Last updated: August 28, 2018
The workplace is a dangerous environment for nearly 20 million working-age adults each year, and fatal for more than 5,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For every 100 people putting in those long hours, nearly 5 will experience an injury which requires medical treatment.1 You might be surprised to hear that working with lumber is more dangerous than serving in the military and that general construction work is more dangerous than serving as a law enforcement officer. Understanding and identifying workplace hazards as well as responding to them properly is a critical skill anyone working around heavy machinery in busy and complicated work sites must have.
An environmental hazard is any natural or artificial part of the workplace’s surroundings that could cause injury or death, and they are usually circumvented with protective equipment, by implementing safety precautions, or by eliminating the threat. These hazards can be physical, biological, or chemical. Physical hazards are generally the easiest to recognize and remedy as best as possible, such as the risk of falling when working on tall construction projects resulting in the deployment of safety nets, barriers, and other protective equipment. Noise is also a physical hazard caused by the vibration of the air, and just over a third2 of people who work in places with hazardous noise pollution use proper hearing protection devices. An exposed and active electrical wire, one exception to the obviousness of physical hazards, can electrify nearby surfaces in a worst-case scenario.
Biological and chemical hazards are more difficult to recognize. Bringing down an old building at a construction site can fling the spores of an infectious fungus or the excretions and remains of animals into the air. The now infamous asbestos insulation throws small particles into the air when disturbed that cause a type of cancer known as mesothelioma when inhaled. Some chemicals don’t present a direct health hazard, but the spark generated by a piece of metal equipment scraping cement could be enough to turn them into an unstoppable fire. Most of these hazards should be identified by researching how the building was used and by a safety inspection, but keeping respiratory equipment and fire extinguishers for every type of fire on-hand is advisable.3
Sometimes, things break. Whether the machine is worn down from hundreds of hours of use on the job or there was a manufacturing error, the faulty equipment snaps or cracks while in use and causes a chain of disastrous events that may lead to an injury. The most common example would be ropes and chains breaking under a heavy load, causing the previously secured equipment to come loose and tumble away. Chainsaws are already one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment for a person to operate, and any faults or issues that cause a moment of irregularity in operation can increase the risk of kickbacks or other injuries. Improperly constructed scaffolding is another lurking equipment hazard that can cascade into multiple injuries during a busy workday.
All equipment used in construction should be inspected regularly by someone capable of identifying any faults or issues. A general crew member should be able to inspect a rope, but get a certified supervisor to check scaffolding and a mechanic for anything with moving parts. OSHA recommends daily visual inspections (1926.1412(d)(1))4 and yearly detailed inspections (1926.1412(f)(1)), but you should check the particular piece of equipment for regulations concerning safety inspections so you can avoid working with faulty equipment.
Human Error Hazards
There is no such thing as an absolutely safe workspace, but it is up to people to design mandatory safety precautions. Whenever a known hazard occurs because a person improperly used a safety feature or manipulated the workspace, then human error is the culprit. For example, a tree trimmer cutting down a limb but improperly securing the ropes to control it as it hits the ground would be a human error hazard that might result in injuries for the workers down below. If the crew setting up a crane fail to follow the rules for ground stability and the use of outrigger pads, a crane may become unstable while lifting a heavy load, causing it to topple over and crush the people and equipment nearby. One embarrassingly common crane error is making contact with overhead power lines during operation. While less dramatic of an example, not wearing hearing protection is a human error that can absolutely lead to injury over time in the form of lost hearing, chronic headaches, and potentially even an increase in hypertension5 that raises the risk of a heart attack.
Human error hazards take on many shapes and forms, and equipment and environmental hazards may arise from human error without there being a clear link that would be legally relevant if they were referenced in construction lawsuit cases. If you are unsure, explain the scenario to a lawyer with experience in construction injury settlements.
Responding to Hazards
Proactive reaction to hazards before they result in injury is the ideal solution for noticing them in the workplace. If you notice an environmental hazard that could be removed, a piece of equipment that’s looking especially worn down, or people on the job who are habitually ignoring a safety measure, then it is vital that you take steps such as immediately informing a foreman. Your supervisors should be regularly conducting safety inspections6 and should be including members of the crew while doing so. Let them know that you’re interested in participating in these safety reviews, and it’ll both help you stay informed of hazards in your workplace and look good to the boss.
If the hazard is ignored when reported or is only identified after you receive an injury, then it is time to consider your legal options for construction lawsuit cases to ensure that you and your family are financially secure while you heal. Hopefully, the information listed above helps keep you and your fellow crew members safe in the workplace so you don’t have to worry about doctors, insurance, or lawsuits.
1 American Public Health Association: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2004.049338
2 American Journal of Industrial Medicine: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ajim.20690
3 OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/dte/grant_materials/fy09/sh-18796-09/fireprotection.pdf
4 U.S. Department of Labor: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1926/1926.1412
5 British Medical Bulleting: https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/68/1/243/421340
6 OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/shpguidelines/hazard-Identification.html