We’ve made some significant advances in the field of workplace safety in recent decades. However, according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), construction remains one of the most dangerous industries. As many as one in five workplace fatalities happen in the construction industry, in addition to thousands of non-fatal injuries every year. What are the most common safety hazards in construction, and how can we avoid them?
The “Fatal Four” Safety Hazards
Four of the most common safety hazards in the construction industry happen so frequently that OSHA dubbed them the “Fatal Four.”
In 2019, 20% of workplace fatalities — totaling 1,061 workers — occurred in the construction industry and the Fatal Four played a large part in that. While worker deaths have dropped dramatically, from 38 a day in 1970 to 15 a day in 2019, that number is still concerning. These safety concerns include:
Falls are the most common cause of construction site fatalities. While it is theoretically possible to survive falls from various heights, the landing circumstances determine the outcome.
Proper training and safety equipment are necessary to protect workers from these risks. Under OSHA rules, managers must provide fall protection in any situation where a worker is more than 4 to 8 feet above the ground, depending on the industry. In construction, the cutoff is 6 feet.
Electrical exposure can be fatal or cause severe burns that take months to heal. Training is essential for preventing these incidents. Focus on proper lockout/tag-out procedures for equipment in need of repairs, and ensure only trained team members carry out repairs.
Struck-by incidents may result from falling equipment or moving vehicles, or anything in between. Prevention for these incidents is twofold.
First, ensure safe working areas and keep pedestrians out of operational areas. Second, ensure everyone wears proper safety equipment, including hard hats.
Most commonly, caught in/between incidents happen when an employee gets trapped between the equipment and an immovable object. It also includes cave-ins and trench collapses, and may also occur during building collapses or demolition projects.
Creating functional spaces off-limits to workers on foot can help prevent these incidents. This is one safety concern where the best thing to do is to keep your team out of these situations in the first place.
Construction workers often find themselves exposed to various potentially dangerous substances in the line of duty, from asbestos during the demolition or remodeling of older buildings to silica dust, which can cause a hazardous lung condition known as silicosis. Many construction materials also emit volatile organic compounds or VOCs during and after installation. These VOCs can cause new respiratory problems or compound existing ones.
The easiest way to protect your team is to provide respirators and other PPE and ensure appropriate ventilation or air recycling is available to prevent these dangerous particles from concentrating. Pay close attention to the products that you’re using, and the VOCs they emit. Some substances, especially those that generate formaldehyde will require additional safety precautions.
The weather is always a factor when working outdoors. But when temperatures soar, it can become dangerous. Extreme heat and cold both have their hazards. When the temperature starts climbing, so does the risk of heat stroke and dehydration. When it drops dramatically, you’ve got the risk of frostbite.
Preventing these safety hazards is often as simple as providing heaters in the winter and fans in the summer to help modulate the temperature. In cold weather, require appropriate clothing. In the summer, frequent breaks, cold drinks, and shady spots to rest can help offset extreme temperatures.
When you’re working with caustic chemicals or, in the case of demolition projects, explosives, there’s always a risk. Fires and explosions might not be common enough to make it into the Fatal Four, but when they do happen, they can be devastating.
Comprehensive training and inflexible safety rules can help prevent these tragedies. When brush fires are common during dry seasons, restrict or ban smoking on-site so a casually discarded cigarette butt can’t spark ablaze. This also helps you protect the area around your site and your team and property.
Repetitive Stress Injuries
Injuries from repetitive motion are common on construction sites among laborers and specialists alike. Heavy lifting often makes these injuries worse, especially for individuals with back pain, but any task that requires a worker to make the same motions day in and day out can cause these injuries.
Preventing these safety concerns can be challenging because of the nature of the job. Adopting automation for some tasks can help take the load off your team member’s shoulders, allowing them to focus their energies on other parts of the project, but it can be expensive to start adopting robotics. Encourage your team to use proper lifting techniques, maintain good posture, and take regular breaks.
Construction sites are anything but quiet, but excessive noise can be hazardous to both workers and anyone nearby. While a human being can withstand noises up to 90 dBA for an eight-hour workday without long-term damage, anything above that can cause permanent harm.
Take steps to limit noise exposure whenever possible. When it’s unavoidable, provide properly fitted hearing protection. Require everyone on-site to wear their hearing protection, whether they’re operating the equipment or not. Schedule shifts so no one person is exposed to high decibel noise for long periods. Even with ear protection, the less time you spend with a noisy tool in your hands, the easier it becomes to protect your hearing health.
Working in construction means that you’re spending long periods outside. It might be great for your tan, but prolonged exposure to sunlight and hazardous chemicals can cause skin irritation, damage, and diseases, including skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, experiencing five or more sunburns in your life doubles your chances of developing melanoma. Don’t take skin protection for granted, especially on a construction site.
For sun exposure, encourage the use of sunscreen and UV-resistant clothing. Providing sunscreen may help encourage people to use it. For chemical exposure, provide PPE to prevent exposure and a total rinse station to remove chemicals that come into contact with skin as swiftly as possible.
The construction industry is not without its share of safety hazards, but they don’t need to result in injuries or deaths at the workplace. The key is to determine where these risks may occur and take steps to anticipate and eliminate them.
Once you know what you’re working with, it’s easier to protect your team. Deadlines and budgets and other details are essential, but people are irreplaceable.
Rose Morrison is a real estate and home improvement writer and the managing editor of Renovated. She’s most interested in sharing home projects and inspiration for the most novice of DIY-ers, values she developed growing up in a family of contractors.