Causes of Construction Accidents

To achieve and maintain worksite safety, employers need to understand the most common causes of construction accidents and how to prevent them. Otherwise, workers can be seriously injured or even killed in construction site accidents that should be preventable.

971 construction workers were killed in American workplace accidents in 2017, according to the most recent data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). More than half of these fatalities (59.9%) died in what OSHA calls the Fatal Four, or the four most common causes of construction accidents that cost workers their lives every year. Here are the Fatal Four, and the number of workers who died because of them on national construction sites in 2017:

  • Falls (381 or 39.2% of construction deaths in 2017)
  • Struck by Object (80 or 8.2%)
  • Electrocutions (71 or 7.3%)
  • Caught-in/between, compressed or crushed (50 or 5.1%)

Below, we'll discuss some of the most common types and causes of construction accidents.

Fall Accidents

Nationwide, an average of 275 construction workers have been killed in falls every year since 2011, according to data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). And after 381 American workers were killed in construction site falls in 2017, that number is trending upwards.

Fall hazards are everywhere on a construction site, but it is possible to prevent accidents with the right safety training and equipment. Proper fall protection will depend on the hazards a job presents. Common fall hazards include:

  • Scaffolding that is improperly guarded or constructed
  • Ladders that are defective or too short for the job
  • Debris and tripping hazards, particularly on roofs
  • Slick surfaces caused by rain, paint or other slipping hazards
  • Unguarded ledges, skylights or elevator shafts
  • Unmarked trenches or excavation sites

These are only a few of the fall hazards that may be present on an active construction site. Employers should perform regular self-inspections to maintain worksite safety and protect against fall hazards before they can cause an accident.

Here are a few common ways to prevent falls on construction sites:

  • Construct guardrails at exposed leading edges such as roofs, skylights and stair openings
  • Clear elevated surfaces of slip or trip hazards such as rain, ice, paint or debris
  • Ensure scaffolding is constructed and inspected by qualified professionals
  • Don't lean or reach excessively when working from a ladder
  • Train workers to recognize fall hazards and how to avoid them

When it is impossible to eliminate falling hazards, a personal fall arrest system (PFAS) may be necessary. A PFAS is used to stop the motion of a worker who has fallen. There are three necessary components to a PFAS:

  • An anchorage point where workers can "tie off" or secure themselves to
  • A body harness that a worker wears, and that evenly distributes the force of the fall
  • A connecting device that securely attaches the harness to the anchorage point

In 2017, at least one American construction worker was killed every day in a fall accident on a construction site. Fall protection safety is not an option; instead, it needs to become a culture.

Falling Object Accidents

Another common gravity-related hazard is falling object accidents. When an object drops or falls, it quickly picks up speed and can cause severe injuries or even death for anybody who is struck. Common falling object hazards include:

  • Unsecured tools such as a hammer or tape measure
  • Improperly rigged crane loads
  • Working materials that are not stacked in a balanced way

Because much construction work occurs at an elevation, preventing falls and falling object accidents should be at the center of any site safety plan. Here are ways to prevent falling object accidents:

  • Make sure loads being hoisted are properly rigged and secured
  • Keep tools and other materials away from open edges when possible
  • Stack materials in a balanced and secure way, and do not stack materials near open edges
  • Don't lift heavy loads over someone's head, and use barricades to block off areas where falling objects are possible

These are good work safety practices which will help to prevent falling object accidents for workers and passersby alike. There are also systems which can be implemented to avoid damage if falling object accidents occur, such as:

  • Guardrail and toe-board systems
  • Overhead protective structures or barricades when possible
  • Lanyard systems that are attached to individual tools

With just a little foresight and preparation, falling object accidents can be prevented. Read about a recent, record-breaking $110 million falling object verdict our firm won to learn more about the severe damage falling object accidents can cause when not protected against.

Electrocution Accidents

Electrocution accidents killed 71 construction workers nationwide in 2017, or 7.3% of all construction laborers who lost their lives on the job that year. Electrocution is a common cause of fatal construction accidents, earning it a place on OSHA's infamous Fatal Four.

For non-electrical workers, such as roofers or crane operators, the leading cause of death by electrocution is contact with an overhead or underground power line, according to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC). For electrical workers, the leading cause of electrocution death was direct contact with a power source, live equipment, or wiring such as a light fixture or circuit breaker.

Because electrocution hazards are not always obvious, live sources of electricity need to be identified at regular worksite safety meetings. Construction workers who don't speak English should be warned about these hazards in a language they understand or by using visual aids when necessary.

Here are more ways to prevent electrocution accidents:

  • Be mindful of any temporary power sources which have been installed on the construction site
  • Clearly mark the locations of any overhead or underground power lines
  • Stay at least ten feet from active power lines; if this isn't possible, have the lines de-energized
  • Follow proper lock-out/tag-out procedure to ensure machines don't activate unexpectedly
  • Regularly inspect power cords and extension cords for defects

Electrical work is more specialized than some other construction site jobs, but the dangers electrocution hazards pose affect everybody. By regularly training workers in a language they can understand, however, these electrocution accidents can be avoided.

Scaffolding Accidents

Scaffolds are common on construction sites, but they can also be dangerous: OSHA estimates that there are roughly 5,000 injuries and 60 fatalities caused by scaffolding accidents every year on American construction sites.

Scaffolding accidents can occur for many different reasons:

  • Scaffold collapse, often the result of improper scaffold construction or excessive loads
  • Scaffold falls, usually the result of lack of proper fall protection
  • Scaffold tip-overs, which can be caused by a weak foundation or too much weight
  • Falling object hazards, which can be avoided with proper guardrails and toe-boards
  • Electrocution, which is why scaffolds should be constructed at least 10 feet from power lines

Employees need to be well-trained so that they know how to prevent scaffold accidents. Scaffold accident prevention requires a thorough understanding of safety regulations and best practices. Things to keep in mind when constructing scaffolding:

  • Scaffolds must be able to support four times the maximum intended load
  • Scaffolds should not be moved, built or taken down without informing a supervisor
  • Scaffolds must have OSHA-compliant guardrail, midrail and toeboard systems
  • Scaffolds must be inspected before every shift

These are only a few of the guidelines that ensure the safe construction and use of scaffolding. There are additional safety measures which workers can implement to keep themselves safe:

  • Don't use scaffolds covered in ice, snow, or other tripping hazards
  • Use extra caution when required to work on a scaffold when it is raining
  • Always wear a hard hat when in the vicinity of scaffolding
  • Maintain three points of contact with the ladder required to access the scaffold
  • Never climb on cross-bracing or other parts of the scaffold
  • If you see a scaffold component that looks worn out or defective, alert your supervisor

Working with scaffolding presents unique challenges to workers and safety professionals. Scaffolding safety should be reviewed with all employees when scaffolding is built or used on a construction site.

Ladder Accidents

Ladders might not seem as imposing as scaffolding, but make no mistake - they can cause severe construction accidents which leave workers seriously injured or even killed. 81% of construction worker injuries caused by falls involve a ladder, according to the CDC .

Employers need to be thorough in training their workers to avoid common ladder hazards, such as:

  • Excessive reaching or leaning while using a ladder
  • Trying to climb a ladder while holding things
  • Using a ladder that isn't tall enough to safely complete the job
  • Standing on the top rung of a ladder
  • Placing a straight ladder at too thin or wide an angle from the wall supporting it

Here are ways that workers can prevent ladder accidents:

  • Make sure that your ladder is the correct type (self-supporting versus straight) and that it's tall enough to safely do the task you've been assigned
  • Never exceed a ladder's load capacity (and be sure to factor in any tools you are using)
  • If you're unsure about the angle a straight ladder is standing at, ask somebody
  • Never place a ladder on top of anything other than a stable and flat surface
  • Always maintain three points of contact while climbing a ladder
  • Balance your weight evenly; if you have to lean excessively, move the ladder instead
  • Regularly inspect ladders for any defects, damage or potential slipping hazards

Never let yourself become careless around ladders simply because you've used them so many times before. Ladders cause a lot of experienced construction workers to suffer severe injuries. If you don't feel comfortable using the ladder you've been provided, notify a supervisor.

Crane Accidents

Cranes can be awe-inspiring, but they can also be very dangerous when used incorrectly. From 2011 to 2015, there were 220 workers killed in crane accidents nationwide, an average of 44 a year, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI).

In 69 of these fatalities (31%), the worker was struck by a falling object or piece of equipment. The danger of falling object accidents while working with cranes is still a danger today. In April 2019, New York construction worker Gregory Echevarria was killed by a falling crane counterweight.

The statistics reveal that workers must keep their guard up at all times when working on or near cranes. Of the fatal crane accidents studied by CFOI, 22% of workers were operating the crane at the time the accident occurred. Interestingly, another 22% of cases studied occurred when erecting, assembling or dismantling the crane.

In a separate study of the causes of nationwide crane accidents from 1994 to 2006, it was found that more than 30% of studied crane fatalities were caused by electrocution. When working with a powerful machine like a crane, which involves heavy loads, powerful machinery and high elevations, following safety protocol is important at every step of construction.

Working safely with cranes requires specialized knowledge, thorough training and attention to detail. Here are a few ways to prevent crane accidents:

  • Inspect the crane daily; this should be done by a 'competent person' who knows what potential crane defects to look for, and who has the authority to correct them
  • Maintain at least a 20-foot distance from active power lines; have the lines de-energized if this isn't possible
  • Never exceed the maximum lifting capacity stated by the manufacturer
  • Barricade areas under where heavy loads are being lifted to avoid falling object accidents
  • If the line of sight of the operator is compromised, use a spotter to guide the load and crane jib
  • Ensure all rigging and crane operation is only done by workers who have been thoroughly trained

If you are working on a construction site with a crane and you have questions about site safety or the way the crane is being operated or maintained, don't be afraid to speak up. Lives could depend on it.

Caught-in/-between Accidents

Although caught-in/-between accidents are one of OSHA's Fatal Four (responsible for 50 or 5.1% of American construction fatalities in 2017), these accidents are not always well-understood. Broadly speaking, a caught-in/-between accident is when a worker is crushed, compressed, or caught between two or more objects. These types of accidents can occur anywhere on a construction site, at any time.

OSHA identifies three primary hazards that can lead to construction workers being killed in a caught-in/-between accident:

  • Trench cave-ins
  • Being pulled into machinery, such as if a machine grabs onto a piece of loose clothing
  • Being compressed between moving objects, such as the hopper on the back of a garbage truck

It's clear that this is a broad category with many potential hazards and ways to prevent those hazards from causing construction accidents. First, here are ways to avoid trench or excavation collapses:

  • Construct proper protective systems for any trench deeper than five feet
  • Regularly inspect the trench for defects such as bulging or cracking of trench walls or signs of water
  • Be mindful where you place excess dirt and heavy machinery, as having too much weight near the walls of a trench can cause the soil to shift and the trench to collapse

And here are ways to avoid caught-in/-between accidents involving heavy machinery:

  • Ensure machinery is turned off before performing inspections or repairs
  • When possible, never use machines that are not properly guarded (such as a saw)
  • Pre-plan the path that a forklift or other vehicle will take, and share with all employees
  • Always use proper lockout and tagout procedure to ensure that machines which are turned off do not have any stored energy which could cause them to turn back on unexpectedly

As with any of the other common causes of construction accidents, caught-in/-between accidents can happen at any time if workers are not properly trained to identify and avoid potential hazards. With thorough and regular safety training, however, these accidents can be avoided, and workers can do their jobs safely and efficiently without having to worry about being seriously injured or even killed while trying to earn a paycheck.

Creating a Safe Workplace and Preventing Common Construction Accidents

A construction site can be a dangerous place if employers do not take the time to thoroughly train workers so that they can identify common causes of construction accidents and how to prevent them.

The causes of construction accidents covered on this page are only a small number of the types of construction accidents that can cause workers to be seriously injured or killed. When employers fail to plan ahead and give construction workers the training they need, the results can be devastating.

At Block O'Toole & Murphy, we have successfully litigated many kinds of construction accidents, such as:

If you or someone you love have been injured in a construction accident, call 212-736-5300 or fill out our contact form to receive a free, no-obligation legal consultation.

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