A risky business: the hazards of working construction

May 28, 2012
Katherine O’Brien

It was shocking and terribly sad, a fatal accident made even more poignant because it occurred on Christmas Eve. Although it happened nearly two-and-a-half years ago you still might remember what has been termed Toronto’s worst workplace accident in a generation. It’s the one where four immigrant workers were using a scaffold so they could repair balconies on a high-rise building — and the unit broke into two pieces with the workers plummeting to their deaths. The accident resulted in 61 charges under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act as well as charges under the Criminal Code of Canada. As well, it sparked a provincial review of the system that protects Ontario workers and a safety blitz of construction sites.

It also highlighted the fact that working construction jobs can be the most dangerous way of all to bring home the bacon. In an industry where heavy equipment and sharp tools are the norm and working at dizzying heights is common, it’s no wonder that statistics show that construction has the highest rate of occupational injuries, nearly 25 per 1,000 employed workers. (Contrast that to the financial sector, for example, which had a rate of injury of 0.6 per 1,000 employees.) Data from the Ontario Ministry of Labour indicates that between 2005 and 2009, nearly 40 per cent of employees killed in work-related incidents in this province were construction workers.

Falling down on the job
There are many ways you can injure yourself on a construction site but the easiest way of all is by falling, called the “number one killer” by the Saskatchewan Construction Safety Association (SCSA). In Canada, some 60,000 workers get injured annually due to fall accidents, representing about 15 per cent of the "time-loss injuries" accepted by workers' compensation boards or commissions across Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety. In Ontario, more than 18,000 injuries a year at Ontario workplaces are due to slips and falls, according to a document put out by the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (IAPA). “Same level falls,” like slips and trips, account for 65 per cent of fall injuries while falls from heights account for almost 34 per cent of falls (and most of the fall-related deaths).

According to the IAPA document, some of the factors that cause people to slip/fall and/or lose their balance are:

  • Poor lighting, slippery surfaces and inadequate housekeeping
  • Missing protective devices (e.g., guardrails)
  • Equipment such as ladders and scaffolds that is in poor condition
  • Lack of personal protective equipment
  • Poor work practices (e.g., unclear job procedures, lack of training)
  • Workers rushing to meet deadlines

As WorkSafe BC notes in its booklet Safe Work Practices for House Construction, "The pressure to do construction work as quickly as possible often results in guardrails not being erected, openings in floors not being covered, or safe access to work platforms not being provided."

There are many types of fall accidents. In addition to falling from swing stages or scaffolds, some construction workers have fallen through skylights, holes in floors or elevator shafts; others have tumbled off balconies or ladders. Falling down down stairs is also a common accident.

Of all the categories of construction workers, roofers are the ones most susceptible to falls. According to a WorkSafeBC release, in 2008, steep-slope roofing saw an average injury rate almost four times higher than the overall injury rate for all industries. This OHS article notes that the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) says that in many cases of fall-related deaths in residential construction "the victim was wearing a fall arrest harness, but it was not secured."

Fall protection
“Having a fall protection plan, and sticking to it, is critical if workers are at risk of falling from heights,” says WorkSafe BC. The SCSA points out that you should inspect your personal fall arrest equipment daily looking for such things as frayed edges, broken fibers, burn marks, deterioration and other visible signs of damage to the nylon webbing on body harnesses.

When it comes to the safe use of scaffolds, this guide put out by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has much to say. For example, scaffolds must be able to carry their own weight plus four times the maximum intended load. They must be erected on solid footing not on unstable objects, such as loose bricks or concrete blocks. They must also be equipped with guardrails, midrails (a rail located between a guardrail and platform) and toeboards. Finally, rigging on suspension scaffolds must be inspected before each shift to ensure that all connections are tight and that no damage has occurred since its last use.

Hazards beyond falling
Although the falls are the deadliest of construction accident there are countless other ways you can be injured on a work site. For example, you could be injured in a crane accident (scroll down). Sometimes cranes topple over, crushing workers. At other times workers are struck by an overhead load or caught within the crane's swing radius. Many crane fatalities occur when the crane contacts an overhead power line.

Welding also poses dangers. For instance, welders often work around flammable and combustible liquids and compressed gas, meaning there is danger of fires or explosions. Welders are also susceptible to respiratory tract infections, chemical irritation due to exposure to metal fumes, certain cancers and chronic damage to the eyes and skin.

Here are some other possible ways you can get injured working construction:

As well, your ears can be damaged by excessive noise and you can experience soft tissue injuries from repetitive movements such as constantly lifting objects, sudden overexertion, excessive force (pushing the active muscle group beyond its limits), awkward postures (e.g., holding a drill overhead with your arm outstretched). Finally, if you work outside your body is exposed to the elements. On relentlessly hot and sunny days you could be in danger of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Young workers get hurt more
In the construction industry, one particular concern is that of young construction workers, who suffer a disproportionately high number of accidents. According to WorkSafe BC, workers under 25 account for about 23 per cent of all accidents although they make up only eight per cent of the construction workforce. Earlier this month the Ontario government began a four-month blitz to ensure students are safe and don't get injured while working on their summer jobs. Among other things, this Ministry of Labour web page advises young workers to ask potential employers whether they will receive safety training and whether they will have to wear safety gear.

Poss.ca is a free online magazine to help Toronto job seekers find work. An initiative of Findhelp Information Services, poss.ca is an Employment Ontario project funded in part by the Government of Canada.

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