Recent articles have discussed fall hazards and unsafe practices in excavations and trenches, two leading causes of fatalities and OSHA citations at construction jobsites.
Another leading cause of death and injury on construction jobsites is “injuries caused by contact with objects and equipment,” or “struck-by” injuries.
Such injuries in construction, which per the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbered 82.5 lost-time injuries per 10,000 full-time workers in 2004, surpass injuries of the same class in mining (75.4) and manufacturing (56.6). They are among the “Focus Four” hazards of the Associated General Contractors of America.
Vehicles, masonry wall construction, and falling and flying objects are the most-commonly agents of “struck-by” injuries in construction.
Vehicle safety, the focus of this article, is an issue you need to stress repeatedly with your workforce, because (like descending into unsafe trenches, intending to work “only for a few minutes”) it’s an area in which many workers often fail to observe safe practices, sometimes with deadly consequences.
What you need to do to reduce vehicle hazards is straightforward, but effective only if done conscientiously and consistently.
Vehicles should be checked before each shift. OSHA-compliant seatbelts must be worn (except on equipment designed only for standup operation, or that has no rollover protection). Vehicles should never be driven in reverse, unless the operator has an unobstructed rear view, the vehicle has an audible reverse alarm, or another worker signals that it’s safe to proceed.
Vehicles must be driven only on roadways or grades that are safely constructed and maintained. Don’t allow employees to exceed their vehicles’ rated load or lift capacity, or to carry personnel unless there is a safe place for them to ride.
Bulldozer or scraper blades, end-loader buckets, dump bodies, etc. must be lowered or blocked when not in use, and controls left in neutral. All personnel must be in the clear before using dumping or lifting devices. Haulage vehicles that are loaded by cranes, power shovels, or loaders need a canopy or cab shield to protect the driver. Parking brakes should be set when vehicles and equipment are parked, and the wheels chocked if they are on an incline.
Equipment must be used with extreme care, if at all, near excavations, which should be clearly visible or marked to be conspicuous, and barricaded where practicable. When construction is taking place near public roadways, use traffic signs, barricades or flaggers. Workers must be highly visible in all levels of light. Red or orange vests are required, and warning clothing worn at night must be of reflective material.
It’s critical, too, to inspect and maintain vehicles and equipment with due regard to the punishment they take, and as prescribed in the manufacturers’ operation and maintenance manuals. It’s a sound idea, also, to incorporate some details concerning both the operation and maintenance of frequently-used equipment in your company’s written safety program.
For example, in Secretary of Labor v. Reynolds, Inc., the contractor was laying concrete pipe for a Cincinnati Water Works transmission main. A crew was working through the night under an overpass on Interstate 71. The excavator being used was a Caterpillar 325BL, equipped with a “Pin Grabber Plus” quick coupler. This device allows the operator to change work tools, such as difference size buckets, without leaving the excavator’s cab, and without assistance. Needless to say, the operator in changing tools needs to make certain that the coupler and work tool are securely engaged. After seating the coupler’s two hooks onto the corresponding pins on the bucket, moving the control switch to “lock,” and waiting a few seconds for the hydraulic-powered couple hooks to close around the bucket pins, the operator is supposed to carry out three steps to ascertain that the connection is secure.
First, according to the manufacturer, the operator should retract the bucket cylinder and shake the tool.
Then, he should visually check to ensure that the work tool is properly locked. This, however, is not so simple as it sounds. The overall design of the coupler makes it difficult for the operator to visibly check that the coupler is locked from the cab, and there are no safety indicators in the cab that tell the operator whether the coupler is properly locked.
Thus, in order to check the security of the connection visually, the operator must “curl in” the work tool by rolling the bucket completely around, lifting the stick up all the way, and pulling the stick in to permit the operator to see if the back pin is completely encircled.
A further step to verify that the coupler and work tool are locked is carried out by placing the work tool on the ground, applying pressure, and dragging the work tool backward.
Reynolds’ operator was using the smaller of the employer’s two excavators on the I-71 worksite, due to the low clearance beneath the underpass. The employer was necessarily aware of the potential danger from an unexpected detachment of work tools from quick couplers. A bucket weighing more than 1,500 lbs. is a hazard too obvious to overlook, the manufacturer’s manual was clear that serious injury or death might result if the quick coupler is not properly engaged, and a major construction industry trade group in Ohio had sponsored a seminar on problems with the couplers, following two fatalities in 1999. This particular hazard was also the subject of industry and government publications, including U.S. Department of Labor Safety and Health Information Bulletins in 2004-2005.
As Reynolds’ operator excavated trenches and switched work tools on the night in question, he was conscious both of the tight overhead clearance, and concerns expressed by the Ohio Department of Transportation about the scaring of the pavement. Because of these concerns, he elected not to drag the bucket, and did not perform the curl-in visual check. Instead, he limited himself to shaking the bucket in and out, trusting that that would suffice to tell him if the connection was secure.
About four hours into the work shift, the operator, after placing a pipe in the excavation, moved the stick with the quick coupler attachment about fifteen feet, to reattach the bucket which was sitting on the ground. He lowered the quick coupler onto the bucket, lifted the stick slightly after allowing time for the coupler to clamp down on the bucket pins, shook the bucket several times, and moved it toward the excavation. When the bucket reached the side of the excavation, it detached from the quick coupler, and rolled into the excavation. A pipelayer standing in the trench died as a result of being pinned by the bucket.
The ensuing OSHA citations totaled 5 items, including a trenching violation (failure to provide cave-in protection); a violation of OSHA’S General Duty Clause for failing to properly connect the bucket to the coupler; failure to instruct workers and to include in written safety materials rules about working with quick couplers, and failing to regularly inspect the connection between the bucket and the coupler.
The “General Duty Clause” citation was vacated, essentially because the judge felt Reynolds was not chargeable with knowledge that its operator, with 22 years’ experience, was omitting the “curling in” procedure. The “insufficient safety rules” citation was also rejected, in part because the manufacturer’s instructions, the court felt, were themselves inadequate as to the means to ensure a proper connection.
As the chief thing the employer is striving to avoid is injuries to workers, not OSHA citations, even though Reynolds’ safety rules were not found to be in violation of OSHA, obviously the better procedure would have been to get input from both licensed professional engineers and operating engineers, using the manufacturer’s instructions only as a starting point, and amplifying instructions as may be inadequate and making clear which steps are indispensable. In Reynolds Inc., the employer’s written safety program did not discuss use of the coupler, although a decal on the coupler referred users to the manufacturer’s operation manual. Even the latter, however, failed to describe how to carry out the “curling-in” procedure, and did not stress the “dragging” procedure, which if used would have saved the pipelayer’s life.
Among the citation items that were upheld at trial were a “serious” violation for failure to adequately inspect the quick coupler, and a “repeat” violation, for failure to instruct employees on hazards associated with the use of quick coupler devices.
A post-accident inspection disclosed that the coupler was missing a spring that holds the coupler in the event of hydraulic failure. This missing part was not a factor in causing the accident, but Caterpillar’s manual directs users to inspect the coupler for missing parts, and evidence showed no maintenance at all on the quick coupler from its installation in February 2000 until after the accident in June 2004. For a major construction company (over 800 employees) to have no maintenance done for more than four years on an item of equipment of a type known in the industry to have failed causing some 18 fatalities over roughly a six-year period, and that takes a pounding in day-to-day use, was certainly a lapse in judgment.
The above basics of vehicle safety should be covered both in your company’s written safety program and in toolbox talks. And, even if your operating engineers are experienced and knowledgeable, it’s still a good idea to include in your safety materials information from the manufacturers of your most-used items of equipment, improved upon by a dialogue between a licensed engineer and your operators.
And, in inspecting and maintaining your equipment, your employees who perform these functions should have impressed upon them that it’s not enough that the equipment continues to run, it has to run safely.
Thomas H. Welby is a licensed professional engineer, as well as an attorney and managing partner of Welby, Brady & Greenblatt, LLP, a construction law firm with its main office in White Plains. Articles in this series are for general guidance only, and should not be relied upon as providing all information necessary for compliance with OSHA and other legal requirements.