As an experienced safety consultant, I have investigated many incidents in which a worker falls through an opening. The majority of these types of fall incidents have occurred at construction sites and most 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 roofing, 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 an incident I investigated, a roofing laborer fell 14 feet through an opening at the interior of a balcony. He suffered a serious brain injury. Prior to starting work that day, the owner of the roofing subcontractor found that another subcontractor had left scaffolding in place in the area and it was not being used. The opportunistic owner of the roofing firm decided to use the scaffolding, without permission, as a work platform to install roofing underlayment on the edge of the balcony roof.
The owner instructed his laborer to work from the elevated balcony to unroll and cut the material to requested lengths and to hand it up to the roofer, who was working off the scaffolding, installing it. In the process of unrolling and cutting, the laborer lost sight of the balcony edge, slipped and fell off the open side, landing on construction debris located on the ground underneath. Falling onto debris often results in greater injury than falling onto the ground.
This second floor balcony had no guardrails or barrier system to prevent workers from falling to the lower level at the time of the incident. By the time of my inspection, a standard railing was installed on the interior of the balcony where he fell. The exterior area of the deck was still not guarded and no warning was posted. The interior opening through which the roofing laborer fell measured 149 inches by 111 inches. At the time of my inspection, I, along with other construction workers, had complete, uncontested access to the area. Working on this balcony with unprotected sides and no fall protection is a violation of OSHA standards. While the employer was cited by OSHA in this incident, the General Contractor was found to be lacking in providing overall safety management and provision of a safe worksite.
The following OSHA regulations address fall hazard protection and prevention on construction projects and they are applicable to this incident.
OSHA 1926.501, “Duty to have fall protection” states in part:
1926.501(b) (1) “Unprotected sides and Edges.” Each employee on a walking/working surface (Horizontal and vertical) with an unprotected side or edge which is 6 feet (1.8 m) or more above a lower level shall be protected from falling by the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems.
OSHA 1926.500(b), states:
Guardrail system means a barrier erected to prevent employees from falling to lower levels.
Hole means a gap or void 2 inches (5.1 cm) or more in its least dimension, in a floor, roof, or other walking/working surface.
Lower levels means those areas or surfaces to which an employee can fall. Such areas or surfaces include, but are not limited to, ground levels, floors, platforms, ramps, runways, excavations, pits, tanks, material, water, equipment, structures, or portions thereof.
Opening means a gap or void 30 inches (76 cm) or more high and 18 inches (48 cm) or more wide, in a wall or partition, through which employees can fall to a lower level.
Unprotected sides and edges means any side or edge (except at entrances to points of access) of a walking/working surface, e.g., floor, roof, ramp, or runway where there is no wall or guardrail system at least 39 inches (1.0 m) high.
Work area means that portion of a walking/working surface where job duties are being performed.
J. Steven Hunt, CPCU, ARM, is president and 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 38-year career, including 35 cases involving fatalities. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Administrative Management with a Minor in Occupational Safety and Health from Clemson University.