Dangers When Working from Heights

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Robison Wells
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My first day in the construction industry, back in 2003, a contractor, who was working on the roof of our warehouse, fell through a gap and died. He was not wearing a harness, despite it being required by both law and our company’s rules for contractors. A thorough investigation was performed, and it was found that the contractor had temporarily removed his harness as he walked across the not-yet-secured metal roof sheeting. He fell approximately forty feet to a concrete floor.

I was reminded of this story as I read the news today of a 17-year-old worker in Perth, Australia who fell to his death at 4:30am yesterday. This follows a rash of falling deaths in Australia in 2016.

In the United States, the figures are appalling. Before OSHA was created (in 1973), approximately 14,000 workers died every year in the United States—that’s 38 per day. Now, with organizations like OSHA, and with increased safety regulations (and more than a small dose of learning from past tragedies) that number is down to 12 deaths per day, or 4380. The number is still unacceptable. No one should have to risk their lives to put food on the table or keep a roof over their family’s head.

Of those 4380 deaths, 899 were in the construction industry, and 545 were attributable to what OSHA refers to as the “Fatal Four”:

  • Falls – 359 total deaths
  • Electrocutions – 74
  • Struck by Object – 73
  • Caught-in/Between – 39

When you dig deeper in the statistics, it’s easy to see why falling deaths are the most common; of OSHA’s ten most frequently-cited standards violations, four, including the top three, are problems leading to falling: “fall protection violations”, “Hazard communication violations”, “scaffolding violations”, and “ladder violations”.

How can employers prevent fall injuries? Here are OSHA’s policies:

To prevent employees from being injured from falls, employers must:

  • Guard every floor hole into which a worker can accidentally walk (using a railing and toe-board or a floor hole cover).
  • Provide a guard rail and toe-board around every elevated open sided platform, floor or runway.
  • Regardless of height, if a worker can fall into or onto dangerous machines or equipment (such as a vat of acid or a conveyor belt) employers must provide guardrails and toe-boards to prevent workers from falling and getting injured.
  • Other means of fall protection that may be required on certain jobs include safety harness and line, safety nets, stair railings and hand rails.

OSHA requires employers to:

  • Provide working conditions that are free of known dangers.
  • Keep floors in work areas in a clean and, so far as possible, a dry condition.
  • Select and provide required personal protective equipment at no cost to workers.
  • Train workers about job hazards in a language that they can understand.

Of the falling death in Perth, it has been suggested that the death may have been caused by rushed, exhausted workers (it happened at 4:30am, as there was work going on around the clock to meet tight deadlines). Either way, it’s a terrible tragedy and one that is all too common. Now might be a good time to review your policies for working at heights, before we have to see a new casualty.

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