By: Thomas H. Welby Published: December 2016

Safety in the Use of Vehicles and Heavy Equipment in Construction

Every year, thousands of construction workers (not just operators, but others, including spotters, other trades, and passers-by) are injured, and more than 100 are killed, as a consequence of incidents involving vehicle and heavy equipment operations on jobsites.

Given the complexity, the fluidity, and the multiple levels of authority on the typical jobsite, and that injuries resulting from accidents involving heavy equipment and vehicles are seldom minor, few subjects are more deserving of serious attention on the part of your safety team, and persistence in training your employees.

The subject is too broad for full coverage here, but I will try to touch upon some of the most important issues.

A fundamental requirement is that your machines must all be properly equipped.  All vehicles must have a service brake system, an emergency brake system, and a parking brake system.  They must have properly-secured, operable seat belts, working headlights, tail lights and brake lights, an audible horn, and an intact windshield, with working windshield wipers.  Equipment should have roll-over protection, and protection from falling debris hazards, as needed (e.g., cab shields on dump trucks).

Another thing you must do is to ensure that all heavy equipment and vehicles owned or leased by your company are properly and regularly inspected by a “competent person” — that is, by someone trained in what OSHA requires, and having, also, familiarity with the equipment to be inspected, and the skill to maintain it (or at least to know when it must be referred to a qualified mechanic).

Very generally, with most kinds of equipment, a basic check is required to be performed daily, before the equipment is put into use, a more comprehensive inspection performed monthly, and a very thorough inspection (usually involving at least some disassembly) on an annual basis.

OSHA guidelines are uneven in terms of providing detailed guidance such as checklists regarding what must be looked at, and how often, on various kinds of equipment.  Where, for example, a crane or derrick has undergone modifications or additions affecting its safe operation (generally, involving a safety device or operational aid, critical part of a control system, power plant, braking system, load-sustaining structural component, load hook, or in-use operating mechanism) there is a standard (29 CFR 1926.1412) with detailed instructions regarding how the crane or derrick must be inspected.

A middling level of guidance is given regarding off-highway motor vehicles.  These are to be inspected at the start of each shift, all essential parts and equipment to be checked for obvious damage, and to make sure they are in good operating condition.  Check the trailer brake connections, emergency stopping system, and hand brake components of the service brakes.  Also, check the tires, horn, seat belts, steering mechanism, coupling devices, operating controls, and safety devices.  If site conditions require the use of the defroster, wipers, lights, reflectors, or fire extinguishers, check those items, too.

In contrast with the foregoing, OSHA’s construction standards say very little regarding earth-moving equipment items such as loaders, scrapers, wheel tractors, crawlers, tractors, bulldozers, graders, etc., except to say that seat belts must be installed.

Where the OSHA standards are silent, or provide only minimal guidance, the first place to look is inspection and maintenance recommendations provided by the manufacturer.  While it’s best to have and follow documentation for the exact make and model of the equipment in question, at times the same may not be available.  Regrettably, manuals seldom set forth complete checklists for inspections, in which case — and especially as to kinds of equipment you use on a daily basis — you may need to consult a mechanic, and devise your own checklist, combining information from the mechanic, (possibly) an OSHA standard from a kindred type of equipment, the manufacturer’s manual, and perhaps online sources.

Just as you would not put your employees on a job without insurance, neither should you cut corners in inspecting equipment, in the interests of getting your equipment “into action” at the beginning of a shift.  Large-scale incidents, such as a crane collapse, can not only produce fatalities, and shut down an entire job for many days, but can also put your company on the front page (and in a very bad light) cause the loss of opportunities for new work, embroil you with OSHA, and/or plunge your company into litigation — or even put it out of business altogether.

Another major priority in ensuring the safe operation of heavy equipment is training.  The best practice is to employ operators experienced on the very makes and models of the equipment you are using.  OSHA training requirements must be satisfied, but retaining supervisory personnel who are both conscientious and well-trained in OSHA requirements, and best safety practices, is paramount.

If you want to keep injuries and OSHA citations to a minimum, it’s critical that leadership come “from the top.”  Only if top management makes it clear that safety is no less important than production, and supervisors know and enforce the safety rules, are you likely to seldom see your workforce (which probably consists, in large part, of younger, risk-taking males) 12 stories up but not tied off, or descending into unshored trenches.  OSHA courses and other classroom instruction are important, but even more important is keeping your best (by which I mean “best-trained, and most safety-conscious”) field supervisors for the long term.  It’s crucial, too, to remind your supervisors again and again that safety is a top priority.

Before allowing construction equipment or vehicles onto an access roadway or grade, ensure that the roadway or grade is constructed and maintained to safely accommodate them.  When driving machines onto, or off of, a trailer, special precautions are required.  Especially, make sure that the trailer is parked on level ground — or, if no level surface is available, that the trailer is parked parallel to the slope, and the vehicle on the trailer securely blocked against movement, until you are ready to unload it.  Also, you should double-check to make sure that all safety features are in place, and in working condition.  Since most equipment trailering accidents are the result of human error, it is critical, also, to have a spotter.

An additional priority is traffic control in and around the work area.  You should have a site plan that provides traffic flow details.  The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is a prime source for model plans.  Flaggers, traffic cones and/or highway channeling devices should be deployed, to divert traffic away from where employees are working.  Work zones should be well-lit, but be careful to control glare, to avoid blinding passing motorists.

Operators and others working on or in proximity to vehicles and heavy equipment should have appropriate personal protective equipment, to include (at minimum) hard hats, eye protection, gloves appropriate to the job hazards anticipated, ANSI-approved footwear, and respiratory protection, if necessary.

PPE should also include enhanced-visibility apparel and headwear.  ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 describes four classes of apparel and headwear, providing varying levels of enhanced visibility.  You should perform a hazard analysis to determine which class is required (which may, naturally, vary according as to changing conditions on the site, whether work is being done at night or under weather conditions that impair visibility, etc.)

Most accidents involving vehicles and heavy equipment are preventable, and it’s disturbing how many of the operators involved are well-trained, and highly experienced.  Therefore, in your toolbox talks and other safety training, it’s hard to go wrong in returning to these topics again and again.

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