How to Educate Your Team This National Safety Stand-Down Week
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has declared May 2–6, 2022, to be National Safety Stand-Down Week. Every year, this week raises awareness about critical preventative measures to reduce the rate of falls in construction. Falls from elevation are the leading cause of death for construction workers, but they are often preventable. To educate both workers and site supervisors on the importance of fall prevention, OSHA recommends hosting a “Safety Stand-Down” on this topic: taking a break from the project to talk about the safety protocols that can minimize the risk of falling.
At Menotti Enterprise, we firmly believe that safety education is crucial to the construction industry’s overall sustainability — and of course, the well-being of our hardworking professionals. Let’s explore the issue of construction site fall risks and how your company can host a Safety Stand-Down on this topic.
The Prevalence of Falls on Construction Sites
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls make up about one-fourth to one-third of all construction fatalities annually. They are also the most common type of construction site safety incident. In 2020, 34 percent of incidents resulting in death were due to a fall from elevation. Even if the fall is not fatal, it typically causes debilitating injuries that force the worker to take time off or exit the industry entirely. Due to their nature, falls often result in broken bones, sprains and strains, lacerations, soft-tissue damage, and head injuries. The construction industry represents 22 percent of all workplace fall incidents.
Most construction site falls happen because the worker slips or trips while working at elevation. Poorly maintained scaffolding, grease spills or clutter on walkways, and inadequate lighting are all major risk factors for falls from elevation. That’s why incident prevention starts with safety education. Every worksite should be properly set up, cleaned, and staffed with knowledgeable individuals.
We agree with OSHA that all fall incidents are 100% preventable. Working at height requires proper equipment, rigging, movement, and risk-mitigation measures to ensure everyone’s safety.
Key Risk Factors for Construction Site Falls
OSHA dislikes the term “accident” in reference to worksite injuries because it implies that the event was random and could not be prevented. In truth, any safety incident can be avoided with a mix of protective gear, risk mitigation, and the correct equipment (and use of that equipment). As many tasks on a construction site happen “at height,” i.e. elevated above the ground, safety incidents often involve falls. Falling equipment, scaffolding, or materials is its own class of safety incidents. But for National Safety Stand-Down Week, we are focusing on incidents in which workers fall.
Falls are usually caused by issues with work equipment or surfaces, or when workers don’t know how to work safely at an elevation. Common risk factors include:
- Inadequate or incorrectly used safety equipment (e.g. scaffolding, ladders, harnesses)
- Underestimation of the risk while working at height
- Trip or slip hazards due to worksite messes, broken stairs or scaffolding, spills of grease or liquid
- Misuse of tools at height, e.g. using a tool that shifts the worker’s center of balance on a ladder
As you see, all these risks can be minimized or even eliminated if construction workers (a) have the right equipment, (b) know how to use it, and (c) understand how to perform their tasks safely while at height.
Fall Prevention 101
Whatever type of construction your company does, working at height must follow certain principles. Even if you’re a small home-building firm that never operates an aerial work platform, it’s important to understand fall prevention.
Falls don’t have to be from a great height to be dangerous. Ladder falls constitute 24% of all fatalities in the construction industry. That’s often because the ladder is incorrectly positioned or cannot support the weight and movement of the task at hand. For example, an extension ladder must always be set at an angle of 75.5 degrees to the vertical surface.
When team members are working on a roof or any elevated surface, they must be aware of how momentum, leverage, and movement affect their stability. Everything from wind speed to slick roofing materials can lead to a fall. A good safety plan includes protective gear, weather reports, and fall prevention techniques.
For example, our bodies’ center of gravity is just above the waist. Our legs and head are both heavy, so if we lean either end of our body one way or the other, gravity will pull more on that end. If you must work on a slanted surface such as a roof, you’ll need to counterbalance your weight to maintain a leaning position without failing.
Scaffolding and any support structures are also susceptible to wind, excessive movement, and slipping/tripping hazards. As a general rule, the taller a structure, the higher its center of gravity. The laws of physics state that an object remains at rest unless an external force (e.g. wind) puts it into motion. That momentum will continue until an opposite force stops it. If the center of gravity is higher, there is more torque pulling the top of the structure toward the earth — and less opposing force to prevent it from tipping over.
That’s why scaffolding should always be tied down to achieve those opposing forces. It also must remain balanced, as too much weight on one side could create more torque that increases the risk of tipping or breakage.
Ascending the scaffolding can also be risky. Workers should use a fixed ladder with a handhold. Three points of contact is the chief rule (either one hand, two feet, or one foot, two hands), so no carrying heavy tools up the ladder!
Consider any of these key principles when planning your Safety Stand-Down.
How to Conduct a Safety Stand-Down
Fall incidents are especially prevalent among smaller construction firms, likely because they have fewer training resources and safety equipment. However, investing in safety is the best way to protect your workers’ well-being and your company’s integrity and profitability. Because falls often stem from insufficient equipment or work practices at height, you can help everyone stay safe by educating them.
OSHA recommends that you host a Safety Stand-Down, a voluntary event where your team can learn about fall prevention. This could be a toolbox talk, equipment inspection, or workshop. Try to find a time when your entire team is available, as you’ll want as much participation as possible! The goal of the stand-down is to cease work so you can thoroughly discuss safety protocols and procedures without anyone being distracted. Whether you make the event more of a lecture or a hands-on activity is up to you.
Ideas for Fall Prevention Safety Stand-Downs
As there are so many risk factors for falls from height, there are plenty of options for your National Safety Stand-Down Week activity:
- Discuss and practice good ladder technique, how to choose the right ladder for the task, etc.
- Develop an incident response protocol, which can include everything from how to rescue someone who is slipping to what to do if someone falls.
- Review cleanup techniques to keep all elevated walkways and work surfaces clear and safe.
- Inspect scaffolding, ladders, rigging, handrails, and other elevated safety structures to ensure their integrity. Check the debris nets, toeboards, canopies, planking, and all other components for any loose ties, holes, or damage.
- Demonstrate how to properly secure tools, materials, etc. while working at an elevation.
- Instruct proper body movement and maneuvering, such as maintaining three points of contact, learning how to put on harnesses, etc. Practice on the ground before practicing at height.
When you conduct your Safety Stand-Down, share it on social media with the hashtag #StandDown4Safety. SOAH will also issue you a Certificate of Participation for helping raise awareness and educate construction workers about fall risks and prevention.
If you’re a contractor looking to participate, OSHA welcomes you to do so! Look for training sessions, webinars, or other educational opportunities to learn about fall prevention. And never be afraid to speak up in your workplace about your safety priorities and concerns.
Together, We Can Prevent Falls
Falls and other safety incidents need not be inevitable in the construction industry. While there will also be hazards, the right equipment, training, and response protocols can mitigate the risk. It takes a team effort to ensure that every worksite is as safe as possible. Remember, incidents are more likely among smaller firms, so there’s no team too tiny to benefit from a Safety Stand-Down!
Participate in National Safety Stand-Down Week and educate your team on fall prevention. Even if your worksite has a lower likelihood of falls, this is an excellent opportunity to discuss your safety hazards and how you can protect all workers from getting hurt. Take a moment away from the project to open a dialogue and help people become informed. At Menotti Enterprise, we firmly believe that worksite safety begins with communication.