Construction Safety: Protecting Against the Fatal Four in the Construction Industry

Let’s face it. Working in construction can be dangerous.

As of March 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 6,882,000 people were employed in the construction industry. This is right at 4% of total employment in the U.S. Yet, they also report that the number of fatal work industries in 2016 was 991 in the construction industry, which amounted to just over 21% of all worker deaths.

Heights, heavy and mobile equipment, heavy lifting, and deep holes and other such hazardous conditions are a reality in many construction sites, no matter how observant and careful workers try to be.

When it comes to job site safety, it’s important for OSHA compliance to be the foundation of a safety program. In fact, it’s necessary. However, focusing solely on OSHA compliance does not make for a complete safety program.

What follows are a number of construction safety tips to help create a more impactful job site safety program. Some of these have roots in OSHA compliance, but all are just good, common-sense safety practices.

Before proceeding to specifics, it’s crucial to point to the importance of safety training for all employees. Employers should educate employees on all workplace safety standards and the hazards that they may face while on the job. Workers, in turn, need to review the safety policies for each job they are called to do. Written safety policies should include procedures and the name of a trained first aid responder.

Crew safety meetings are also important. At some workplaces, these meetings might be held daily, for example, if high-risk work is being performed. Keep in mind that real-life factual and job specific safety information tends to motivate employees. A back-hoe operator really does not have a big issue with hazard communication, but power lines, underground utilities, three-point stance, and people in the swing radius are all important to him/her.

How to Prevent OSHA’s Fatal Four Construction Accidents

As noted, OSHA has regulations in place to keep construction workers safe, but accidents still happen, most specifically in four areas that OSHA refers to as the “Fatal Four.” These “Fatal Four” – falls, struck by object, electrocution and caught-in/between – were responsible for nearly two-thirds of all construction work deaths in 2016.

Falls topped the list at 38.7 percent, followed by struck-by (9.4 percent), electrocution (8.3 percent) and caught-in or between (7.3 percent).

By following OSHA regulations and designing the workplace and work processes for safety, OSHA estimates that construction companies can reduce the risk for the “Fatal Four” and save an estimated 600 workers’ lives each year.

Fall Hazards

Falls are the leading cause of construction site deaths and each year thousands of injuries are attributable to work-related falls. Falls can be split into two categories: fall from heights, which are the leading cause of fatalities in construction and falls on the same level (slips and trips) which are one of the leading causes of injuries. Unfortunately, fall hazards are a part of the territory on a construction site, with floor and roof openings, surfaces without strong support structures and reliance on scaffolds and ladders.

There are a number of precautions employers can take to prevent falls, including

  • Guardrails are considered as a prevention system as they preclude the employee from falling in the first place.
  • Safety net systems are designed to catch the employee and break the fall. They must be placed as close as attainable under the working surface but not more than 30 feet below.
  • A personal fall arrest system usually consists of an anchorage, connectors and a full-body harness that work together to break the employee’s fall.

Other safety features to help prevent falls include:

Keep the workplace clean

A common cause of construction site falls is when workers trip over. Keep the area free of such debris and other such clutter. All employees should be on board with this and there should be an accepted and enforced standard of cleanliness throughout the work area.

All tools and materials should be put away in the proper place when finished working with them. If there is a spill, it needs to be cleaned up immediately, with the area marked off as “Wet” until it is safe again to walk.

Safe Scaffolding

If not erected properly or misused by workers, scaffolding can be quite dangerous. To help assure stable scaffolding, make sure it is set up on solid ground. General Guideline: Scaffolding should be able to hold up to four times its own weight and safely accessible to workers by ladders and stairwells. Plus, a “knowledgeable” person must inspect the scaffolding before use and, at designated intervals, re-inspect it. Likewise, scaffolding must not be erected, moved, dismantled or altered except under the supervision of a knowledgeable person.

Safe Ladders

It’s critical to use the right ladder for the task at hand, both inside and out. Inspect any ladder before use for any damage, including bent rails, missing parts or dirt that may cause someone to slip. Both the upper and lower end of the ladder should preferably be fastened or secured properly. If not, ensure someone is manually keeping it secure in order to prevent a fall from height. One more thing, never load a ladder with more than the recommended weight.

Safe Stairways

Much like ladders, stairways must be kept clear of debris to avoid trips and falls. Cover stairs with treads to avoid a slippery surface. Also, ensure that stairs with four or more risers have a handrail installed for added safety.

Struck-by Object

Struck-by injuries are produced by forcible contact or impact between the injured person and an object or piece of equipment.  These are the second leading cause of deaths in construction.

One real-life event illustrates the struck-by hazard. Four workers were installing signs on a highway when a pick-up truck changed several lanes and entered the work area. The truck struck one worker, knocking him off the road and over a bridge rail. He fell approximately 18 feet and died from his injuries.

Struck-by hazards can be categorized into four different groups, with injuries possibly occurring as a result of being struck-by: flying objects, falling objects, swinging objects and rolling objects.

Injuries from FLYING OBJECTS can include being struck by accidental nail gun discharges, thrown tools or debris or the tip flying off a saw blade.

Nail gun accidents are one of the most common struck-by flying object hazards. Workers should steer clear of the line of sight when a nail gun is being used. This includes workers who might be working on the opposite side of a wall of plywood or sheetrock.

Workers should always wear safety glasses, goggles or a face shield when using power tools. Hard hats should be worn by all employees on the jobsite at all times.

FALLING OBJECT injuries typically occur when tools or materials get knocked off from unprotected edges by employees working at height. Employees should be prevented from working or walking in areas where work is being performed overhead.

In addition, tools and materials should be secured when performing overhead work while screens, debris nets and catch platforms are employed to catch or deflect falling objects.

Injuries caused by SWINGING OBJECTS generally occur when something causes loads being mechanically lifted to sway. Accidents can also occur when a worker enters the swing radius of a piece of equipment like a crane.

Conducting equipment inspections and cordoning off the swing radius should help to reduce struck-by swinging hazards. Cane operators should be trained to operate at safe speeds, taking into account high winds where necessary. Barriers should also be erected to keep employees from accidentally stepping inside the swing radius of heavy equipment.

Struck-by ROLLING OBJECT hazards would include our example above with the worker being hit by a truck. Such incidents also include any object that rolls, moves or slides on the same level as a worker. 

Rolling hazards can be minimized by training machine operators to be vigilant about workers in their area and by training workers to be aware of potential rolling hazards. Workers should also never assume that a machine operator can see them.


The third hazard in the “fatal four” is electrocution.

Let’s be clear about something.

Man electrocuted in Millcreek transferred to Pittsburgh hospital

This headline appeared in a recent Erie, PA online news column.

The word “electrocute” is a combination of the words electro and execute, meaning you were killed by electricity, so if you don’t die, you were not electrocuted, you were shocked.

Over 8 percent of construction site deaths occur when an employee is electrocuted.

Here are some safe work practices for live electrical work on the jobsite:

  • Create a comprehensive list of all electrical hazards on site and post warnings to alert workers of electrical risks.
  • Locate and identify utilities before starting work. Wires and high-voltage areas should be marked, and the electricity should be deactivated when it is not in use. Plain signs with words like “DANGER” are incredibly simple, but essential in ensuring safety.
  • Maintain a safe distance away from power lines. Scaffolds, aerial lifts and other machinery must be at least 10 feet away from overhead power lines.
  • Do not operate portable electrical tools unless they are grounded or double insulated.
  • Replace hard hats in the event of electric shock. In addition to protecting employees from falling objects and other dangers, hard hats can help protect workers from dangling wires and other electric concerns. Be sure to immediately replace an employee’s hard hat in the event of electric shock.
  • Use nonconductive ladders. If ladders are going to be anywhere close to any electrical equipment, make sure they have nonconductive side railings.
  • Electrical housekeeping is important. Do not overload circuits, fuses or outlets. There should also not be any exposed wires.

It’s also important to conduct routine safety training and to employ the proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Reinforce the importance of PPE even if employees think it slows them down.


Our last leading cause of construction workplace deaths is caught-in-between. These accidents occur when a worker’s body part is caught, crushed or squeezed between two or more objects.

Examples of such incidents include cave-ins (trenching), being pulled or caught in machinery or equipment, being compressed or crushed between rolling, sliding or shifting objects such as semi-trailers and a dock wall.

Hazard: Unguarded machinery. Workers can get parts of their body, or their clothes, caught in a machine.

  • Machines need to be properly guarded.
  • Workers should always follow lock-out/tag-out procedures to prevent injury when a machine is under repair.
  • Workers should never wear loose clothing or anything that could hang down and get caught in moving parts.

Hazard: Trenching accidents. Improperly protected trenches and excavations are a major cause of caught-in or between accidents.

  • Any trench deeper than 5 feet needs to have protective systems if over 20 feet, a professional engineer is required to design the protective system.
  • Trenches should be protected by being properly sloped to avoid collapse. Shoring trenches is also a deterrent. Utilizing trench boxes and shields can protect workers from being buried by cave-ins.
  • Heavy equipment use near an excavation should be avoided when workers are inside the trenches.

Hazard: Heavy equipment. Heavy equipment is a common occurrence on a construction site and can sometimes lead to a false sense of security.

  • Workers should never place themselves in between a moving vehicle and an immovable object such as a wall.
  • If operating a piece of heavy equipment, never overload or overwork it as this can cause it to tip over.
  • Most heavy equipment is designed to protect the operator if a tip over does occur. This can’t happen if the operator is thrown because he/she is not wearing a seat belt or if he/she jumps.

There you have it, tips to help assure a safer work environment for your employees.