Fall Prevention in the Construction Industry

March 23, 2005
Motivation, training and money form the foundation of effective construction safety programs that reduce fall-related injuries and deaths.

by Scott Potts, M.S., and James D. McGlothlin, MPH, Ph.D., CPE

Recently, researchers from Purdue University's School of Health Sciences, aided by a NIOSH research grant, conducted a study to determine what elements of the safety programs of large construction companies were responsible for a reduced rate of falls in comparison to small construction companies (Construction Safety Alliance, 2003). Hinze et al. (2002) showed that the rate of falls decreased as the cost of construction projects increased. The point of the study was to use the findings to help small construction companies reduce their rate of falls.

Twenty-five construction companies whose typical construction contract amounts were in excess of $1 million were contacted. Of those, 16 companies chose to participate. We interviewed the safety directors of the 16 companies and obtained statistical information about each company and its safety program as well as opinion-based information. A small roofing company also volunteered to answer the same series of questions and allowed us to observe one of its crews work on a residential roofing project.

Large Companies, Low Losses

The companies that participated in the interviews were large in terms of their construction contract size. The median contract amount was $9 million. The median Experience Modification Ratio (EMR) of the companies interviewed was 0.73. The EMR is a tool used by insurance companies to determine premiums for workers' compensation insurance. It is the ratio of actual losses due to work-related injuries and illnesses over the expected losses. An EMR of less than 1 indicates that a company is suffering fewer losses than other companies in the same industry (Safety Management Group, 2002). Additional evidence of safety performance is seen in the number of years the construction companies had been practicing their current safety program. The median time was 11 years.

All of the construction companies indicated that they were affiliated with external safety organizations. They listed the opportunity to network with other companies as the primary benefit of membership. The network forum allows the sharing of information gained through experience and provides an expert panel to explore new ideas. Rather than a beneficiary role, the construction companies that were interviewed acted mostly in an advisory capacity to safety organizations, although some of the companies benefited from training information provided through safety organizations.

Employee turnover is a concern because of the potential inexperience of new hires. The median rate of employee turnover was 145 per year and the median duration of employment was 18 months. The turnover rate is nearly half the number of employees that work at elevations over 6 feet. The median number of employees that work over 6 feet is 320 at any given time. In spite of the high employee turnover, fall injuries were relatively scarce.

The median number of injuries due to falls in the past year was two and the median number for the past 5 years was five. Only one company of the 16 interviewed reported a fatality in the past year and no other fatalities were reported in the past 5 years. The exception was one contractor that experienced no injuries or fatalities itself but had subcontractors who had experienced two fatalities in the past year and seven fatalities in the past 5 years. Subcontractors' failure to comply with safety procedures was a common complaint.

Safety training is likely to be one of the elements responsible for such low numbers of injuries and fatalities. The median number of employees trained per year was 500. All but one company engages in refresher training on a regular basis so most existing employees can expect to receive refresher training every 12 months. The companies were split on whether they thought the employee turnover rate affected how their safety training programs were implemented. Companies who perceived that turnover had no effect may have been biased due to the existing level of intensity of the training program brought on by the anticipation of high turnover.

When considering training or safety equipment, cost can be an important issue. The construction companies interviewed in this study were asked to estimate their yearly expenditures for training and safety equipment per worker. The median of the estimated cost per year for training was $800 and the median of the estimated cost per year for safety equipment was $250. These numbers are minimal in comparison to the cost of injuries and fatalities from falls.

Key Factors

The construction companies were asked to list the five key factors that influenced them to implement their current safety program. Even though this was an opinion-based question, there was not a wide variety of answers. The fourth and fifth most common answers tied for the number of responses. They were concern for the reputation of the company and compliance with OSHA regulations. The third most common answer was insurance company pressure and a high EMR. The first and second most common answers tied for the number of responses. They were concern for the well being of the employees and maintaining profitability. A common theme found in these responses was money. The safety directors felt that a negative impact on a company's bottom line was critical to the development of a proactive attitude toward safety.

The construction companies were asked to list what they considered to be the most important elements of their safety training programs with respect to making them successful at reducing falls from elevations. Since this was an opinion-based question, there were a wide variety of answers, but a few were mentioned consistently.

Two answers tied for the fifth most common element. They were daily crew meetings in which supervisors go over a daily work plan and job-specific safety training for those potentially exposed to falls. The fourth most common element was the promotion of safety awareness and accountability as a fundamental value. In essence, the development of a safety culture in which safety was a habit rather than a chore was expressed. The third most common element was regular onsite training from the construction site superintendent. The second most common element was the training of line supervisors in the area of supervision. The safety directors felt that supervisors were too often chosen for their adeptness at their particular trade rather than their ability to exercise supervisory skills over workers.

The most commonly mentioned element was unique in that half of the companies mentioned it as the most important element of their safety training program. It was upper management commitment to support and promote safety as a top priority. The safety directors felt that financial support for the safety program and the presence of upper management at key meetings was how this was best demonstrated. By making safety the first item on the agenda at management meetings, upper management displayed its commitment to safety to lower-level managers. Periodically visiting jobsites and taking part in some onsite training was a way of displaying commitment to safety to line supervisors and workers.

As with the large construction companies, the small roofing company had an exemplary safety record. There had been no fall-related injuries in the preceding 5 years and the EMR was 0.85. During the interview, the owner who also was the chief safety officer revealed that the company had no formal safety program. Discussions about safety only took place when workers were faced with projects in which they would encounter extreme roof slopes or other hazardous conditions. He indicated that the discussions were no more than reminders to be careful and look out for each other. The most disturbing part of the interview was that the owner felt that those discussions constituted a safety program and that the program must be working because of their safety record.

Motivation, Training and Money

The results can be summarized with three terms: motivation, training and money. The primary reason for the success of large construction companies at reducing construction falls is that upper management has made a commitment to be safe. In making that commitment, they create momentum that motivates middle managers, construction supervisors and, finally, trade workers to be safe. Without the motivation from the top, there is little chance that a successful safety program will develop and almost no chance that a safety culture will develop. Prior research has shown that workers will perform their tasks in a manner that allows them to experience the least amount of inconvenience (Holmes et al., 1999, and Johnson et al., 1998). Unfortunately, safety is often seen as an inconvenience.

Appropriate training must follow effective motivation. Training is the method by which motivation is focused. The most important part of that training is training line supervisors in the area of supervision. Line supervisors are the most critical link in the safety chain because of their proximity to potentially dangerous situations. To effectively promote safety, line supervisors need to understand how to effectively communicate and motivate workers so that they will comply with safety procedures. The line supervisors also need to have a good understanding of regulations concerning safety. Since line supervisors are usually regular employees, provisions need to be made to ensure that they receive training on a regular basis.

Worker training is next in importance. High turnover rates put the company in a position where new employees are constantly coming onto jobsites. In order to ensure that workers receive the proper training, special training for new hires, regular onsite training and daily crew meetings during which daily work plans are discussed are crucial to reducing construction falls. This type of regular training allows the supervisor to effectively dictate the expectations of the company in the area of safety.

Money is the factor that motivates companies to initiate training. Large construction companies discovered several years ago that it was profitable to be safe. As shown by the costs of training and safety equipment, relatively small expenditures upfront can prevent large costs incurred after an accident. Lost time, loss of reputation, increased insurance costs, loss of competitiveness and potential litigation are strong reasons to invest in safety.

What was the primary difference between large and small construction companies? Large construction companies who have good safety programs adopted those programs because of safety problems that made an impact on their profitability to the extent that they had no choice but to become safe. Large construction companies can build the extra cost into their bids because their competitors are faced with the same circumstances. Small construction companies, on the other hand, face competitors that likely have never faced serious safety-related problems and, therefore, have no incentive to build the cost of safety into their bids. Small construction companies that might desire to build in more engineering controls, safety equipment and safety training would be priced out of the market and go out of business.

If small construction companies are ever to develop effective safety programs modeled after large construction companies, it seems that one of two scenarios must occur. Either, as with the large construction companies, small construction companies need to experience the losses that forced the large construction companies into compliance, or an effective method of regulating small construction companies must be put into place.

Sidebar: Reducing Falls from Elevations

What are the most important elements of safety training programs?

  • Upper management commitment to support and promote safety as a top priority
  • Training of line supervisors to exercise supervisory skills
  • Regular onsite training from construction site superintendent
  • Promotion of safety awareness and accountability as a value
  • Daily crew meetings in which supervisors go over daily work plan and job-specific safety training for those potentially exposed to falls (tie)


Construction Safety Alliance (2003): "Analysis of Safety Programs of 16 Large Construction Companies." Online, engineering.purdue.edu/CSA/publications/FallPotts

Hinze J, Huang X, McGlothlin JD (2002): Review of fall accidents in construction. Proceedings: The Organization and Management of Construction, 10th International Symposium Construction Innovation and Global Competitiveness. Editors: Uwakweh BO, Minkjarah IA; pp. 1117-1132.

Holmes N, Lingard H, Yesilyurt Z, De Munk F (1999): "An Exploratory Study of Meanings of Risk Control for Long Term and Acute Effect Occupational Health and Safety Risks in Small Business Construction Firms." J of Safety Research 30(4): 251-261.

Johnson HM, Amarjit S, Young RHF (1998): "Fall Protection Analysis for Workers on Residential Roofs." J of Construction Engineering and Management 124(5): 418-428.

Safety Management Group (2002): Pre-qualification frequently asked questions. Online, www.smgindy.com/images.Item.bin149754.pdf

Scott Potts has a B.S. in engineering and an M.S. from the School of Health Sciences at Purdue University. His thesis was on the prevention of falls in the construction industry. James D. McGlothlin is an associate professor of industrial hygiene and ergonomics in the School of Health Sciences at Purdue University. Dr. McGlothlin specializes in research in ergonomics and in industrial hygiene engineering controls. Prior to his appointment to Purdue University, he was a senior researcher in ergonomics with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The author of more than 100 scientific, technical and government reports, Dr. McGlothlin serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Occupational Hazards. You can find out more about him by visiting his Web site at www.DrMcGlothlin.com.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!