Construction safety is a broad subject and there is no way to cover it thoroughly in one page. This is simply a brief overview of some of the more common hazards and issues one may encounter on the jobsite.
Fall Hazard and Fall Protection
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has determined that falls are the number one hazard on construction sites. Proper fall protection systems should be employed if workers are six feet above the ground or more. Workers should wear either a safety harness or be protected by guard rails. Roofers normally wear a harness and tie off. Lathers and stucco workers have guardrails on their scaffold. Scaffold should also be fully planked.
Window installations on upper floors often require one person to be laddered outside of an opening. This person should be harnessed. Ladder falls are particularly frequent because ladders are used improperly or as a hasty solution when scaffolding should actually be used.
A common fall hazard is the improper use of ladders and ignorance of ladder safety. Extension ladders must extend a minimum of 3 feet past the landing and should be secured. Step ladders have weight limits and other restrictions that are listed on the equipment. If it says “No Step”, don’t. A-frame ladders should not be straddled unless they are designed with full steps on both sides. Drywall hangers may have the two sided ladders to assist with hanging the drywall lid.
Scaffolding and scaffold safety are hot buttons for most OSHA inspectors. A improperly constructed scaffold is a jobsite hazard 24 hours a day. It is imperative to have the proper guardrails and FULL planking. One plank does not count as full planking on scaffolding.
Improvised or homemade scaffolding is a big no-no. This is a common problem on residential projects. A worker that needs scaffold to get the job done sometimes is not provided with the necessary tools by their employer. They may stack material and throw a 2x6 across it. The owner builder should stop the activity, contact the company and insist on the required scaffold being provided. Make clear to the contractor that it is a safety issue.
Residential construction is afforded some privileges that commercial is not. Framers (carpenters) work from the top plates of framed houses with no harnesses. This is not considered a violation. It is dangerous however. Make certain there is no drinking or drug use on the jobsite. Impaired workers are the most likely to cause or be the victims of jobsite accidents. A fall from the top plate is a guaranteed hospital visit and quite possibly can result in fatal injury. Do not be upset if there are wind or rain delays when setting roof trusses. A truss that is being blown by wind can easily knock a man off the top plate.
Hazardous materials are native to most every jobsite. Glues, paints and epoxies exude heavy fumes and if inhaled can cause disorientation, brain damage and even death. It is important when working with toxic substances to wear a mask and keep an area ventilated. Most injuries occur when a worker uses dangerous chemicals in a smaller closed in room.
Remember, the dust from cutting tile, concrete and other construction material can be very hazardous as well. Look at the damage that the use of asbestos has caused so many workers. The dangerous particles were released during cutting and installation of the asbestos. They entered the lungs of workers and now, many former tradesmen have contracted mesothelioma.
Electrical Hazard and Electrical Safety
Electrical safety is no joke. The owner builder should periodically inspect the jobsite and not allow the use of worn or frayed power or extension cords. Tradesmen have a tendency to use their extension cords far too long. I have actually seen cords with no connector, just two loose wires, twisted and plugged in…scary. Remember, they will protest. Remind them that they aren’t the only ones at risk. The owner builder is the final authority on the site and will be held responsible in an OSHA investigation.
Power tools on site should not be improvised. The grounding pin should be intact. Tradesmen often remove it for ease when plugging and unplugging. An OSHA inspector considers this a pretty serious violation. When I was a safety rep at my last company, we would simply cut the plug off the cord so it was no longer operational. If the tool is an approved double insulated product, the grounding pin isn’t necessary.
Electrical Utility Lines
Call before you dig. Electrical lines are run underground and a loader will cut right into them, endangering the operator and anyone nearby. Do not allow any excavation to occur without first contacting the local utility companies to mark where their services are located.
For the same reasons it is important to be cognizant of overhead power lines on or near the building site. There should be no overhead wires within 10 feet of scaffolding and there shouldn’t be any power lines over access to the site.
Struck By Hazard and Hardhats
OSHA approved hard hats are a requirement for any worker on the jobsite. It is nearly impossible for a worker to be at the owner builder project and not enter an area without "struck by" or "falling" hazards. Until the roofing is complete and all the scaffold is down, hard hats should be insisted upon outside of the structure.
Hard hats are rarely worn on small residential projects because OSHA is more concerned with policing the big builders. Much of the risk is seen as minimal. Of course it’s minimal until a worker has a block dropped on their head or a roof tile slips over the edge or they walk full speed into a portion of scaffold. Hardhats are worn to keep workers safe, not just because OSHA might show up.
Caught Between or Crushing Hazard
This particular safety hazard is most commonly seen during trench cave-ins or collapse. While this is not the primary danger on an owner builder project, it is a risk. Be certain if any trench is dug deeper than 4 feet, that the subcontractors working in the trench have the necessary shoring and egress points. Depending on the depth and activity, safety requirements may include an additional competent person to be on hand in case of emergencies. Like I said at the beginning, this pages is no where near complete. There are a ton of hazards that can occur on a residential jobsite. If it looks dangerous, there is a good chance something is not being done correctly. It is important for the general contractor and/or the owner builder to always be vigilent. Keep safety at the forefront and look each day to prevent bad/dangerous practices that may endanger workers.
I suggest that all owner builders look into an OSHA class at your local junior college. Basic courses are usually available and may take but a single afternoon. A semester long course will normally result in an OSHA 30 hour card. This OSHA certification never expires.Note- It is important that you keep track of your OSHA card. I discovered recently that it is difficult to get a replacement, even if you have a non-expiring card. When I contacted the University where I attended, the professor informed me that he had lost all his attendance records when his hard drive crashed and that even with an A on my official transcript, OSHA would not send a replacement card without attendance records. I will therefore have to retake the 30 hour course.
It is important that contractors on your jobsite have OSHA required safety meetings. This is particularly important for roofers. If a roofer falls from your project but was not wearing proper safety gear and it is discovered that mandated safety meetings were not held, the owner builder may be facing real problems(heavy fines, project shutdown, litigation). When interviewing contractors, emphasize the importance of following OSHA rules.