High Dangers

 CONSTRUCTION DANGERS 01The Safety at Heights Campaign seeks to prevent workplace injuries.   

By Charles D. Johnson

They’re headlines you never want to read: “Crane collapse kills four” and “At least one person is dead and six others injured.” Variations on those headlines swirled through the news media following both the April 27 collapse of a construction crane from atop a building in downtown Seattle, and the June 9 crane collapse in Dallas, respectively, in 2019.

Unfortunately, hazards above our heads are not as rare as we might wish. In August 2018, two construction workers fell to their death from six floors up when their scaffolding collapsed while pouring concrete for a new hotel near Orlando, Fla. That incident happened in the wee hours of the morning before cars or pedestrians would have likely been down below.

In 2012, two workers were killed when a construction crane they were disassembling in Dallas collapsed in circumstances similar to the Seattle tragedy. And several years ago, a high-rise construction worker dropped a tape measure — from 50 stories up — in Jersey City, N.J., killing another worker on the ground.

While such tragedies thankfully don’t occur every day, they nonetheless remain far too common, putting not only workers at risk but also the public. Wherever work is underway at heights — on multistory buildings, bridges, cell towers, raised walkways, wind turbines, factory equipment — any safety lapse can lead to serious injury or death.

Henry Skjerven found this out the hard way. He was working at the base of a tall grain elevator one day when he felt something heavy whisk past his face, missing him by less than an inch. He looked down and saw a nail-puller tool sticking through a half-inch sheet of plywood flooring at his feet. A fellow worker had accidentally dropped the tool — from 90 feet above.

“I could have ended up as just another statistic,” said Skjerven, “so I’m glad somebody is trying to do something about the problem.”

Close calls like Skjerven’s don’t make it into the official stats, but it’s a fact that falls and being struck by a dropped object are among the top causes of workplace injuries and fatalities:

• The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2017, “fatal falls were at their highest level in the 26-year history of the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), accounting for 887 (17 percent) of worker deaths.”

• BLS reported that being struck by falling objects or equipment resulted in 45,940 injuries in 2017 (5.2 percent of all workplace injuries).

• According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) dropped objects are the third leading cause of injuries in construction.

The magnitude of the problem caught our attention at the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA). ISEA is the trade association in the United States for personal protective equipment and technologies. Member companies are world leaders in the design, manufacture, testing and distribution of protective clothing and equipment used in factories, construction sites, hospitals and clinics, farms, schools, laboratories, emergency response and in the home. 

In May 2019, ISEA launched the “Safety at Heights” campaign to help employers reduce the risk of fatalities and injuries from falls and dropped objects in industrial, construction and other occupational settings. The campaign kicked off during Construction Safety Week and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s sixth annual National Safety Stand-Down, but will continue throughout the year, in partnership with the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) and The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

“The timing of this campaign is perfect,” said NATE Executive Director Todd Schlekeway, “as NATE member companies are currently on the front lines of the 5G deployment cycle leading to technology and equipment upgrades at thousands of communication tower sites around the country. We want to ensure that this protracted, next-generation deployment cycle is conducted in a safe and quality manner and that tower technicians are able to return home safely every night.”

Three Steps for Better Safety

ISEA’s campaign spotlights three steps we believe will help, which I outlined recently in an op-ed. The first two focus on employers, while the third is a broader call to action. First, employers need to follow best practices, including implementing the American National Standard for Dropped Object Prevention Solutions (ANSI/ISEA 121-2018), which ISEA developed in conjunction with industry stakeholders — and OSHA needs to reference the standard. 

Second, employers need to stop thinking in terms of “acceptable risk.” Injuries and deaths cannot be seen as simply part of the cost of doing business. Employers should create a culture that values life, that strives for productivity within the bounds of safety, and that establishes an operation-wide practice of no-fault communication that not only allows but incentivizes workers to proactively speak up and intervene to prevent incidents and injuries.

The third step is even simpler. Everyone — employers, workers and the general public — should recognize that the laws of gravity and physics don’t discriminate. Safety at heights affects workers and bystanders, pedestrians and drivers. 

If we are working up above, we must constantly remember that our actions affect the safety of everyone both around and below us. And if we’re simply walking or driving along below areas where work-at-heights is underway, we need to be alert and aware of our surroundings — and help one another steer clear of the dangers that lurk above.

As part of our campaign, ISEA launched SafetyAtHeights.org, a website to help educate employers and workers, in partnership with the National Association of Tower Erectors and The Associated General Contractors of America.

“We want to make sure workers are safe at all times and all heights when working in this industry,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of The Associated General Contractors of America. “The best way to do that is to make sure everyone involved in construction has the right training, the right tools and right information to work as safely as possible.” 

Charles D. Johnson is president of the International Safety Equipment Association. Learn more at SafetyAtHeights.org.



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