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Stilts Injuries in Construction

What causes a worker to fall from stilts?

The answer is as small as a metal nut and as large as an electrician’s tool cart.

This summary of stilts-related injuries from 1996 to 2002 was made using Washington State workers’ state-fund compensation data. Tradespersons who were most likely to sustain a stilts injury came from the construction sectors of Wallboard Installation, Wallboard Taping & Texturing, Insulation Installation (including acoustical ceiling work), and Building Repair & Carpentry. This article outlines simple precautions that when integrated into the daily work routine, can help to prevent most stilts injuries.

How Much Do Stilts Injuries Cost?

During the six-year period, a total of 280 stilts-related injury claims totaled 3.4 million dollars in workers’ compensation costs. Out of the 280 claims, 117 (42 percent) claims were “compensable” or incurred costs in addition to medical care such as lost work time payments, disability and pension.

The median cost of compensable stilts claims was $7,000; this means that half of the injuries cost less than this amount, and half cost more. The maximum cost of a stilts-related claim was $378,000.

The median number of lost work days for compensable claims was 73 days; which means that half of the compensable claims had fewer lost work days, and half had more. The maximum number of lost work days was 2,465.

In Washington state, the costs of stilts injuries are predominantly borne by the risk classes (industry sectors) that use stilts and individual contractors. Costs associated with lost work days are borne by everyone, with economic and social implications greatest for the injured worker and his or her family. Seventy-three lost work days from a stilts injury is a lengthy period of lost work, potentially reduced wages and physical rehabilitation. Injured workers may suffer an additional loss of earning power if they have difficulty re-entering the work force due to low job demand and/or high labor competition.

Common Causes of Stilts Injuries

Trips and slips often lead to a fall and accounted for 53 percent of all stilts injuries (see Figure 1, above).

The following everyday items were mentioned on the workers’ report of accident forms as being underlying causes of injury:

Trips were caused by cardboard boxes, carpet edges, extension cords, loose wires, power tool cords, scaffold wheels, wallboard scrap, stacks of wood, tool carts, framing materials and plastic floor coverings.

Slips were caused by metal debris, wet drywall finishing compound, metal nuts, metal screws, water and oil.

Poor stilt maintenance is another leading cause of falls from stilts. Examples of poor stilt maintenance that can lead to an injury include a broken or loose strap, a wingnut falling out of a stilt, a broken spring and a broken leg bracket.

Overexertion of the body results in musculoskeletal injury and was the third leading cause of injuries. Overexertion injuries can result from inherent strains that stilts place on the body: high stress on knees, legs, hips and back; the altered mechanics of walking and the altered standing posture. Tasks required to complete the work also have an effect on the body: lifting heavy and awkward objects, working with the hands over the head, highly repetitive motions and applying high hand force.

Additional causes for stilts injuries include putting on/taking off stilts, loss of balance, hitting ones head on fixtures (door jamb, sprinkler) and bending over (picking up mud bucket, getting through a door).

Examples of claims referred to as “Other” in Figure 1 include getting things in the eye, contact with live electrical wire, infection from stilt strap, pushing materials with legs while wearing stilts, and falls down stairs. Unfortunately many claims (23 out of 44) in the ‘Other’ category did not contain enough information to be described.

Staying Upright: How to Prevent Stilts Injuries

The injuries sustained from a fall from stilts can vary widely, from sprained fingers to a broken back. Because every fall has the potential to be severe, preventing all possible falls is very important. The difficulty in preventing stilts injuries lies in the fact that most objects in the workplace, as evidenced by our review of claims, can trigger a fall with potentially severe consequences. Above and beyond all else, if you are going to use stilts, housekeeping is the number one thing to focus on for injury prevention. Because housekeeping requires constant attention, the use of scaffolds in place of stilts when and where appropriate is recommended.

Wall and ceiling contractors who use stilts are encouraged to adopt at least two of the following injury prevention strategies and try to implement them in the next 30 days.

Housekeeping. Housekeeping is paramount to preventing stilts injuries. Despite the pressure to get the job done, a smart contractor will commit time each day to prevent fall injuries.

The following should be done each time the work progresses into a new area, or at the beginning of the shift:

– Identify and remove (where possible) objects that may result in a

– Sweep the floor.
– Carry brooms onto the site along with equipment and tools.

Stilt Maintenance. Many injuries are occurring from stilts and stilt straps that are not well maintained. You should purchase and use only high quality stilts, and throw out stilts that are not safe. Also, set up a maintenance program and repair stilts quickly.

Training. Train workers to know that most items within their workspace are a potential trip or slip hazard. Use this article to provide hard evidence of fall hazards.

– Train workers to inspect their stilts each time they put them on.

– Workers can fall while putting on and taking off their stilts;
educate workers to give this task great care.

Other don’ts include the following:

– Do not permit the use of stilts on stairs.

– Do not permit the use of stilts near un-guarded open
railings,windows or shafts.

– Stilts should not be worn while operating the bazooka or boxes.

Use of Scaffolds

Virtually all common workplace objects can cause a fall from stilts. Given the great difficulty of eliminating stilts hazards, use of scaffolds in place of stilts should be considered.

Unlike stilts, scaffolds do provide some fall protection. While the use of scaffolds will not completely eliminate fall hazards, they may reduce the risk of fall injury.

On a high ceiling job that requires full extension of stilts, a scaffold can provide a more comfortable and stable base for the high-pressure tasks of boxing and sanding.

About the Author

Carolyn Whitaker, MS, IH is with the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention Program for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

The author would like to thank Hyun Kim for his help with data analysis. In addition, thanks to representatives from the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, and Northwest Wall & Ceiling Trust Fund for their review of this article.

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