Workers often are blamed for their own fatal falls because there always seems to be a rule that they didn't follow. The victims alive or dead are a convenient target because they can't effectively answer back. Now there is evidence showing that, no matter how careful you are, falls are inevitable with some exposures or hazards. I call these hazards Human Fall Traps, or HFTs, and they typically produce serious injury and death.
There is no defense against HFTs because we can't perceive them until it is too late. This is because we are human; a good analogy might be to say "you needed eyes in the back of your head" to see that rock coming. It is worse than that with HFTs. The cautionary phrases "Watch Your Step" or "Be Careful," often used in toolbox meetings or training programs, don't help. Training can't protect against hazards that can't be seen before it's too late.
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Federal regulations do address HFTs. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard 1926.501(a)(2) indirectly covers HFTs and other fall exposures by requiring an audit by the contractor for structural integrity of a walking/working surface before work begins. As someone whose career is focused on fall safety, I'm appealing to architects and engineers to design structures and sequences that are free from known hazards during building construction and use. I'm also calling on general contractors to create site conditions that eliminate these hazards and not just hide them, which only increases the danger. Let's look at 14 key HFTs that you might recognize and eliminate or control:
1. Open pits, roof and floor holes
These are hazardous to workers who typically are thinking about their immediate task and who's eyes are focused ahead of where they are walking. Some managers will leave holes and pits open because they believe the contrast is enough for a worker (or member of the public) to recognize the danger and watch his or her step. Eventually a person will trigger this HFT because a net or cover or both were not used to protect against the incident. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health re-issued and updated the Hazard Alert on this subject because the hazard is so extreme, especially for young inexperienced workers. Hispanics increasing are also subject to this HFT because they often can't understand the verbal instructions or written warnings concerning the open hole hazard.
2. Holes covered with loose plywood
These cannot be seen when the laborer picks up the plywood to be used elsewhere. This HFT results in disastrous falls. Even worse may be marked covers that are discarded after the opening has been filled. To a laborer they are just a board to collect to contain a concrete pour. This worker subsequently and unconsciously ignores the warning of all marked covers. The HFT can be reasonably prevented by having the general contractor frequently recover these boards, turn them over and stack hole covers at specific storage locations so that the "Danger ! Hole! Do not Remove!" markings cannot be seen. A defense against this series of human behaviors is to put a net under the hole attached to bar joists until the hole is finally filled.
3. Holes covered with Visqueen plastic
These coverings, put in place for rain protection or heat retention, are lethal HFTs because they look dark and solid to the casual eye and will be foreseeably walked on with catastrophic results. It is convenient to stuff plastic or reach across a small hole or cover a floor opening to restrict air movement in floor joists, trusses or rafters. The rule is that if it looks like it can be walked on, it will be walked on. Fall-throughs need only a foot square opening or larger. Ankle, leg and hip traumas can occur in any opening or depression greater than 2 inches in dimension.
4. Plastic skylights (bubble and corrugated)
These types of skylights age by crazing at screw holes and through oxidation. When that happens, they will suddenly fail when stepped on or sat on; they have low strength durability. The danger can occur at any skylight age, but more particularly as the aging process sets in and the skylight and decking both oxidize to a similar color making the skylight indistinguishable in some cases. All plastic skylights must be covered or integral with a metal grill barrier per OSHA regulations since 1971, or have tested durability to the satisfaction of the code official with adequate tested lifetime warning signage. This hazard takes the lives of approximately 36 U.S. workers each year. Gravity spares neither the owner's maintenance workers nor the roofing or other contractor workers, including engineers
5. Dangerous extended roof edges
This HFT is a residential roof external edge with roofing paper and shingles extended over a sheathed roof. It looks like a solid walking surface from above, often with lethal consequences. The wrapping under the edge or trimming needs to occur immediately to avoid prolonging this hazard.
6. Exposed insulation on partially decked roofs
Decking surfaces that have exposed insulation (metal side on top) look solid from topside but will collapse if stepped on. When the insulation is being laid,...