A Holistic View of On-site Construction Hazards and How to Prevent Them
These preventative steps will help you protect your employees from a number of construction site safety risks.
Working on a construction site is not everybody's dream job, but it is definitely a respectable profession. Unfortunately, it's also one that comes with a lot of risks. It's an employer's job to safeguard their employee’s safety (see Keeping Workers Safe and Reducing Employer Liability to learn more about your legal responsibilities).
There is, of course, basic safety gear to keep your workers protected, such as the familiar hard hat and protective glasses. But just providing personal protection equipment (PPE) doesn’t mean that the job of safeguarding your employees is done. The environment of the job site varies from place to place and your workers will face new hazards and dangers in every new locations (to find out the difference between them, see Hazards vs Dangers).
It’s important to take a variety of precautionary measures suited to each job and each location. Not every accident can be prevented, but taking certain precautions will benefit everyone (but see The Journey to Zero! and Reaching Target Zero for advice on how to achieve an accident rate of zero).
This article will go over some of the construction site hazards and dangers that won’t be prevented with just the basic PPE. Keeping these in mind and taking preventative steps will allow you to take a holistic approach to keeping everyone safe on the construction site.
Objects in Motion
The huge size of heavy machinery, like cranes or bulldozers, means they have several large "blind spots" that make it difficult for their operators to see everything around them (find out whether you Have to Wear a Seat Belt while Operating Heavy Machinery).
Those working near these machines need to keep an eye out and remain clear of the machine’s path as it approaches (for those operating the machines, see Top 10 Heavy Equipment Safety Tips for Incident Prevention). But even avoiding their trajectory isn't enough. Heavy machine that is involved in deconstructing a structure will also produce and move rubble. Workers need to avoid going near the rubble itself, as it will spread when dumped, moved, or dislocated.
Smaller machines that construction workers use, especially pneumatic drills (commonly known as jackhammers) and similar equipment, pose a risk that too few people are aware of: damage to the muscles from the equipment's vibration (learn about other muscle-related issues in Risk Factors for Musculoskeletal Disorders Development).
Using this equipment without the proper safety measures in place may result in a phenomenon known as “white finger.” White finger is a disease caused by the prolonged usage of vibratory equipment in construction and affects the worker's joints and nerves. The best way to prevent this from happening is to wear shock-absorbing or anti-vibration gloves. Modern anti-vibration technology has reduced the vigor of the vibrations experienced when handling these industrial tools, but, nevertheless, you still need to provide your workers with the right safety gear.
Unfinished Structure Collapses
The collapsing of a half-constructed structure is an accident that can happen anywhere and without warning. There is no foolproof way to prevent it—some collapses are caused by environmental factors beyond our control, such as sinkholes, not human error. You can, however, take some measures to improve the safety of your employees in case such an unfortunate event happens while they're on the job.
The simplest measure you can take is to ensure that your workers are wearing high visibility apparel (which is just one of the reasons Quality Work Pants Matter More Than You Think)—neon-colored or reflective vests or jackets being the best option. Should there be a collapse, reflective and bright-colored clothing will make it easier for search parties to locate workers trapped under rubble, which could be what allows them to receive emergency medical care in time to prevent a disability or save their lives.
Renting heavy machinery doesn't absolve you from responsibility for its proper functioning. Most rental agreements will place the responsibility for the safe functioning of the equipment on your shoulders, not on those of the company you are renting it from.
So, don't trust that the distributor has ensured the safety of the equipment; take all appropriate safety measures yourself, inspect the equipment, and follow the rules laid down by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to be sure that your employees don't suffer injuries from preventable machine malfunctions (for jobs that involve working at heights, see How to Prevent Fall Protection Equipment Malfunction for more detailed information).
According to statistics compiled by OSHA, electrocution is the second-leading cause of fatalities on construction sites. Not only do construction workers use a lot of electrical equipment as part of their job, but they may also be working on a structure that is wired. In addition to severe burns and electric shock, electrocution can cause workers to fall (and falls are the leading cause of fatalities on construction sites).
The surest way to prevent this is to wear rubber gloves which don't have any tears. Also ensure that your employees are provided with the recommended eye wear for working with electricity and hard-soled rubber shoes (also see this Safety Moment on Electric Shock).
Long-term exposure to the loud noises produced by construction work can damage employees' hearing (learn more in Effects of Noise on the Body). To keep their hearing intact, construction workers need to be provided with earmuffs and wear them whenever there is construction activity on the site.
Another way to prevent damage from exposure to high decibel levels is to monitor the noise level on your work site. You can do this by using a sound level meter and noise dosimeter. These will tell the frequency of the sounds in a given area. OSHA recommends keeping noise levels below 85dA—sounds exceeding this range can have a damaging impact. When that isn't possible, minimize the amount of time that each given employee has to spend in particularly noisy areas.
Exposure to Sun
Not everyone considers the problem of having to work for eight hours under scorching sunlight, but it's no minor issue. Provide caps or other gear that can block sun exposure to the skin and make sure that you provide workers with easy and frequent access to hydration. Advise your employees to wear sunscreen to protect their skin, or, better yet, provide it for them (find more tips in UV Risk in the Workplace).
Hold Safety Instruction Meetings
Not all your workers are long-time professionals. Some may be new to the job, or may not have picked up everything they were supposed to learn from their previous employers. This is why you must hold meetings regularly regarding safety rules and instructions (not convinced? Read Safety Meetings and Why You Need Them).
Make sure that your workers are kept up-to-date on what is required of them and take the opportunity to remind them about the proper and safe use of protective gear and on-site equipment. Be sure not just to focus on preventing accidents; also instruct them on what to do in case an accident occurs (and consider using technology to Improve Communication and Response Time).
It is also good to have some printed material and brochures handed out to employees to make it easier for them to remember the safety guidelines. Make sure the copy is written clearly and is printed legibly. Including relevant graphics can also help your employees memorize the information. And leave copies throughout the job site so they can be consulted conveniently.
What We've Learned
The construction industry is the bread and butter of a lot of workers. Their health and safety matters not just for themselves but for the families many of them have to support. An employer must be, above all, compassionate and treat their employees with care and respect. The first step to doing that is ensuring their safety on the job site by taking a holistic approach to dealing with the hazards they might face.
Written by Rachael Everly