As an experienced safety consultant, I have investigated many incidents in my career in which a worker “falls through an opening.” The majority of these incidents have occurred at construction sites and most of the ones I investigated resulted in a serious injury or death.
Most construction projects are run by a general contractor who subcontracts out a majority of the work to other companies representing a number of different trades such as framing, masonry, plumbing, sheetrock, finish work, electrical, etc. This is common in commercial and residential building construction.
With multiple subcontractors and many employees entering and exiting a construction site for the purpose of completing numerous ongoing tasks, it is easy to see how coordination and control of all activities including safety is typically not a simple process. Herein lies one reason why many openings are not properly covered.
In this incident, a plumber’s employee with the job of setting-up the roughed in plumbing for testing fell through an open hole. The hole was located on the second floor of a high end residential home that under construction. This worker had not been to the site previously as the rough plumbing (i.e. running all piping per plan) had been done by other employees in his company prior to his visit. The building code requires a pressure leak test of all the drain, waste and vents (DWV) in new construction prior to the installation of fixtures. The employee’s job was to install air gauges, pressurize the system and check for leaks and leave the equipment in place for the upcoming building inspection.
No sheetrock had been installed at this time on the second floor so it was easy to walk through the studs to gain access to upper rooms which had plywood sub-flooring installed. The inspector walked into a section of the house which was to be a storage room with pull down attic stairs. Lighting was poor and he carried a flashlight with his equipment. Unbeknownst to him the framers has cut a hole in the floor for the pull down attic stairs to be installed, as was required by the plan, however they didn’t cover it. Typically, pull down attic stairs are installed after the sheetrock is installed.
The plumber didn’t see the hole and fell completely through it striking the floor nine feet below. He suffered back and neck injuries as well as alleged to have suffered brain damage.
The general contractor had no employees of his own and was subbing out all the work. It was reported he rarely visited the site and had provided no safety program or requirements for any subs to conduct any safety activities.
The most obvious question asked in an investigation of this type is “Why was this opening or hole not properly covered?” Here are some findings I have discovered in this investigations and others:
- Sub-contractors are often focused on their own work and are unfamiliar with and / or don’t think about the operations of other contractors and trades working on the job with them.
- A lack of communication and coordination of activities i.e. comings and goings or scheduling.
- A lack of pre-planning for responsibility and safety. In this case, there was no plan regarding who was responsible for covering holes.
It was my opinion that the framers should have properly covered the hole immediately after cutting the opening. It was also my opinion that the general contractor on this job provided limited control over the operations and should have organized and communicated a safety program and responsibilities such that this incident could have been prevented.
After the incident plywood covering was placed over the opening but this does
not comply with OSHA standards. I will discuss the requirements in future blogs.
In coming blogs, I will report on several of the more significant fall through opening incidents I have investigated in my career and dissect what happened, what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent these tragic incidents from occurring.
J. Steven Hunt, CPCU, ARM, is senior safety consultant at Warren. Steve, who specializes in premises liability incidents, construction falls and safety management programs, has achieved the designation of Associate Risk Management and Chartered Property and Liability Underwriter from Insurance Institute of America, Chicago, IL. Steve has investigated more than 1,000 accidents in his more than 35-year career, including 33 cases involving fatalities. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Administrative Management with a Minor in Occupational Safety and Health from Clemson University.