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Construction Safety

Playing "What If" to Search Out Construction Hazards

TJ Lyons | March 1, 2012

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Building inspector at a construction site

On a recent trip, the passenger sitting next to me asked what I did. I said I was a safety professional, and she again asked what I did. The role of a safety professional is to ensure that nothing happens, so success is typically unrecognized. The owner of Friehoffers Bakery in upstate New York once spoke at a conference, and what he said stuck with me for years. He was speaking about those workers behind the lines: "There are two types of people working at our company, those who service the customer and those who service those that service the customers."

For those who love the field of safety, there is no greater satisfaction than passing along something that may save a life or a limb. For us, it is less important who developed the bike helmet than the fact that kids now wear them routinely. Ultimately, a safety professional's job is to recognize the bad and encourage the good as we work and live. Though we may not drive the nail or bolt the steel, our role is to keep sons and daughters working and safe.

A safety director once noted that we are "walking lessons learned." That is accurate. When we board a plane, we think, "Now, if this plane is going down...," and we look for the exits because we understand fire, we know to stay low to escape, and we realize how human behavior will interrupt our best-laid plans. So, following are a few examples of recent observations that explain not only how we look at the world around us but also how we may try to change it by wondering what if?

Where Will You Go in an Emergency?

When walking a construction project, always take the time to do two things. First, find the stairwells, and then walk away from that possible exit to see whether anyone else can tell where it is. Tip: When installing the string lighting commonly found on construction projects, make sure the electrician places a RED bulb where stairwells are located. Such a simple step can save so many lives.

Second, stop in several spots and imagine that the lights have gone out. Can you locate the exit? I was once involved in a movie theater renovation (no windows) and, during the work, a breaker blew, and only 1 worker out of 78 had a flashlight. He led out groups of 5–10 at a time. This was a scary moment for many workers, and a great lesson was learned. Tip: Always make sure there is a second source of light, especially in locations where windows are never found. Inexpensive battery-powered lights can be purchased for about $40 and placed near the exits, eliminating a bit of the fear encountered when the lights go out.

If I Fall, What Can I Grab?

A common problem at construction sites is the lack of simple handrails on stairs. These come down during demolition or are never installed because "Jeeez, the permanent ones are coming next week." We spend hours ensuring no one can fall from heights or off the building but routinely overlook someone falling down the stairs.

Figure 1: Unprotected Stairwell

Unprotected Stairwell

When you enter a stairwell, always imagine yourself tripping on the first step and the scene that is bound to unfold. During construction, most stairs are steel or concrete. When you fall, you will probably break. There are some guidelines on when and where railings are needed, but it would be difficult to defend if no railing on either side of the stairs was present. This is "prevention through design" at its best, for there is little cost needed to prevent a significant injury. Why not just install one railing on the inside? Because, during an evacuation, everyone will be heading down the stairs using both sides. At some point, firefighters who are trained to take stairs on the inside will be heading up while the workers are heading down. Railings on both sides please!

Could I Fall Off this Platform?

Anyone who watched American Idol this year had the opportunity to see a young woman faint as she was speaking with the hosts. As she fainted, she fell off what appeared to be a five-foot stage to a concrete floor below. Only chance saved her from death.

When walking any work area where you can approach what your mind tells you is an "edge"—not a simple step down—it needs protection with a solid barrier. In the world of probability, at some point, someone will likely step backward off this elevation or simply walk off when reading a cell phone. Tip: When workers are near any edge—either a shaft, scaffolding, or the edge of building—always consider what would happen if someone working in that spot had a seizure. Would he or she roll off the edge? You must plan for that.

That Smells Pretty Strong. Wonder What It Is.

Years ago (1989), I was tasked with sampling the air in a five-story building for flammable vapors since the window washers were using pure toluene to clean the large glass windows. I now find that a curious practice, but I routinely hear of work areas exploding from the use of materials with flammable vapors. Though the United States is getting better at eliminating flammable volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from most paints, plenty of materials we can use in a small space will ignite. These range from mastic for carpeting or floor tiles to epoxy-based paints and waterproofing compounds.

When planning your project, and it's time for final finishes, always get an understanding for what will be used. If any such material is flammable or combustible, develop a plan to keep things from exploding when they are used. In most cases, "dilution is the solution to pollution," and that holds true for VOCs.

In one case, a floor treatment firm applied a layer of mastic to a large area and allowed it to "set" for an hour while the workers headed for lunch before placing the tiles. Meanwhile, in an adjoining room, the plumber, having eaten his lunch, lit his torch—destroying the building. Tip: Always remember that the toxicity alone may be a factor even if the concentrations are below the level where it will catch fire.

For those readers who work with paints or in confined spaces or paint in confined spaces, there is no better example of the hazards of VOCs than a recent report and summary by the Chemical Safety Board. The award-winning video, "No Escape—Dangers of Confined Spaces," details one of the most comprehensive examinations of a confined space incident based on a simple lack of planning that I have ever seen.

So If I Fall, What Will I Hit?

I was touring a project in Massachusetts with a safety professional and I noted that, although all the rebar was properly covered, the nearby anchor bolts for the soon-to-arrive columns were sticking up, unprotected. Both the rebar and the adjacent anchor bolts were the same diameter and about 6" above the ground. I asked why only the impalement hazards of the rebar were protected, and the answer I received was: "Well, that's all [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] OSHA requires." I replied that your head would not really care what OSHA required and then considered the fellow's future employment. This particular exchange was troubling for many reasons but stemmed in some part from someone who lived by the regulations and did not think past them.

Figure 2: Anchor Bolts—Proper (Square) and Improper (Failed Mushroom-Type) Impalement Protection

Anchor Bolts--Proper and Improper

Having an OSHA-compliant site is like getting a grade of D on your report card (an actual quote from a regional OSHA director), for it is a minimal standard. Per OSHA: "Reinforcing steel—All protruding reinforcing steel, onto and into which employees could fall, shall be guarded to eliminate the hazard of impalement." Three other common impalement hazards of the construction world must also be considered:

  • Form pins—These are routinely found supporting temporary forms for small pours like a sidewalk. They stick up past the form but do not have to. Tip: Always drive the top of the pin equal to the top of the board, and you have eliminated the hazard.
  • Anchor bolts—These are only exposed on a project for a short time but offer real danger to those walking by. Cover these using standard rebar caps (engineered for impalement protection) or wooden covers. Tip: Contractors often run the nut to the top of the threads to provide some protection, but this is not acceptable because impalement protection is typically 4" or more in surface area.
  • Electrical conduit—This classic hazard is often overlooked and, I suspect, unrecognized as steel or plastic conduit as it is stubbed up through the slab or outside in the dirt. These conduits should be extended well above the surface (7' or so) to eliminate the impalement hazard. Some firms place a foam knockout on the conduit at the connection (sub slab) and, when the pour is complete, you are ready to connect conduit, scratch out the foam, attach a conduit and collar, and you are all set.

Figure 3: Exposed Electrical Conduit

Exposed Electrical Conduit

We Are Heating the Building with Propane. Where Is That Tank?

A recent incident truly hit home to me. As a former assistant fire chief, I often had to trust the first arriving units to make critical decisions long before I arrived. In the incident forever known as the Little General Store Propane Explosion, an untrained worker was moving some fuel outside a general store in 2007. A leak started and could not be stopped. As minutes passed, the gas found its way into the general store. Some of the first arriving emergency responders worked to help stop the leak, but no one notified the workers who had locked themselves in the store (and had hung a sign, "Closed—Gas Leak," on the door) to shut off the power and clear the area. No one was aware of the dangers of propane! When it found a source of ignition, four people were killed and six injured.

Figure 4: Unprotected Propane Cylinder

Unprotected Propane Cylinder

Two things always scare me in the world of fire safety: carbon monoxide and propane. When this handy fuel heats your site, always make sure the tank itself is well protected and those in charge of the system are well trained in its use and hazards. Last week, a truck was removing a tank of propane from a construction project in Washington when it tipped and a valve broke. Per the news, the blast zone covered 300 feet, sent 6 to the hospital, and caused $1 million in damage to 2 buildings under construction.


So, the next time you walk your project, take along the project manager or superintendent, stand at the top of a stairwell without railings, and ask him or her, "If you were to fall, what would you grab?" This is an effective approach to identifying both the hazard and the severity to help make our good sites better.

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