It is a known fact that falling is the leading cause of death in the construction industry. According to OSHA’s statistics for the year 2011, 251 out of 721 total deaths in construction were due to falls. Over the last decade, OSHA has updated and revised many standards for the construction industry that have been effective in reducing the total number of fatalities. Although the total number of deaths has decreased, the percentage of those deaths from falls has remained fairly constant. Employer noncompliance with OSHA standards, inadequate financial support for personal protection equipment, and the need for better planning and training are all contributing factors to the persistent problem of fall related deaths in construction.
For fiscal year 2011, fall protection standard 1926.501 and scaffolding standard 1926.451, were the top two most cited standards by OSHA. These same two standards also received the Davis 2 highest amount of penalties during the fiscal year of 2012. These statistics reveal that companies are simply not complying with OSHA regulations, and they also reveal an inadequate level of commitment from the employer to provide proper fall protection for their workers. This fact is made evident in an article on fall hazards, published in Industrial Safety & Hygiene News. In the article, a Connecticut masonry contractor was “cited by OSHA for 15 alleged willful, repeat and serious violations of safety standards” (ISHN 12). The contractor was also fined $220,000 “for numerous scaffolding and fall hazards” (ISHN 12). This article concludes that some companies are very aware of which standards they are required to follow, but are simply choosing not to follow them.
Based on this conclusion, one may even assume that it’s more cost effective for some companies to operate in noncompliance. Unless out of complete negligence, a successful company wouldn’t knowingly rack up high fines unless the amount of these fines cost less than the amount they would have to invest to meet standards and to be in compliance. In 1997, a study was published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. The study took place in Washington, and it examined 784 employers: This study examined the relationship between Washington’s fall protection standard and injuries in construction workers. Workers’ compensation claim rates were examined for employers that were cited for violating the standard over the 1991-1992 period.
Fall injury rates for the periods before and after inspections were compared…In conclusion, the rate for worker’s compensation claims for fall injuries decreased after construction employers were cited for violating the fall protection standard. The injury rate reduction was greater for employers that were cited for violating the standard than for employers that had not been cited…If the reduction in injuries was casually related to enforcement of the standard, results of this study suggest that, if more employers were inspected, industry-wide fall injury rates might be expected to decrease. (Nelson 296-302) The results of this study clearly show the lack of commitment by employers and their complacent attitude about safety.
If employers were truly concerned about their employees’ safety, they would not wait to be in compliance until they were forced to do so. It’s important to remember that OSHA standards are only the minimum guidelines that should be followed. To reduce falls and save lives, a more proactive approach from employers is needed. Industry wide best practices must be enforced, and voluntary compliance, not forced compliance, should be the goal. During the 1980’s, the United States was spending less money than other countries on fall protection equipment. In Scandinavia, employers purchased ten times more safety equipment than did the U.S. employers (Ellis 5). Europe invested equally in fall protection and respiratory protection, while the U.S. invested ten times more in respiratory protection than fall protection, despite the fact that falls were responsible for twice as many losses than respiratory incidents (Ellis 6).
A lot has changed in the U.S. since the 80’s in regards to our focus on fall protection. Today’s OSHA standards mandate that employers have a duty to their employees to provide the needed equipment for fall protection. Logic would tell you that a fall protection plan cannot be effective without the proper equipment, but many safety experts believe this is one area where companies are constantly cutting cost. An examination of OSHA’s citations for the last few decades reveals that failure to provide or use fall protection is the cause of fall incidents 80 percent of the time (Ellis 39). Employees themselves agree that falls are a problem in the workplace, and they feel that more fall protection should be used (Ellis 69). Some may wonder why companies would risk the safety of their employees to save money when it is apparent that, “by driving down the cost of fall protection, companies risk paying the price with human life” (Ellis 1).
One reason companies may think they are forced to take this risk may be to the current state of the economy. When asked his opinion on the matter, Dean Ikeda, acting Regional Adminstrator of OSHA in Seattle stated, “I’ve heard allegations of employers cutting corners in safety due to the difficult economy, but it’s not backed up with hard evidence” ("Fast Fall Facts Blog"). Though the evidence may not be there, budget cuts in safety are happening. Companies are in business to make a profit, “and many times the decisions that save lives are made long before the first worker steps on the site” ("Fast Fall Facts Blog"). Human life is priceless, and it should never be viewed as a cost that can be cut.
In a perfect world, all fall hazards could simply be engineered out of the job, and no more lives would have to be lost. But since this could never be reality, a proactive approach must be taken to keep workers safe. Fall hazards and controls can be very overwhelming (Ellis 2). For this reason employers must plan for safety: Fall protection must be planned; it cannot be done on the spur of the moment, Planning simplifies the training and the work. People who cling to the popular misconception that all safety is an expense are amazed to find that producivity has
repeatedly been shown to increase by as much as 35 percent when safety is made a priority. (Ellis 1) The first step in planning is to analyze all fall hazards before a job ever begins. During this process, the more hazards that can be eliminated the better it will be for employee safety and company bottom line. All other hazards should be analyzed and ranked in order of associated risk, and then they should be planned for accordingly. Recognizing all hazards in advance makes it possible for companies to plan for proper safety equipment “on the drawing board” (Ellis 2). Most importantly, planning will also help companies establish a financial budget. The amount of money needed for fall protection will be known before the job ever begins, the right equipment for the job can be supplied to the workers, and hopefully the need to cut corners due to improper planning will be eliminated.
A great safety plan does nothing on paper, it has to be enforced. Enforcement includes training employees to properly use safety equipment. “Because workers have a lack of training, the fall protection products intended to protect them are being misused and have in several cases worked against them” (Torres). The right equipment is ineffective and can do nothing if workers are not thoroughly trained on how to use it. As impossible as it may seem, the percentage of fall related deaths can be decreased with proper planning and training, financial support for needed personal protection equipment, and employer compliance. Falling should be the one of the simplest hazards to be prevented. With enough support from employers, the persistent problems with falls can be solved.