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Construction Safety

Eliminate the Practice, Eliminate the Claim

TJ Lyons | March 29, 2024

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Construction worker sitting on the ground at a construction site.

We are not making progress in saving lives in construction. The solution is to focus on the stupid things we allow in the workplace that hurt or kill our workers. Following are my thoughts and frustrations with our construction industry and, yes, the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA).

Stop Focusing Blame on the Worker

Recently retired, I have been working part-time with attorneys to prepare their cases for litigation. My expertise is offering what could have prevented the condition that hurt or killed the worker. A common theme from defense, a worker (not leadership) making a bad decision, got their company in trouble. When there is an incident, it's often the worker who is blamed.

That need to apply fault is ingrained in the English language and in our workplace. See my 2022 article, "In Construction Safety, Language Matters," citing a TED talk by Lera Boroditsky, "How Language Shapes the Way We Think." In it, she describes English speakers' inherent blame bias. It's fascinating and well worth a listen.

Look through some of your construction incident reports and you will recognize this English-centric tendency.

  • "… at that point Tony let go of the rope, breaking his arm."
  • "Holding the saw with one hand, Tony cut through his glove, taking off two fingers."
  • "Tony fell off the ladder, breaking his wrist."
  • "Tony was carrying a bag of sand down the stairs and broke his ankle as he fell."

During an audit of a machine shop, I asked for a copy of a blank accident report. In that form, there were 11 "root causes" provided for the investigator to choose from. Nine were related to "worker inattention," "worker fatigue," "the worker not being aware of surroundings," and a host of other options assigning blame to the worker—not the tool provided or the conditions the worker had to work in.

Look Closely at the Equipment Provided

There are two main barriers to success in construction: the immovable safety systems of construction firms and the tendency to perform tasks the same way they have always been done. Here are four changes you can make today to eliminate claim reviews tomorrow.

Eliminate Construction Stilts

It's time to stop using stilts. There is a personal cost in asking workers to use stilts: the severity of a fall. When you fall strapped into stilts, you often fall into the emergency room. A study in Washington State found the following.

  • 24 percent of all claims are compensable with a median of 24 lost workdays
  • 37 percent of all stilt-related claims resulted in a median of 73 lost workdays 1

A common reason for a fall from stilts is debris or material on the floor, and often, it's the taper who is injured and drops "mud" resulting in the slip.

Stilts resting against installed drywall at construction site

Photo by TJ Lyons (Risk at Rest)

For more motivation to remove stilts from your worksite, consider a recent New York case resulting in a $3.45 million settlement for a 38-year-old union taper.

While taping drywall and the ceilings on stilts, he slipped on debris left on the floor and fell sustaining injuries of his lower back and left knee. He underwent a left knee surgery shortly after the accident. After conservative treatment for his lower back injuries and several epidural injections, he underwent a lumbar fusion surgery. The settlement occurred shortly before the scheduled trial date. 2

When an attorney asks me to provide "legal leverage" for a stilt injury, I offer them the following.

  • California—subchapter 4 Article 21. "(j) Prohibited Types of Scaffolds. Lean-to or jack scaffolds, shore scaffolds, nailed brackets, loose tile, loose brick, loose blocks, stilts, or other similar unstable objects shall not be used as working platforms, or for the support of such platforms. See Plate B-40, Appendix."
  • Massachusetts—section 129B. "Whoever, being engaged in construction work, requires or knowingly permits any person employed by him in such work to use certain devices, commonly called stilts, designed to be attached to the feet or legs of such employee for the purpose of elevating him to high placed or positioned work, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $500 for the first offense, by a fine of not more than $3,000 for the second offense, and by a fine of not more than $5,000 for any subsequent offense."
  • Connecticut—01 35 26 B. "The use of stilts for gaining additional height in construction, renovation, repair or maintenance work is PROHIBITED." [Emphasis in original.]
Man working on stills at a commercial construction site

Photo by TJ Lyons

I once lobbied to get stilts removed from worksites based on the threat to our workers. Driving my passion were the catastrophic injuries that result from these falls. Watching a worker at the top of a set of stairs was my tipping point. The corporate response was to consider limiting the height of the stilts. I recognized the barrier, and the barrier was us.

Eliminate Ladders in Construction

When Ladders Last was developed in 2009, it took a decade to make its way into the workplace. 3 If you are still relying on ladders to perform work, and someone falls, you will lose in litigation. There are numerous options to access heights. Ladders, like ashtrays, need to be put away.

One of the more common criticisms of Ladders Last is, "Without a ladder, how am I going to get above a ceiling?" We are well past that point. If a person is safely in a lift and inside a railing, then they can't fall.

Stairs in a commercial building with a ladder above them to fix ceiling tiles

Photo by TJ Lyons (Common Access)

My concern over ladder falls is outlined in the case below resulting from an accident in 2007. (Not only did the ladder cause the fall, our reliance on the conventional hard hat likely contributed to his traumatic brain injury. If he was wearing a helmet strapped to his head, that would have helped. More on that later.)

After a trial court found that a construction worker's fall from a ladder at a New York worksite fell within the ambit of NY Labor Law 240(1), a New York County jury proceeded to award $13 million to the worker for his injuries resulting from the fall. 4

One of the largest general contractors in New York City was suffering from frequent ladder falls. The decision was made to move from Ladders Last to No More Ladders. Reportedly, there was significant pushback from the field. However, the ladders were removed from the projects. Since the ladders were removed, there has not been a fall from a ladder.

Make Well Wheel or Gin Wheel Pulleys Safe

Per Google, the first written record of pulleys dates to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia in 1500 BCE, where "ancient peoples" were using ropes and pulleys for hoisting. We still do that, borrowing the same style of the free-wheeling pulley used on our clotheslines … and on construction sites. This practice is dangerous and overlooked.

Some may say, "I have yet to have a pulley accident." My answer? When attorneys advertise their 12 common reasons for accidents, "pulleys" are listed, and it's time to pay attention. 5

In a recent accident in New York City, a load being raised fell on the worker pulling on the hoisting rope. He tripped as he backed up, let go of the rope, and was hit by the material. Comedic, yes, but completely avoidable.

OSHA does not have any requirements for brakes on this freewheeling system, yet devices to prevent these incidents are available. Like a seat belt, a pulley brake engages when the load unexpectedly moves by providing a mechanism allowing the worker hauling on the rope to safely rest or change their grip by letting go of the rope.

When I shared the photo below of a free-wheeling pulley on an NYC skyscraper with federal safety professionals, their reply was, "I didn't know we were still doing that." The US Army Corps of Engineers recognizes the hazard in their "engineering manual" directing construction safety requirements. They call out to "not use cranks on hand-powered winches or hoists unless the hoists or winches are provided with self-locking dogs." 6

hoist on a side of a building and free-wheeling pulley on a rooftop

Photos by TJ Lyons

A claim from New York City should provide motivation to eliminate free-wheeling pullies on projects and install safe ones.

After nearly 6 hours of intense negotiations, Mr. Sitinas was not only able to secure a significant $15,000,000 settlement for his client, but he also convinced the defendants to waive a Worker's Compensation lien of approximately $390,000. 7

There is a solution: When working overseas, I had seen brakes on pulleys, so I asked for one to play with. The one shipped had a design that slowly lowers the load until you regain control of the rope. Reports from the field were these devices can wear the rope over time, and that's a concern. Leach's makes an innovative pulley called the BIGBEN, which is sold across the world and is now seen here in the United States. I like this design because it cannot damage the rope ever. See Securpulley Auto Braking Gin Wheel.

As I try to get free-wheeling pullies in the United States eliminated, the idea of "Lyonetics" 8 stands out. If we "hope" workers will make the right choice 100 percent of the time, and the conditions they work in are always safe, we will be forever disappointed in the outcome. Such devices like a brake in a pulley provide a rare fail-safe condition in the field. I like that.

When I spoke with Leach's about getting more of these to the United States, they gave me some feedback: "Lifting and lowering operations will never go away, and there are risks associated with this every day. Despite having exclusion zones or well-trained staff, there are always exceptions to other multiple risks, and the BIGBEN braked pulley covers this with its controllable descent braking mechanism."

Man on scaffolding using a BIGBEN braked pulley system

"BIGBEN" photo provided by Leach's and used with permission.

The more progressive US construction firms put clear language in a contract, such as:

Hand-powered pullies like gin or well wheels must be equipped with an internal mechanism that automatically holds a load as it ascends or descends if the rope is released. The use of free-wheeling pulleys is prohibited.

Use Helmets, Not Hard Hats

For over a century, we thought the "hard hat" was a great place to put stickers and keep your head dry. But it's not really head protection, it's just a hard hat. If you have resisted the idea of moving from conventional hard hats to helmets, shame on you. It's common knowledge that this generation of workers must be wearing helmets that stay on in a fall to protect worker heads when the worker hits something harder. 9

OSHA recognizes the frequency of head injuries and the traumatic brain injuries that often are a by-product of a simple fall. It recently stated:

Employers should evaluate workplace hazards to determine the most appropriate head protection for each situation. If head protection is needed for the job, employers should consider investing in better head protection with safety helmets to better protect their workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, head injuries accounted for 5.8 percent of nonfatal occupational injuries involving days away from work. 10

Now, here's my frustration. Last fall, OSHA released a comparison of helmets to the old hard hat so that employees are best protected against occupational head injuries, acknowledging that hard hats can easily fall off when not properly tightened and that helmets stay on during a slip, trip, or fall, even without the chin strap fastened.

OSHA then announced that it would replace "traditional" hard hats with helmets for OSHA staff:

OSHA wants employers to make safety and health a core value in their workplaces and is committed to doing the same by leading by example and embracing the evolution of head protection. 11

However, rather than step up and require the immediate replacement of inadequate hard hats, OSHA has left that up to the users.


If you're an insurer or contractor, take the time today to step up and make some changes; don't wait for OSHA to direct a change. You have been provided with steps you can take today to make your sites safer and, yes, increase your profits as injuries, claims, and litigation stop.

Remember: eliminate the practice, and you eliminate the claim.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.


1 Carolyn Whitaker, Stilts Injuries in Construction, Professional Safety, American Society of Safety Professionals, September 2006.
2 "Verdicts and Settlements: Results Matter," Law Offices of James J. McCrorie, P.C., accessed on March 27, 2024.
3 TJ Lyons, "Construction Safety Stickiness: Labels Matter," IRMI, October 4, 2019.
4 Jonathan Cooper, "NY County Jury Awards Worker $13 Million after Fall from Ladder," Law Offices of Jonathan M. Cooper, accessed on March 27, 2024.
6 "Section 13: Hand and Power Tools" US Army Corps of Engineers, section 13.A.08, EM 385-1-1 XX Jul 14.
7 "Verdicts and Settlements: Construction Worker Paralyzed" Stavros E. Sitinas, LLC, Verdicts & Settlements, accessed on March 27, 2024.
8 Lyonetics is my theory that you must remove the worker from making any safety decisions so that protecting workers from any injury is the answer.
9 TJ Lyons, "What's with These New Hard Hats?," IRMI, August 9, 2019.
10 "Head Protection: Safety Helmets in the Workplace," Safety and Health Information Bulletin, US Department of Labor, OSHA, Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management, November 22, 2023.
11 "OSHA Switches from Traditional Hard Hats to Safety Helmets for Employees," National Ground Water Association, December 13, 2023.