Almost a quarter of on-the-job fatalities in construction occur in residential work. Four hazards – falls, contact with objects, exposure to harmful substances and vehicle impacts – cause 93 percent of these fatalities, and a variety of other hazards contribute to home building’s many serious injuries.
Lack of Regulation, Training
Despite all the dangers, residential construction usually is not well-regulated by OSHA because the projects are often small-scale, the work moves quickly and projects are complete before inspectors even become aware of them. Unfortunately, safety problems are often documented only after serious injuries or fatalities occur. This is particularly unfortunate because home building is a gateway to construction work, so many of the workers are inexperienced with construction hazards. Further, because the sector is largely non-union, formal skill and safety training is rare, and on-the-job training is the norm. As a result, safety training really depends on the orientation, knowledge and ability of onsite supervisors, a factor that can vary tremendously from project to project.
Some of the more common safety concerns are reviewed below. The LHSFNA publishes a number of health alerts that address residential construction hazards, including Aerial Lift Safety, Back Injuries, Choosing Safer Handtools, Confined Spaces, Electrical Safety (for non-electricians), Excavations/Trench Hazards, Falls from Heights, Hand Injuries, Heat Stress, Ladder Safety, Noise, Safe Work with Power Saws and Working Safely with Portland Cement. These are available through the LHSFNA online publications catalogue. Sprain and strain resources are also available. Click Ergonomics and Construction.
Falls are most common among workers erecting or installing roofs, but they also can occur at the ground level if a worker slips through the floor joists and falls into the basement. If foundation forms rise above ground level, workers can fall off of them, and the form itself can topple if it is not properly braced. Falls are accompanied by the danger of impalement on rebar, anchor bolts or stakes below.
Poor housekeeping, a common problem in small scale operations, also leads to many trips and slips. Debris can also complicate materials handling which, in residential construction, is ofen done manually, without forklifts or cranes. As a result, sprain and strain injuries are a common concern.
Excavation work carries the danger of soil collapse and must be carefully monitored by a competent person trained to assess and manage the hazards. Also, during foundation erection, workers must recognize the possibility of creating a confined space which could trap toxic vapors from foundation sealants.
Cement work exposes workers to the caustic effects of Portland cement. Workers must wear impermeable boots and gloves and avoid skin contact. Employers must provide adequate wash facilities, including clean water and pH-neutral soap. Recently, OSHA issued a directive to its inspectors requiring them to pay particular attention to the enforcement of sanitation standards on sites where cement work is in progress.
Another issue of increasing concern in residential construction is the now-common use of nail guns. Most have an automatic trigger position that fires the gun on contact with any object. Serious wounds and even deaths have resulted from accidental contacts with a hand or a brush with a co-worker. It is much safer to use the sequential trigger position which requires contact with a surface and a trigger squeeze. No one should use this powerful tool without training and practice. It is vital to follow manufacturers’ procedures and to keep them well-maintained. Workers should always wear safety glasses and hearing protection, too.
Weather can greatly increase the dangers on home building sites. Rain makes everything slippery, and high winds can blow workers off roofs. Wind makes spreading roof sheathing particularly hazardous because it can catch the sheathing and knock workers off the structure. Lightening can also strike roofers who are out in the open and above terrain level. Hot weather presents the risk of heat stress, so adequate supplies of water to prevent dehydration must be available.