Why Are There Still So Many Fatal Workplace Falls? (And What Can We Do About It?)
Fall protection technology is effective in preventing fatalities, but a strong safety culture is needed as well.
The famous 1932 Charles C. Ebbets photograph “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” shows a group of carefree workers sitting on a girder, high above the New York City traffic. They’re dressed in ordinary work clothes, casually chatting, reading the newspaper, and having a lunch break together, 840 feet in the air.
The picture may not be a real candid moment, but it does capture a little about the nonchalant approach to fall protection that really did exist at the time.
Fast forward to modern day: we now don high-tech fall protection that has been rigorously engineered to withstand force and slow a fall in progress, thereby reducing injury. Anchorage is designed, installed, and selected to specification, including a margin of safety well in excess of any force it should actually encounter.
We have good reason to think these approaches are effective an we've come a very long way from working on suspended girders with no protective gear. And yet, workers are still falling to their deaths – and it happens a lot.
Fatal Falls Are Still a Major Problem
Falls are still considered one of OSHA’s “fatal four,” a shortlist of construction industry hazards that are responsible for most workers deaths (not including highway vehicle accidents).
In 2017, falls still claimed the lion’s share of the fatal four, causing 39.2% of the job-related fatalities in the construction industry for that year. That is a staggeringly high proportion. It's an important reminder for safety professionals about where they should focus their efforts – working at height is one of the most dangerous things workers are doing, or at least the most likely to result in a fatality.
What the Data Shows Us About Fatal Falls
OSHA requires fall protection for any work occurring above six feet. In some jurisdictions, this threshold remains at ten, but industries are increasingly coming in line with the six foot rule.
From 2011 to 2015, 173 people died from falls between six and ten feet, so there is some precedent for raising the standard by lowering the allowable height. Plenty of jobs have less obvious height exposures, like climbing ladders, but are nonetheless captured under that regulation. A possible six foot fall could happen in a lot of environments, but there are a few specific scenarios that warrant mentioning.
Employees of Small Contractors Account for the Majority of Fatal Falls in Construction
A closer look at the data from 2011 to 2015 reveals some common characteristics among the people who suffer fatal fall injuries. Overwhelmingly, they work for small contractors (61.4%) with ten or fewer employees. Naturally, a smaller employer has fewer resources to allocate to things like training, supervision, safety equipment, and safety personnel.
It's easy to imagine how such a setup could contribute to the kind of environment where incidents occur. In the construction industry, there should be a prime contractor designated on the project that oversees safety for the entire site and all contractors working there. Often, this is applied a bit lazily, or the responsibilities are poorly understood and communicated.
If a small contractor has a weak or nonexistent safety program, some effort should be made to capture them under a prime contractor's system, which has been properly vetted in the bid process.
(Learn about The 4 Stages of Contractor Management.)
Roofers Are Also Over-Represented
The second trend that shines brightly through the data is that some specific construction trades are very well represented in the fatality statistics. We know that roofers should be a key target of efforts to increase fall protection use. The 2011-2015 data shows 34.2 deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent roofers, a rate nearly twice as high as the second place (iron workers).
Roofers typically spend a lot of time working at height, so practically everything they do in a workday is captured under fall protection regulations. The rules are established, but they aren't being followed.
(Learn more about Fall Protection and Leading Edges.)
New Workers and Absence of Fall Protection
Using data from NIOSH's FACE (Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation) database, a snapshot of the construction industry from 1982 to 2015 was created to take a further look at some long term trends.
Some of the more notable conclusions drawn from the data were that 20% of fatal falls were new workers, and that in over half of the overall cases, the worker had no access to a fall protection system.
That's significant, and it supports the thesis that management and supervisory failures are some of the root causes here. Situations developed in which a worker was exposed to hazards severe enough to be fatal, and nothing was in place to stop it from happening.
This was demonstrably true over half the time. In an additional 23% of cases, there was a fall arrest system available but it was not used, further indicating some failures of training and supervision.
What We Can Do to Reduce the Number of Fatal Falls
For all our carefully created rules and fall protection technology, they can't save a life if they're being ignored. Stubbornness is a pervasive and persistent factor, and I don't want to ignore that some workers either don't prioritize or defiantly ignore safety rules. I’ve met people who have personally suffered life-changing injuries that cost them mobility but they still retained a bad attitude toward safety.
(Learn more about Safety and Overconfidence.)
There might be some subset in the statistics for which employee attitude was a contributor. Even then, management's approach to safety is arguably the culprit. Emboldening safety culture in organizations needs to happen from the top down, but it should reach to every crack and crevice without using a policing approach.
Rules dictated by fiat don’t belong to the people they’re designed to help and, therefore, can never be as powerful as ownership of the core beliefs and internalized values of a proper safety culture. Where companies lack the resources to create and maintain an adequate safety program, there has to be additional resources from the contracting company to make sure they are equipped to work safely.
(Find out How to Build a Sustainable Safety Culture.)
It may seem strange that you have to convince workers that they don’t want to fall, or that you have to insist to companies that their workers dying is a bad thing. Of course they understand this.
Yet, in many industries the behavior doesn't align with any proactive mitigation strategy. It is as though they don't believe it can happen to them. So, part of the overall strategy to combat falls has to be convincing industries that it can happen, and frequently does.
We have a responsibility to do everything reasonable to stop the trend so that fatality rates fall and workers don't.