Timber – Falling Beam Strikes Worker


Expertise Includes:

    • Construction Falls & Incidents
    • Premises Liability - Pedestrian Falls
    • Safety & Risk Management
    • Codes & Standards Analysis
    • Slip, Trip, and Fall

As an experienced safety consultant, I have investigated many serious injuries and deaths at construction sites over the past 39 years. The United States Department of Labor reports that the fatal injury rate for the construction industry is highest of all industries in the nation. Out of 4,386 worker fatalities in private industry in calendar year 2014, 899 or 20.5% were in construction i.e., one in five worker deaths were in construction.

In a case I worked, multiple contractors were working as part of a demolition and repair project for storm damage to buildings and structures at a school. A worker was walking from the parking lot when an 18-foot steel beam fell and struck him. The injured worker’s hard hat most likely saved his life. The beam fell because it was cut at ground level by a worker employed by another contractor.

Figure 1: A view of a tornado-damaged steel column cut down at ground level with a band saw.

A view of a tornado-damaged steel column cut down at ground level with a band saw.

The safety plan for taking down the beam included a safety monitor observing the work and work area. Initially, the safety monitor was sitting on a telescoping forklift watching another employee using a portable band saw to cut the beam. The safety monitor got off the forklift and took over the sawing operation when the first employee became fatigued. The fatigued employee did not assume any duties at that point. When the beam started falling, other workers in the area yelled at the walking worker, but the worker could not react in time.

A close-up view of the steel column.

A close-up view of the steel column.

The Safety Plan for taking down the beam was flawed in several respects:

1.   A safety monitor should not have any responsibilities that would prevent him from monitoring the assigned area and providing appropriate warnings to prevent an accident. Using a band saw prevented the safety monitor from observing the area.

OSHA 1926.502 Subpart M, Fall Protection states:

The “Safety Monitor” shall have no other responsibilities which could take the monitor’s attention from the monitoring function.

2.   The safety monitor was not trained.

       The employer shall assure that each employee has been trained, as necessary, by a competent person qualified in the following areas:

      The role of each employee in the safety monitoring system when this system is used;

3.   The safety plan for the column cutting operation was not announced and appropriate warnings were not discussed at the morning safety meeting.

4.   No barricades around the beam cutting area were provided such as with simple barrier tape, which would have alerted and warned other workers, reducing the possibility of workers entering the area.

5.   Another safety alternative would have been to lasso the post to a telescoping forklift or other heavy equipment located at the site and have a slow controlled let down.

Useful references for safety procedures applicable to demolition and construction projects can be found in OSHA 1926 and in ANSI A10.6, titled Safety and Health Program Requirements for Demolition Operations.

A view of the ground where the column was cut.

A view of the ground where the column was cut.

The injured worker was criticized for walking into the area and not hearing or noticing the band saw cutting operation. However, it is difficult to pinpoint sound sources on a noisy construction site. In addition, he was not walking in the direction of the cutting but across in front of the operation.

If a proper safety plan compliant with applicable codes and standards had been developed, communicated and carried out by trained employees, it is highly unlikely the incident would have occurred.

J. Steven Hunt, CPCU, ARM, is the senior safety consultant at Warren. Steve 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 39-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.

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