By: Thomas H. Welby Published: September 2011

Safety Policy: Bureau of Labor Statistics Reports Progress in Reducing Construction Fatalities

Each year, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issues a "Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries." The preliminary numbers are out for 2010, and there is some good news to report.

That good news is that, nationwide, construction fatalities were down sharply from 2009 to 2010. And, although much of the drop in fatal occurrences must be attributed to the "bad news" that construction employment also continued to fall, the number of deaths fell more than employment did. Thus, it appears that there have been modest, but significant, reductions that may be attributable to increased safety efforts.

The preliminary death count for all U.S. workers was almost unchanged from 2009 to 2010, as was the rate of 3.5 fatalities per 100,000 "full-time equivalent" workers in all occupational classes.

The gross total of fatal work injuries in the private construction sector declined by 10 percent in 2010, a rate roughly two-thirds higher than the drop in the number of hours worked, of about 6%. Fatalities in 2010 totaled 751, according to BLS’s preliminary figures, down from 834 in 2009, and 1,239 in 2006. The number of deaths has decreased every year since 2006-07, and last year’s number was the lowest overall total in 18 years. There were reductions in residential, commercial, civil and heavy highway work, and in most trades.

Construction deaths from falls numbered 260 in 2010, a 42% decline from 447 in 2007. "Struck-by" incidents accounted for 112 deaths; contract with electricity, 76; and trenching and other deaths from being caught between objects 39.

Trade groups were quick to applaud the continued reduction in jobsite fatalities, with many crediting a strengthened commitment to hazard identification and proactive training. While poor economic conditions, and perhaps reductions in employment that have fallen disproportionately upon the less-skilled, less-experienced, and less-conscientious employees who swelled payrolls during the construction boom, account for much of the diminished carnage, it’s undeniable that most people in construction are more safety-conscious than in even the recent past. Safety planning is now a given on most significant projects. While I have questioned the efficacy of employee safety training, certainly there’s a lot more training today than there was ten or twenty years ago. Many employers have gone from grudging efforts to keep OSHA at bay, to more earnest efforts to surpass minimal compliance, and to focus less on avoiding penalties, and more on actually keeping employees safe.

While construction-industry employment fell less last year than in either of the preceding two years, obviously there is far less work at present than in 2006-07. And, for all that the number of deaths has gone down even more than hours worked, or dollars expended, in the construction sector, construction still produces more fatal accidents than any other U.S. industry.

Plainly, while the safety results over the last few years are a silver lining of sorts in what has been, and continues to be, a very challenging environment for the industry, much remains to be done.

And, as the King said to the White Rabbit, it’s necessary to start at the beginning, which in construction isfall protection. Not only are fall hazards the #1 killer overall, but they are a hazard too often shown insufficient respect, with lethal results.

Whereas, certainly, there are facets of OSHA compliance that are technically challenging, and require considerable sophistication to detect, correct, or avoid, by and large fall protection (and associated OSHA standards) are pretty straightforward.

For example, the number of deaths from falls resulting from experienced, amply-equipped workers simply failing to tie off is dismaying. Gravity, and the effects on the body of hitting asphalt from 12 stories up, are understood by just about everyone. This cause of death and injury isn’t primarily a matter of training - as attested by the number of victims who hit the ground wearing serviceable harnesses, but did not bother to tie off. It’s primarily a matter of leadership, which is largely about communicating to your employees that you care sufficiently for their lives, and the well-being of their families, that small losses in productivity are meaningless, and not tying off completely unacceptable.

Of course, there is more to fall protection than personal fall arrest systems, and yes, training is required for employees to know how to use equipment properly, inspect it, and to understand its limitations.

But the list of the conditions in violation of OSHA (and the New York Labor Law) that lead to most fall-related accidents is not a long one. It includes, certainly, the following:

  • Improperly-erected scaffolds;
  • Defective, damaged, or improperly-used ladders;
  • Leading edges of steel-deck construction;
  • Holes in floors and working or walking surfaces;
  • Missing guardrails;
  • Open edges on floors;
  • Rooftop operations;
  • Open elevator shafts;
  • Skylights;
  • Fall arrest systems not used, or used improperly.

In addition to fall hazards being viewed too casually, a major element of the danger associated with fall hazards is the nature of the multi-employer jobsite: one employer may create a hazard, intending to correct it promptly, only to have the hazard remain in place, uncorrected, long enough for another contractor’s employee (for example) to fall through an uncovered hole in a floor or other surface.

Thus, guardrails around skylights, guardrails on scissors lifts, covers over floor openings, and restricted zones in roofing operations are examples of fall prevention measures that are governed by design requirements which, if requiring some homework in the OSHA regulations, are not among the most complicated of the construction standards.

There are, in life, problems that can be definitively solved, sometimes with the application of technology, and problems that never get fully solved, but must be wrestled with. While technology certainly has some role in improving construction safety, overall the problem is one I regard as falling within the latter category. We can’t eliminate all dangers, or reduce the serious accident rate to zero, but efforts made over the last few years are having a real, positive impact.

Are we at, or even near, the place where we might believe that increased efforts would produce little if any added benefit? Almost certainly not. But if the progress has been modest, it ought to be enough to convince us that the efforts made have been worthwhile.

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