Careless health and safety practices within the construction industry were the cause of thousands of injuries and 148 deaths in the UK in 2013. The sad fact is that, with the correct personal protection equipment (PPE), proper diligence by employees, and employers and a proactive attitude could have counteracted some of these hazards and tragedies could have been avoided.
The following list is comprised of the ten most common and potentially lethal hazards that construction workers face and should strive to avoid, coupled with real examples of industry accidents that have occurred:
1. Electrical accidents
If there are potential electric hazards on a construction site, it is imperative that the proper PPE for electrical safety is available, and thorough safety protocols are in place. Electrical accidents are often fatal, and easily occur in a wet environment or where wires are exposed.
Using a small electric cement mixer on a building site, a 16 year old laborer was on the receiving end of an electric shock. It had been raining the night before but it was dry enough to lay bricks and work the following morning. The worker made a mix of mortar and was tipping the mix into a wheelbarrow. Unknowingly, he clamped the electrical flex between the metallic motor housing case and the mixer itself. Cutting through the flex, the laborer received a mild electric shock. If managed properly, the power supply would have been run from a 240 volt to 110 volt transformer, but in this case, the cement mixer was plugged directly into the main supply. This was a lucky escape, but it could have easily resulted in the young laborer’s death.
The liability falls on the construction sites to use a step-down transformer that offers surge cut out features to ensure electrocution of employees doesn’t result in death or injury.
2. Falls from vehicles
It is common to hop onto the back of a vehicle when going from point A to point B on a construction site. Unfortunately, this is often a recipe for disaster as falls can easily occur. Climbing on top of loads, slippery vehicle surfaces, and neglecting to use seatbelts are major causes of industrial injuries each year.
A major point for consideration is the use of the PPE that’s provided. Seatbelts are a must, as it is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that there is a seatbelt for every passenger, and that all passengers are securely fastened.
3. Fires & explosions
Unmaintained equipment, faulty wiring, and the build-up of gasses and powders can cause fires and potentially lethal explosions if not kept closely under check. Inspections and regular preventive maintenance should always be performed to prevent machinery from overheating. If fires are likely to be an issue, protective clothing and fire masks should be provided to all workers on the site.
Common accidents involving explosions can occur simply via a small static discharge that travels from the operator to flammable material, or that is generated during pipeline transfer (the flammable mixture can create static from friction against its containing pipe). Ways to decrease or minimize this risk include:
- The operator should be well earthed with an earth lead or a metal-tack in the sole of their footwear.
- Pipes and other transfer hardware should be correctly earthed and maintained.
- Ensure low-velocity transfer of liquids and particularly suspensions containing crystalline solids.
- The use of inert gasses should be considered to prevent combustion.
4. Poor forklift truck handling
Forklift trucks are responsible for 8,000 accidents in the UK each year. Forklift operators must ensure that drivers have up-to-date training, and that their team is fully aware of areas where the forklift is being used.
Take for example the accident of a 22 year-old employee who had two weeks previously obtained his forklift operator’s license. He went to pick up a 1.4 ton load on a forklift truck with a 3.6 ton capacity. Due to poor visibility and lack of marked paths, his forklift overturned, badly crushing his leg and nearly costing him his life.
This should have been prevented with clearly marked paths for vehicles, appropriate lighting, reversing alarms to detect objects in the forklift truck’s path, and the driver of the forklift truck should have been wearing his seatbelt to prevent a fall out of the roll cage.
5. Unsafe work equipment
If a regularly used piece of equipment is not serviced or repaired regularly, it can malfunction, resulting in sudden injury or fatality. This risk is reduced if the operators are wearing hard hats, protective facemasks, and other PPE.
Case example: John was using an angle grinder without safety goggles or a full face shield. He was using a metal cutting disk to grind through an aluminium pipe. Not only was he using the grinder without gloves and safety protection for his face, he had removed the guard on the angle grinder that stops debris from flying back towards the operator.
John suddenly felt a sharp pain as a small shard of aluminium entered his left eye. He went to see the appointed first aider, and after several eye washes it was deemed he needed to go to the local emergency department. Because the shard was aluminium, which is non-magnetic, the doctor could not use an electromagnet to remove the shard. As a result, John had to endure a painful removal of the metal with surgical tweezers.
6. Office areas
In the UK, construction sites are not the only places where accidents occur. There are twenty deaths each year in office areas caused by water spillages, items left in walkways, and other forms of carelessness. Even in environments that otherwise seem highly safe, these seemingly small problems can cause tragic accidents.
General carelessness is something that can easily be prevented. Keeping your environment tidy is one of the first things a young apprentice is likely to learn in their given industry. Lockers will prevent employees from leaving their belongings lying around, and requiring them to brush or mop up messes after themselves are very basic safety measures that can save people from serious accidents.
7. Falls from heights
Falls from ladders and scaffolding are the second most common cause of worksite accidents that result in severe injuries and even fatalities.
These can be avoided in the workplace with the use of PPE and proper training. All forms of protection should conform to industry safety standards. Full-body harnesses, cow tails, ropes, and helmets all help protect workers from the serious injuries that can be sustained from a fall.
8. Slips & trips
Uneven surfaces, out of place items, and liquid spillages are the primary culprits for causing slippages, but carelessness plays a role, too. Not paying proper attention, messing about on site, and even loose shoe laces have been identified as causes of serious injuries.
Prevention tactics involve minimal changes in PPE. Rigger boots don’t have laces and should also have steel toecaps. A boot with ankle support and a good tread will also help prevent sprains from falls. Something as simple as a daily safety briefing in the morning, along with a stern reminder from management, can help keep employees on the ball by reminding them to maintain a tidy workplace, and informing them of any new dangers on the site, such as excavations.
9. Poor manual handling techniques
Poor manual handling techniques are one of the main causes of back injuries in the UK. No one should undertake heavy lifting without the proper training and equipment.
It should be made clear that employees can only manually handle weights if they need to, and even then it should only be allowed after a proper risk assessment. Some options for lifting loads include:
- Palette tucks (hydraulic pump trucks)
- Mechanical means such as forklift trucks
- Hoists and pulleys
- Conveyor belts
- Reducing the weight by dividing the load
If a person or people have to lift loads by hand, then it’s important that they receive proper training in lifting to help prevent serious back injury.
10. Lifting equipment
Lifts, fixed cranes, lifting trolleys etc., need to be inspected for safety compliance by a qualified engineer every six years. Failure to do so can cause mechanical faults to accumulate over time, sometimes leading to lethal accidents.
In July 2009 at Chandlers Wharf in Liverpool, UK, a 200-ton crane toppled onto a flat complex, leaving the driver paralyzed. The counter balance became embedded in a building as the crane turned, causing the crane to topple and throwing the driver 15 meters from his cab. He was awarded £2.6 million pounds for this tragic, preventable accident.
A competent risk assessment likely would have taken this contingency into account and may have ultimately prevented the accident. Instead, the construction firm responsible was found guilty of health and safety negligence at Liverpool Crown Court.
It is ultimately the responsibility of all workers to safeguard their own and their colleagues’ safety, but a special responsibility falls upon employers to foster a culture of risk avoidance. The process begins with a proper risk assessment based on potential hazards in any given workplace, and progresses to the adequate provision of PPE and other related safety gear designed to mitigate risk and reduce potential injury.