A plumber, working at a jobsite hoisting pipes from ground level to a higher storage point on a steel building, steps backward off a pipe and falls 12 feet to the ground, striking his head. He dies.

His company is cited by the Occupational, Health, and Safety Administration (OSHA) for one serious violation. OSHA also recommends the following actions:

  • Employers must require the wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment (safety belts) wherever employees are exposed to hazardous conditions.

  • The derrick or erection floor must be solidly planked or decked over its entire surface except for access openings.

  • A safety railing of half-inch wire rope or of equal strength must be installed approximately 42 inches high around the periphery of all temporary-planked or temporary metal-decked floors of tier buildings and other multifloored structures during structural steel assembly.

    If these safety measures had been in place, the 39-year-old plumber may be alive today. The company he worked for had a safety program in place, a safety monitor on site, and the site was regularly inspected. Even the best-laid plans of any company - such as this one - can go awry if a safety plan is not followed to the letter.

    Safety Is Always First

    HVAC contractors face similar situations every day. Workers installing or servicing rooftop units are exposed to the dangers of falls from elevated heights. Do all of these workers know the dangers of working on elevated buildings, and do they take the necessary precautions to ensure safety every step of the way?

    Not only can the results of an accident be devastating to the victims and their families, but they can cost the employers in increased insurance premiums, lost production time, and costly lawsuits. In truth, so many accidents are easily preventable.

    Sometimes accidents can be prevented by simply slowing down and not trying to rush to the next job. And other times accidents can be avoided by being less macho.

    "Most often workers view the short cuts as justified to gain productivity," said Matt Prazenka, vice president of operations for American Weathermakers Inc., Northbrook, Ill. "You have to share with them - and especially the younger ones - that an injury or accident is not acceptable under any circumstance."

    Photo by John R. Hall.

    Put A Plan In Place

    Having a safety plan and sticking to it is one thing; having no plan is another. The bottom line: Contractors need to have a safety plan in place and a person to administer it.

    "We do have a company safety policy in place," said William Fraser, sales manager for FrasAir/Service Experts, Manville, N.J. "We also have a monthly training program on safety issues, as well as toolbox talks. I am presently in charge of the safety committee."

    As part of its 10-hour Construction Training Program, OSHA offers a presentation entirely devoted to fall protection. The program includes a PowerPoint presentation emphasizing hazard identification, avoidance, and control, plus information on how to order training materials (www.osha.gov).

    Ron Newman of Lakes PHC Inc., Spirit Lake, Iowa, said his company has a specific program and keeps it updated.

    "I do have a safety program and a designated safety officer with specific responsibilities of arranging safety meetings and certifications, such as forklift safety," he said. "We use our insurance carrier loss control representative to train as well."

    Like accidental falls, forklift accidents are very common and can lead to serious injury and death. According to OSHA, using forklifts results in over 100 fatalities and over 35,000 serious injuries each year. When used incorrectly, or if forklifts and other trucks are not properly maintained, they can do significant damage.

    Even using a forklift in a confined or unventilated workplace can lead to injuries and death due to high levels of carbon monoxide (CO). It is easy to see that safety training on forklifts, as well as working at heights above six feet, can be complex and multidimensional.

    Mandatory attendance at training sessions is often a company requirement. "We have one person in our company who is responsible for safety training, etc.," said Ellen Grzetic, office service manager for Air Comfort Corp., Broadview, Ill.

    "We also have safety meetings each quarter. It is mandatory that all of our field personnel attend these meetings."

    Prazenka was more emphatic.

    "Those that fail to have a safety program are just playing Russian roulette with an automatic pistol," he said. "They will pay the price in frequency and severity."

    Progress Is Being Made

    The picture is not all bleak. Employees are paying attention to the warning signs. The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, show a 7.1 percent decrease in reported workplace accidents from 2002 to 2003.

    Despite that, the BLS reported that a total of 4.4 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses occurred in private industry workplaces during 2003, resulting in a rate of 5 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers.

    There is still a long way to go, but compliance is being made mandatory by employers.

    "We have a safety director - me - and a committee of supervisors and field people who review all incidents quarterly," said Prazenka. "We ask for feedback, accident review, and near misses with ideas on what to avoid and good safety practices from all employees.

    "Every employee has the right to say no to a job or procedure if they feel at risk. We have said no more than one time to methods proposed from the sales staff. Training is an ongoing program - at least six classes a year. We believe in an in-your-face program with constant reinforcement."

    John McCarthy, owner of McCarthy's One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning in Omaha, Neb., summed up the safety topic, "This is one that our industry needs to hear about and make sure they protect themselves."

    Publication date: 10/24/2005