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Fall Facts: A Look at the #1 Cause of Workplace Fatalities

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a report looking at workplace fatality statistics from the 1990s, and it found that falls were the fourth leading cause of workplace fatalities. Unfortunately, more recent statistics show that this hasn’t changed much as time has passed; in fact, falls have risen to the number-one position in both construction and general industry.

Most of those working in the construction industry are aware of the hazards that are associated with falling from a height, such as a scaffold, ladder or roof. OSHA has very clear expectations when it comes to fall hazards and keeping our employees safe. When there is the possibility of an employee falling from a specified height (6 feet for those in construction and 4 feet for those in general industry) or more to a lower surface, there needs to be some type of fall protection. The fall protection can come in the form of a guardrail system, safety net system or personal fall arrest system (PFAS). It is also important to remember that walking and working surfaces can present hazards for slipping, tripping and falling. While most fatal falls occur from falls from heights, falls on the walking or working surface can cause serious, potentially career-ending injuries like breaks and dislocations.

This report has identified several interesting trends about fall related fatalities, in addition to the somewhat obvious relationship between height and likelihood of a fatality.

Of the total fatalities the report looked at, 97 percent were male and ranged in age from 16 to 96 years old. The highest number of fatalities was in the age range of 25 to 34 years old (25 percent). The reason for this may be as simple as this age group is the most common age range of those working in the trades. It may be something else though—individuals in this group have been on the job for a while and may have become complacent about their safety. The thinking may be that if they haven’t been hurt yet, they’re not going to be.

Age Is a Factor

Another interesting trend involved age. From age 55 to 64, fatality rates increase sharply over other age groups. There was an even steeper increase in the 65 and over age bracket. There are two possible reasons:
• As employees age, their reaction times slows making them less able to right themselves if they begin to fall.

• There tends to be many fewer 65-year-olds on the job site than 25-year-olds. This influences the fatality rate which looks at the number of fatalities for an age group compared to the number of employees in that age group on the job site.

Company Size Matters

More fatalities occur in smaller companies. There are many possible reasons for this:

• There is no specific individual in the company who has been assigned to act as the safety coordinator to train employees.

• Time is money. Smaller companies may be more likely to take “safety shortcuts” to get the job done faster so they can move on to the next job more quickly. The faster a job gets done, the more jobs a company will be able to do.

• The owners were unaware of the need for safety training since they were never given safety training early in their career. Owners tend to run their companies the way that they were trained early in their careers. If safety wasn’t a priority then, it may not be now.

Newbies Fall More

There is a link between length of employment with the current employer and the likelihood of a fall fatality. Forty percent of all fatal falls were individuals who had been with their current employer for six months or less. The reasons for this are unclear but they may include the following:

• Lack of safety training for new hires. Never assume a new employee will use common sense when working at heights, or that they’ve been previously trained to work safely at elevations.

• First-time employees with six months or less of experience may be less comfortable with the tasks they must perform, and this uncertainty puts them at risk. Whenever someone is nervous, their bodies tend to tense up; this can make movement more difficult.

• Newer employees are less likely or more embarrassed to ask for help.

NIOSH Recommendations

The NIOSH report used many fatality reports to look for trends in guiding its resulting recommendations. Several recommendations were repeatedly named as being related to a fatality:

• Employers should train their workers to recognize and avoid hazards that they may encounter during the workday. Being able to recognize and deal with hazards helps to give employees the ability to help keep them safe.

• Employers should encourage workers to actively participate in workplace safety. Many incidents could have been avoided if a coworker brought safety issues to someone’s attention.

• Employers should instruct new employees in the proper method to be used in the performance of assigned tasks.

These trends are somewhat chilling when applied to our own job site. It’s important to be aware of these issues and pay greater attention to the safety training available to you.

Diane Kelly is a safety specialist with INTEC, Waverly, Pa. INTEC is AWCI’s safety consultant.

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