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Examining On-the-Job Falls and How to Prevent Them

By now it should be clear that on construction jobsites, gravity is not your friend. Last month, we discussed the dangers of falling and flying objects and how even a small bolt can hit with tremendous force if it falls from a sufficient height. Working at heights presents an even greater danger in construction. Working at heights has been commonplace in construction for 100 years now, since the elevator allowed us to create structures that weren’t limited by our ability to comfortably climb stairs. Building these structures naturally puts workers at heights. And since falling from even two or three stories can kill someone, preventing falls should be one of our top priorities to ensure the safety of workers.

In 2017, 386 construction workers were killed by falls – that’s more than one per day and accounted for about 40 percent of all construction fatalities.

In 2017, 386 construction workers were killed by falls – that’s more than one per day and accounted for about 40 percent of all construction fatalities. Falls are a problem among virtually all construction trades, but more construction laborers are dying from falls than any other trade. In 2017, 85 construction laborers were killed on the job due to falls, and more than 6,200 others were injured. As we’ll see shortly, construction laborers are at the greatest risk when they are working on scaffolds and ladders.

Falls are divided into two main types:

  • Falls on the same level (slips and trips)
  • Falls to a lower level (falls from heights), which tend to cause more fatalities than falls on the same level. Falls to a lower level include falls from a collapsing structure, falls through a surface or existing opening (such as a skylight) and other falls (from a ladder or scaffold).

By digging into the fatality numbers in more detail, we can see when construction workers are most at risk for a fatal fall. Here’s the breakdown of fatal falls from 2017:

  • 15 falls on the same level
  • 26 falls from a collapsing structure
  • 59 falls through a surface or opening
  • 273 falls in the “other” category

Turning to prevention efforts based on the information above, many slip and trip falls on the same level can be prevented with good housekeeping. Preventing falls from collapsing structures requires having engineers ensure the structure is safe to work on. Falls through openings can be prevented by ensuring guardrails are in place or that holes or other floor openings are properly covered. The “other” category, which makes up about 70 percent of all fall fatalities, is where most of our attention should be focused. These “other” falls include incidents involving ladders and scaffolds.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows not only the number of falls in each category, but also the height of these falls. Only about a third of these “other” falls were from over 20 feet, which may be surprising to some people. More than a third (38 percent) were from 11-20 feet and 17 percent were from 10 feet or less. Clearly, workers don’t need to be very high off the ground to get killed in a fall. [Note: These numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because the height of some falls are not recorded.]

There are three main categories of “other” falls: falls from roofs, falls from scaffolds and falls from ladders. Preventing falls from roofs means tying off every time you work on a roof, even if it is a low slope roof. Guardrail systems also protect workers as they work near the roof edge. Preventing falls from scaffolds means making sure the scaffold is properly constructed, workers are trained and inspections are completed prior to each use. Supported scaffolds must be stable and level and inspected by a competent person before use. Proper construction of suspended scaffolds includes guardrails and counterweights. Ladder safety requires a stable base, the proper angle for setup and safe use (three points of contact and only one person at a time). NIOSH’s Ladder Safety app is a useful tool to help with proper ladder setup and use.

This year’s National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction is May 6-10. Thousands of construction sites will be stopping work to talk about fall prevention. It is one of the most important hazards in construction. The national campaign to stop construction falls has many useful resources on fall prevention at

LHSFNA Resources for LIUNA Signatory Contractors

The LHSFNA has developed a series of toolbox talks to help LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates remind workers about the hazards of falls in construction. Topics include:

  • Fall Prevention: Guardrail Systems
  • Holes in Flooring and Other Openings
  • Ladder Safety
  • Personal Fall Arrest Systems
  • Scaffold Safety
  • Slips, Trips and Falls

To order these or other materials, go to the Fund’s website at and click on Publications. You can also contact the Fund by phone at 202-628-5465.

[Scott Schneider]

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