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May 17, 2024
Construction's deadliest hazard: Falls

Are you ready for the hazards of summer building, including the construction industry’s deadliest hazard?

Falls from heights can cause serious, sometimes fatal, injuries. Fall hazards are one of the construction industry’s “Fatal Four” safety hazards, along with caught-in or -between, electrocution, and struck-by hazards.

Failing to provide fall protection or training can also lead to citations and hefty fines, especially for repeat violations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) construction industry fall protection standard has been the agency’s most frequently cited standard for 13 straight years, the agency announced last fall at the National Safety Council’s (NSC) Safety Congress & Expo. In fiscal year (FY) 2023, which ended September 30, OSHA cited 7,271 violations of the fall protection—general requirements standard (29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) §1926.501). The agency also cited 2,112 violations of the fall protection training standard (§1926.503), making it the eighth most cited standard.

The agency instituted an enforcement policy last year allowing for “instance-by-instance” citations for “high-gravity” serious violations of the fall protection standard, as well as the standards for lockout/tagout, machine guarding, permit-required confined space, respiratory protection, and trenching.

OSHA also launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) of outreach and enforcement last year for falls from heights across all industries. Inspection procedures under the NEP allow OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) to make “self-referrals,” opening inspections whenever they observe someone working at heights during their normal workday travel or during other OSHA inspections.

The agency cited historical data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and OSHA's own enforcement as a rationale for the NEP. BLS data shows that of the 5,190 fatal workplace injuries in 2021, 680 were associated with falls from elevation—about 13 percent of all deaths.

The NEP targets several non-construction work activities, including the following:

  • Arborist/tree trimming,
  • Chimney cleaning,
  • Communication towers,
  • Gutter cleaning,
  • Holiday light installation,
  • Power washing buildings,
  • Road sign and billboard maintenance,
  • Rooftop mechanical work or maintenance,
  • Utility line work or maintenance (electrical, cable), and
  • Window cleaning.

The fall protection NEP targets enforcement of the construction industry fall protection standards, as well as the general industry, marine terminal, and shipyard standards for walking-working surfaces and the use of ladders and scaffolds.

Violations, citations, penalties

The agency recently cited an East Boston, Massachusetts, window cleaning company after a window cleaner’s fatal 29-story fall from a building in downtown Boston’s financial district. The agency proposed penalties totaling $447,087.

The company failed to inspect and replace damaged or defective equipment, according to OSHA. Agency inspectors determined the employer didn’t ensure the personal fall protection systems and rope descent system that workers used were in proper working condition. The company hadn’t adequately inspected the rope and equipment for damage or other deterioration, according to the agency, and it hadn’t replaced defective components or removed them from service before each work shift.

The agency also cited a Hahira, Georgia, construction contractor this month after a 31-year-old employee suffered a fatal fall at a worksite in Arcadia, Florida. The employer faces $46,550 in OSHA penalties. Agency investigators determined that three company employees were installing metal roofing sheets on a building when one worker fell 12 feet (ft) onto a concrete slab below and suffered traumatic head injuries.

This month, OSHA also cited a Missouri roofing contractor for exposing workers to fall hazards five times in a 7-week period at six residential building sites. The employer faces penalties totaling $258,063.

The agency alleged that the company allowed employees to work without protection at heights greater than 6 ft, didn’t have a competent person inspect and evaluate jobsite hazards daily, and failed to train workers to recognize hazards or prevent falls.

Earlier this year, OSHA cited a Framingham, Massachusetts, roofing contractor with willful, repeat, serious, and other-than-serious violations. The employer had a history of fall-related safety violations.

Agency investigators found that employees were exposed to falls of up to 20 ft at a residential worksite in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Inspectors observed multiple OSHA violations involving inadequate fall protection, ladders, personal protective equipment (PPE), safety inspections, scaffolds, and training.

The agency proposed penalties totaling $306,229.

Last December, OSHA cited a Palatine, Illinois, roofer for a fifth and sixth time for fall protection violations. The agency cited the employer with one willful violation and four repeat violations, proposing $275,869 in penalties.

Agency investigators observed employees working without fall protection at two residential worksites. Inspectors also learned the company didn’t train employees on the use of fall protection.

Settlements

Employers sometimes contest their citations for fall protection violations, challenging OSHA and the Department of Labor (DOL) before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Sometimes those challenges end with settlement agreements between the employer and the DOL and OSHA.

Two related North Jersey construction companies recently settled violations cited at five Paterson, New Jersey, construction worksites in 2021. The companies agreed to pay $215,000 in penalties and implement significant safety measures to resolve the citations.

Enhanced abatement measures stipulated in the agreement included:

  • Conducting a pre-job hazard assessment for each job;
  • Ensuring field employees receive at least 10-hour OSHA training;
  • Ensuring supervisors receive at least 30-hour OSHA training; 
  • Requiring subcontractors to document, with photographs, that compliant handrails and stair rails are in place; 
  • Retaining a safety consultant to conduct periodic worksite audits; and 
  • Notifying OSHA of the companies’ upcoming projects.

A New York roofing contractor recently stopped contesting egregious willful and other citations before the review commission. The review commission affirmed OSHA’s citations of the employer, including three per-instance egregious willful fall protection violations, a willful unsafe ladder violation, and four serious violations, as well as the agency’s $687,536 fine.

The agency found violations related to fall protection deficiencies, unsafe ladder use, additional ladder-related hazards, and a lack of head protection at a Bergen County, New Jersey, worksite. Less than 6 months earlier, a company employee suffered a fatal workplace fall at a Spring Valley, New York, worksite.

OSHA has inspected the company’s worksites 10 times since 2019 and cited multiple fall-related violations, including after fatal falls in 2019 and 2022.

Earlier this year, an Ohio contractor agreed to pay $730,000 in OSHA fines to settle citations for six egregious willful violations, five repeat violations, and one serious violation after the agency had cited the company for a 12th time. The employer failed to ensure the use of fall protection and didn’t train employees on fall hazards, according to OSHA.

The agency had already placed the employer in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).

As part of its settlement agreement with OSHA, the employer agreed to enhanced abatement measures that included hiring a safety consultant to evaluate the company’s safety program and then submitting a plan to OSHA. The company also agreed to unannounced monthly audits conducted by the safety consultant at the company’s worksites and agreed to retain written audit reports submitted by the consultant.

Last fall, an Oklahoma contractor agreed to pay $370,680 in criminal and civil penalties to avoid federal prosecution for a worker’s fatal fall. The employer entered into a deferred prosecution agreement on one count of ignoring federal safety regulations that resulted in a worker fatality in St. Joseph, Missouri.

An employee constructing a storage tank suffered fatal injuries in a 50-ft fall at a Missouri agricultural facility. As part of the deferred prosecution agreement, the employer admitted that its violation of OSHA’s construction safety training and safety net standards caused the death of its employee.

Your fall protection compliance

Under OSHA’s fall protection standard, you must protect employees working at 6 ft or more above a lower level. Fall protection equipment includes guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems. Safety net systems can be installed underneath trusses to prevent workers from falling to a lower level, but they must prevent worker contact with a surface or structure below.

A personal fall arrest system consists of three components: a full-body harness worn by a worker, a connecting lanyard or lifeline, and an anchorage point that the other components are rigged to. Options for anchors include a peak anchor, or a solid, nonmoving piece secured at the rooftop to trusses underneath, or a permanent D-ring attached to the truss frame.

Roofing may not always be the last job on a building project. While roofers may use temporary anchors for personal fall arrest systems, there can be benefits to leaving anchor points in place. Workers installing skylights or solar panels or roofers working on later projects can use a permanent anchor.

Because anchors may be used by more than one worker, anchors must be able to hold at least 5,000 pounds per person. Alternatively, a qualified person would have to determine that the anchor can support at least twice its impact load, known as a “safety factor of 2.”

You must also train your employees on fall hazards and the use of fall protection equipment. The training must cover the nature of fall hazards on the job and the content of the fall protection standard.

You must instruct your employees on how to correctly erect, inspect, maintain, and disassemble the guardrail, personal fall arrest, or safety net system chosen for the worksite. Their training must also cover how to correctly use fall protection systems.

Whenever you change the equipment or systems used for fall protection, your employees need to be retrained in the proper use of the new equipment.

You also need to maintain written records certifying each employee’s fall protection training. Your records need to include the employees’ names, the date of training, and the trainer’s signature.

OSHA offers safety training and compliance resources as part of its annual National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction. OSHA sponsors the “stand-down” each May along with its partners, which include the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), and the NSC. Resources available include infographics and articles about construction risks and fall protection, publications about ladder safety, fall protection videos, and hard hat stickers and hazard alert cards. Materials are available in English and Spanish.

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