Perils in the construction industry are considerable, many of which include physical hazards such as noise, heat and cold, falls, and chemicals to name a few. Safety controls are implemented to manage or, when possible, remove such risks from the workplace with the overall objective of protecting the worker. However, one of the construction industry’s loss leaders: slips, trips, and falls (STFs) occur mainly from the carelessness of the worker himself. Many times, we find it easy to label an STF injury as an accident. However, accident by definition is “unintentional” and, therefore, unexpected. From empirical data, we know that STFs happen as the result of an unsafe act. As such, they do not qualify as an accident because their occurrence can be prevented. Based on statistical data, unsafe acts represent 90 percent of all injuries in construction while the remaining 10 percent represent losses from unsafe site conditions.
STF investigations have cited poor housekeeping as the top major cause of STF events. In addition, other contributing factors include low or insufficient illumination, and improperly maintained storage areas for materials, tools or equipment. Other factors are variations in riser height and tread depth of more than one-quarter inch (also known as uneven stair geometry) and debris proximal to the base of a ladder or scaffold access point. There are many other reasons, and we have all observed them over the span of a construction project undoubtedly.
The type of injuries resulting from STF events range from sprains and strains (soft tissue), bruises and contusions, lacerations and punctures, to head injuries and bone fractures (skeletal and concussive). In unfortunate and more severe cases, fatalities may occur. There are too many times, I am afraid, when a fall to the same level has resulted in a fatality.
Strategies to safeguard against STFs are generally straightforward. As an example, simply maintaining surfaces clean and free of obstacles and obstructions will greatly reduce STF hazards. The worker himself needs to be observant and alert, and not to permit his attention to be diverted. With the increased use of mobile phones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices on site, distractions at work can also lead to STF losses. A distracted worker can slip, trip, or fall when they are not focused on walking through the maze of construction operations simply by not seeing the hazard that would have otherwise been visible.
Management can and must be instrumental in dramatically decreasing the incidents of STFs by 1) providing adequate training and awareness programs specifically covering STF issues; 2) conducting hazard assessments of the workplace; 3) ensuring proper workplace maintenance; 4) having supervisory personnel recognize and anticipate STF perils, and 5) conducting root cause analysis (lessons learned) when an STF loss occurs to reduce, control, or eliminate their reoccurrence.
While my focus is on construction risk and safety, STF losses occur across the spectrum of workplaces— it is obvious, then that there needs to be a higher level of awareness of STF conditions. Repeated STF occurrences have significant consequences to a company: worker injuries will remain high, production will decrease, the reputation of the company and its bottom line may be adversely impacted. To help control this risk, it is essential to develop an inspection program that examines possible STF hazards. Training the work force to recognize when STF hazards exist or materialize is crucial. Then, one can respond quickly and smartly, so those hazards are removed, controlled, or reduced.