During the recent economic recession and even beyond, from 2006 to 2011, the nation’s construction industry eliminated more than 40% of its workforce. While the economy has generally become a bit more secure since then, that doesn’t necessarily mean construction sites have. In fact, new data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that almost half of all construction worker fatalities between 1982 and 2015 were related to falls — and more than half of those killed in those falls did not have access to a personal fall arrest system.
Back in 2015, approximately 4,836 workers across all industries were killed on the job. The following year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of 2016 Fatal Occupational Injuries report found that all worker deaths increased by 7%, totaling 5,190. And for black workers, the issue was even more dire: worker fatalities among this demographic increased by 19% in just one year, with 587 deaths in 2016. In the construction industry, worker deaths increased by 6% during that same time period. First-line supervisors of construction trades and extraction workers reported 134 fatal injuries in 2016 alone, the highest recorded number of fatalities since the system was first enacted in 2003. And the year prior, OSHA found that 350 of all 937 construction job site deaths were related to falls.
But this problem is nothing new. The analysis of NIOSH data conducted by Safety and Health found that over a 33-year timeframe, 325 of 768 construction worker deaths involved falls. Approximately 54% of those who were killed in those incidents didn’t have access to a personal fall arrest system that could have prevented these accidents, while 23% of those who died did have access to a PFAS but failed to use it. Around 33% of these deadly falls involved heights of 30 feet or more, and 20% of all of all worker fatalities throughout that time — fall-related or not — took place during the victims’ first two months on the job.
OSHA comes down hard on employers who fail to protect their workers. In 2016, the agency adjusted its fines for inflation, causing a 78% maximum penalty fine increase from $7,000 to $12,471 for serious violations. In the last month, those fines were upped another 2%. Repeat and willful violations can cost an employer $129,336 or more. While that might encourage some employers to make their work environments safe, it isn’t always effective. And the data shows there’s a lot more work to be done.
Experts from the Center for Construction Research and Training said in response to Safety and Health Magazine: “Even though this study was unable to assess effectiveness of the OSHA fall protection standard established in 1995, the considerable number of fall fatalities from lower heights provides strong evidence of the need for the OSHA requirement that fall protection be provided at elevations of six feet or more in the construction industry.”