadn't been saved by that $130,000 net could have cost the project considerably through delays, work slowdowns and morale.

On Feb. 17, 1937, just months away from final completion and opening the bridge to traffic, a scaffold carrying 10 men gave way and fell through the net. Along with another worker who had fallen earlier, these were the only reported fatalities during the project.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened 73 years ago, almost 40 years before OSHA mandated these safe practices be included as routine for these hazardous activities. Joseph Strauss was a pioneer in the world of safety, and the fall protection methods he used on the bridge have been refined into state-of-the-art systems. One may even purchase ready-to-install systems that can be set up in minutes. Personal fall arrest systems have become relatively comfortable to wear and easy to use.


When we read about a worker being electrocuted, how can we be certain it won't happen to one of ours? The electrical standard, Subpart K, also has been around awhile. Again, we seem to be complacent enough to think posting signs will satisfy the requirements.

We need to examine each jobsite with a view for the potential hazards, as well as those that are obvious. Overhead power lines are easy to spot, and yet easily missed when the equipment operator hasn't been warned or adequately trained in the dangers. A faultily wired receptacle or junction box can have deadly consequences when an unsuspecting worker comes into contact with it. Saving a couple of bucks or hours by “temporarily” wiring up a device improperly can cost someone their life.

The advances in technology have served us well in electrical safety. Ground fault circuit interrupters, updated electrical codes and equipment, double insulated tools and grounding all have helped to eliminate electrocutions. However, as much as these devices and parts are manufactured to provide the worker with protection, nothing protects them from the misuse or disregard of regulations and safe work practices.


More and more workers each year are falling victim to those incidents where they are “struck by” an object or construction equipment. According to OSHA, approximately 75 percent of those incidents involve heavy equipment.

Swinging, suspended or collapsing loads contribute a large portion of the remaining share. Both Subpart G - Signs, Signals and Barricades - and Subpart O - Motorized Vehicles, Mechanized Equipment and Marine Operations - contain clear language regarding clearances for workers to avoid this type of incident. Subpart N, Cranes and Derricks, has provisions to keep workers away from the moving parts of cranes and their loads. Subpart Q, Concrete and Masonry Construction, spells it out for us that no worker shall be permitted under a live load.

Workers struck by equipment and objects still are part of the top killers, even after the standards tell us we “shall” have audible warning systems, and we “shall” remain clear of moving equipment and overhead loads.


The fourth of the top five construction killers - excavations - is covered in OSHA's Subpart P; one of the most under-utilized standards in the industry. Sure, the big companies are aware of the requirements and will most times budget for trench and excavation protection from the planning stages, but there still are those who take the chance that it will never happen to them.

Many trench collapse or cave-in deaths involve smaller construction companies, performing a short duration operation, where proper trench protection isn't seen as a necessity. Protection like that just isn't part of the bid process. When the market is so competitive, there's just no room for “extras.”

Trenching and excavation deaths keep occurring, although OSHA is quite clear on when, where and how to protect the worker.


The fifth, but by no means last, of the top killers of construction workers is transportation-related accidents. We often don't think of transportation as being part of construction, per se, but nevertheless, nothing can happen without it. Material delivery and transporting equipment, supplies and workers are everyday activities.

A roadway is not a closed work zone, yet we travel the roadways frequently during the course of a typical day. The long hours worked in construction activities, combined with the ever-increasing distracted driver, place transportation-related deaths among the top of these rankings.

Transportation deaths in construction are on the rise. If we don't get out ahead of them, they quickly will become our No. 1 killer.

Every company needs to have a safe driver policy, including drivers' license checks, insurance background checks, cell phone usage policy and seat belt policy, as a start. Those with commercial driving enterprises need to follow the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration policies on driver qualifications, and ensure their drivers are qualified to operate the vehicles assigned to them. They also need to follow restrictions on the number of hours driver are allowed behind the wheel at any one time.

OSHA standards now are 40 years old. Most of today's work force never has known a time when their work wasn't governed by the agency. OSHA standards are the minimum requirements for safety in construction. So why are we not following even the bare minimum and allowing people to die on our jobsites?

There almost seems to be a perception that OSHA standards are voluntary - they are not. With the availability of immediate news flashes whenever tragedy strikes, we hear about these deaths almost as soon as they happen. And yet some contractors and workers still believe their workers and jobsites are immune to the hazards.

We can provide our work force with a safe working environment. Adhering to the regulations found in 29 CFR 1926 is a good start. Training our workers in safe work practices is the next step. Making the information available to them, and encouraging them to follow the rules, will result in a more productive workplace. When shortcuts are taken, there is a price to pay, whether through death, injury or something less dramatic, such as having to re-do the job.

Production, quality and safety are a three-legged stool. Take one away, and the stool will collapse. Joseph Strauss understood this concept.

The success of the Golden Gate Bridge construction is a great example of how putting protective measures into place saves lives. It is that kind of forward thinking and planning for safety that will enable the change in those death numbers and allow the construction industry to be a leader in safety in one of the most hazardous occupations in the country.

Julie Carter, CSP, CHST, works with Traylor Bros. Inc. as safety manager assigned to the Hurricane Risk Reduction Project in the New Orleans, La., area. She is a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, sits on the National Safety Council's Board of Delegates and is vice chair for NSC's Construction Division.

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