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Construction Safety

In Construction, Stay Away from Moving Things That Kill

TJ Lyons | April 26, 2019

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Construction workers shaking hands

Recently, I read about the deaths of four construction workers in the February 2019 issue of Engineering News Record in an article titled "Fourth Fatality on I-4 Revamp Adds to Skanska's P3 Woes." Each of the deaths was understandable and avoidable. Energy and Environmental Design certification plaques and platitudes are awarded to building owners for their trendsetting structures, yet workers died constructing them. We have come to a point in the United States where such deaths merely "add to woes."

This article examines conditions to look for, motivations to understand, and changes to implement to save lives. It's a simple—but profound—change in how we approach construction work. Simple ideas can be effective. Recall the idea of moving away from using ladders? During the "Ladders Last" efforts in the United States, my manager said, "But what about the ladder industry?" However, the ladder industry soon started developing smarter, safer ladders. You now see platform or pulpit-type ladders on projects. These are often the only ladders allowed. We are an adaptive industry, but first, we need to recognize there's a problem and admit it's time for a change.

Following are some of the problems that get good people killed, blunt discussions on what we are doing today, and changes I will be advocating. There is no reason to go to work and die.

Recognize Dangerous Motivations and Assumptions

A common human behavior is the desire to be near the action. When there is a backhoe digging, most of the team will be leaning on shovels looking into the excavation to see what will come up. Like construction toys in the sandbox and Bob the Builder on TV, it's fun to play around and watch heavy equipment, oblivious to the dangers.

It's also common to assume that an injured worker caused his or her own injury. In one of the deaths highlighted in the I-4 story, the cause was attributed to worker error. He "died after not following instructions." Further on it stated, "This marks at least the second time that a project fatality involved worker error." The first step to reducing deaths on a project is to stop blaming the worker performing the work. It's rarely the worker making a bad decision that gets him or her killed; it's the setting allowed or tools provided that causes the accident.

The New Guy and "Yes Boss" Syndromes

We must recognize and understand the existence of the "Yes, Boss" and "New Guy" syndromes. First, a new guy example. On our dairy farm, my nephew Mark decided he wanted to spend the summer working, so we gave him a job. Now my sisters and brothers could throw about 1,000 bales of hay up 15 feet into the loft all day long. On his first day, Mark wanted to prove his worth and threw about 100 bales before we had him stop (he was tossing up breakfast) and drove him to the hospital for heat exhaustion. The point is we had to stop him. He wanted to prove worthy for he was the new guy.

In addition to new employees being, well, new, there is the fact that most will want to be SEEN as valuable and SEEN working. Without asking, the novice will put his hand on the steel that is coming down. He is that guy needlessly shoveling little bits of soil from around the auger as a hole is drilled. Experienced guys will step back and let the machine do its thing, then grab the shovel. They know the dangers of "equipment intimacy." I suspect this factor was one of the incident contributors in the article. Though the fellow was told to get off the truck being unloaded, "soon though [he] was back on the trailer."

The "Yes, Boss" culture is often seen but rarely discussed. It is another contributor to construction worker deaths. Many workers who consider themselves blessed to have a job and fortunate to be providing for a family will be reluctant to say, "I'm not sure that's a great idea, boss," for there are other workers out there ready to fill their shoes without complaining.

Recognize the Dangers Associated with Energy

Related to above is how Dr. William Haddon recognized the tie between energy and injury. The accumulation or presence of energy is the threat to man. Remove the energy or reduce what is released to lessen the effect. We do a poor job of corralling this energy in construction.

One example involves accidents involving battery-powered tools. Pull the trigger, and they "fire." When we had a rash of accidents involving these tools, we made a concerted effort to remove the batteries when transporting these tools. As a direct result, the incidents stopped, for the energy was removed.

Another example is the common use of "spotters" next to machines we know have the capacity to kill. This is commonly done with rough-terrain forklifts where, due to the design of the machine, the operator cannot see to the right. Spotters are used to alert operators of dangers in their blind spot. Naturally, this puts them in close proximity to the forklift and, consequently, in danger. Rather than separate man from machine, injury from energy, we turn workers into potential victims and call it a "best practice." Unsure this is a threat? Take a look at the incident I ran across today and some of the photos below.

Concrete Pumper Truck - Lyons - April 2019

Placing a person among things made of steel is folly, and we should expect the outcome. There are plenty of examples, including a recent death of a spotter in Delaware (see Josephine Peterson, "Construction Worker Fatally Struck by Concrete Pumper Truck Identified," Delaware News Journal, February 20, 2019). The use of a spotter, like the fellow shown in the photo above and those below, must become as large a decision as deciding to enter a confined space.

Truck Bed Fails During Unloading - Lyons - April 2019

Truck bed fails during unloading—the spotter was on the far side speaking with the driver.

Rough-Terrain Fork Truck - Lyons - April 2019

In this photo, the engineer has his back to the machine while he is speaking with the safety manager, and the site superintendent is in the operator's blind spot. The site risk is increased by the rough-terrain fork truck, the poor design of which does not allow the operator to see to his right.

One Solution—The "Stop and Give Me 20" Program

In 2006, I was working in the Bay Area, and we had several incidents of man versus machine. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls these "struck-by" accidents. When we envision these, we see a person getting hit by a loader. In reality, it's a worker getting hit by energy. In fact, one of the fatalities discussed in the I-4 article above was a struck-by accident. All the worker did was step out of a porta-john, and he got hit by passing machinery. Is this a common occurrence? I likely have 10 photographs of the same condition.

In discussing such accidents, my operations manager for the region, Danny Cook, said, "Can't we just keep people away from machines when they are working?" That was Dr. Haddon's point exactly, and the idea of "Stop and Give Me 20" was born. Basically, it means give dangerous machinery a 20-foot berth.

We started looking at the problem of people on foot competing with machines for space on a site. In one example, Mr. Cook and I walked a project nearing completion. Trees were being planted with a huge tree spade. These truck mounted shovels are massive and spend most of their time backing up. When a tree was planted, a second crew rushed in working around this tree spade to spread mulch. We saw what was going on and stopped the mulching until the trees were planted. Then the skid-steers ran across the site dumping mulch where needed. No one was on the ground. No one could get hit. When the equipment was gone, the hand-crews returned with their rakes and spread the mulch. There was no way for someone to get struck by a machine because the energy had been removed.

Did it affect the work? No. We sequenced the task so everyone could keep working—just not around things that kill people.

Dump Truck Spotter Not Looking - Lyons - April 2019

This spotter is looking elsewhere as a load is dumping next to him. Using the "Stop and Give Me 20" approach, he would be 20 feet away from the dumping truck, removed from the energy and the injury.

Construction Tips and Ideas for Avoiding Accidents

  • Take the first step today and start a "Stop and "Give me 20" program. On construction sites, tell EVERY operator that if someone is within 20 feet of where he or she is working—stop. When that person is further than 20 feet away, the operator can start again. This will slow down the project until the team members realize they need to stay away from what will kill them.
  • When you start to move people away from machines, you must first be ready to answer "What's in this for me?" Saying "it's safer" is nice, but stating they will be able to work faster without others working in the area—that's the answer. Drive the efficiency of change, and you will get safety by default.
  • Publicly recognize those who remind their buddies to stay 20 feet away from threats and soon this will be a trend.
  • Consider the threat when you introduce a spotter to a construction site. A great focus for Safety Week is to embrace and start coaching the idea of separating man from machine.
  • Work closely with your vendors who are selling wearable sensors. In my perfect safety world of Lyonetics, if someone walks within 20 feet of a moving machine, an alarm sounds, and the equipment comes to a halt. We have this technology in our cars—let's get it into the field.
  • Think about where people are walking, and separate those areas from where people are driving. On one of our sites, they set up clear lanes for people (fenced) and where traffic does need to cross, operators know to stop and allow workers to pass. This can be accomplished, but first, it needs to be planned.
  • The United States must start charging firms and those supervising the work civilly when someone is hit by equipment or a moving load on a site. The buffer between those overseeing the work and the dead is too broad. If you back your car out of your driveway and kill the neighbor's child, you will be charged with a crime. If you back your excavator over your spotter, you find a new spotter.
  • When inspecting a worksite, look at the magnitude of the energy. Fear the difference between a hand drill and a pipe threader. Spend less time looking at things one can trip over and look to where someone will fall far.
  • Find ways to lessen the energy in the task. When you fall from a ladder, the energy when you hit will be absorbed into skin tears, broken bones, and crushed tissue. If you are inside a lift and fall, you may need to dust off your pants. There is less energy.


Direct construction teams to stay away from moving things that kill. Start enforcing this best practice, and roll out the "Stop and Give Me 20" philosophy. After a few weeks of halting operations when men and metal mix, you will get real attention. When those operating realize they can work faster without people working nearby, you will see efficiency and fewer sons and daughters getting killed.

In the photo below, the workers are directly in the operator's blind spot. Supervision and coordination by others put them there.

Excavator Blind Spot - Lyons - April 2019

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