What You Need to Know About Construction Site Safety: Hazards, Risks, PPE, Prevention and More

The construction industry remains one of the more dangerous work environments. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than 20 percent of the 5,300 fatalities reported on the job in 2019 occurred on construction sites. That's one-fifth of all fatalities that occurred in the workplace, a number that demonstrates how significant safety is in the construction sector. What's more is that this figure doesn't take into consideration the thousands more that are injured each year on construction job sites.

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the contractors who take construction site safety seriously have better safety records than those that don't - and as a result, they're more likely to win business based on this strong commitment. But even for contractors with positive safety data, it isn't something that contractors should become complacent with. From site-specific safety measures to ongoing training, safety is a 24/7/365 endeavor - and the requirements and risks often change on a project-by-project basis.

In this post, we'll take a closer look at some of the common safety risks on construction job sites and what contractors can do to better prevent them.

10 Common Construction Site Hazards and Control Measures

1. Working at Heights

Whether it's via scaffolding or working on a ladder or a roof, working at heights represents one of the most common causes of injury and death on job sites. It's estimated that about 25 percent of construction site fatalities are due to working from heights, making this the leading category of fatalities in construction.

How to Manage Risk

Only workers with specific training on working from heights should be working on projects that require it. Safety managers should confirm that construction professionals are following protocol (i.e., tying off, proper PPE, gathering limits, etc.). Furthermore, a site-specific risk assessment should be performed to ensure proper precautions are in place, which may include double guardrails on scaffolding and safety nets below work areas. Covering any holes in platforms where workers could potentially fall through when walking is another common task on the to-do list.

2. Falls, Trips, Slips

Though falls, trips, and slips aren't a common cause of death on construction sites, they are a common cause of injury. In fact, injuries sustained from falls, trips and slips account for about 50 percent more days away from work than most other injuries. The likes of uneven surfaces, unkempt sites, and disorganized materials, equipment and access routes are major causes of such injuries.

How to Manage Risk

Pay specific attention to the areas on a job site where the potential to fall, trip, or slip is greater. Set up caution signs where surfaces are uneven, make site organization and cleanliness a priority, use cordless tools if you're able to, install guardrails on stairs and make sure access points are clearly marked and free from congestion. Also take the time to treat or identify any slick surfaces. Finally, workers should ensure they're wearing the proper boots.

3. Equipment Usage

When most people think of injury from equipment usage, they often associate it with that which is the result of heavy equipment. However, power tools and handheld equipment also play a role in this.

How to Manage Risk

There are many things that can be done to manage risk when it comes to equipment usage, the most important of which is that only those who are trained and certified to be operating such are doing so. Workers also need to keep certifications up to date, and contractors need to ensure heavy equipment is properly maintained to avoid potential malfunction. When it comes to hand tools, proper PPE such as gloves are crucial for avoiding injury to the hands. In any situation, adequate lighting is important to detect threats more quickly. High-visibility vests should be worn so operators can easily spot other workers.

4. Environmental Hazards

From lead and asbestos to other respiratory fibers, environmental hazards are common on job sites - and risk may be especially high on those that are in confined areas and with limited ventilation.

How to Manage Risk

A thorough site assessment should be conducted before any site activity is carried out, with any abatement carried out accordingly. Those performing the abatement should be wearing PPE that consists of a full-body disposable suit and a respirator mask to avoid inhalation and exposure. In the event of a dusty job site, workers should be wearing respirators or protective facial coverings to prevent potential lung damage.

5. Improper Use of PPE

Whether it's a refusal to wear hardhats, high-visibility clothing, safety glasses, gloves, boots, or the improper wearing of the aforementioned, doing so puts workers at risk on the job site. Improper fitting of hardhats and, in some situations, masks and respirators, can also leave workers susceptible to injury and illness.

How to Manage Risk

Ensure that your construction safety management team enforces the proper wearing of PPE on job sites. PPE isn't optional, it's a requirement. Enforce strict disciplinary action for workers that are not wearing PPE or wearing it properly.

6. Electrical Accidents

According to government data, electrocutions are the fourth-leading cause of death in the construction industry. This isn't just a result of electrical work gone awry, but also job sites located near power lines or cables.

How to Manage Risk

First and foremost, nobody should be performing electrical work that isn't qualified. Many accidents stem from "jack of all trades" professionals performing electrical work in addition to their other duties on a site. Second, proper training should be provided to all on-site workers regarding electrical safety and how to prevent injury from electrical shock.

7. Noise and Vibration

Job sites tend to be loud, and not taking the proper safety precautions at construction sites as it pertains to noise can have detrimental long-term effects on workers. Loss of hearing is one thing, but excessive noise can also lead to a higher likelihood of accidents on site. Additionally, those who frequently work with certain tools can be susceptible to hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).

How to Manage Risk

The right PPE is crucial to avoiding long-term issues from noise and vibration. Ear protection can protect the ears and prevent long-term hearing degradation. PPE is also important in preventing HAVS, as is ensuring equipment is properly maintained.

8. Collapses

Workers performing excavation work or demolition are at a heightened risk of a collapse. These often occur suddenly without warning and can seriously injure or lead to loss of life among workers that are on site. It's estimated that an average of 25 workers each year are killed in trenches and excavations.

How to Manage Risk

Risk needs to be managed appropriately to ensure site safety, which may include assessing proper supports, securing the site, and, if applicable, the trench and performing regular inspections. Additionally, proper PPE needs to be worn. A hardhat could literally save a worker's life, providing a shield from falling debris.

9. Lack of Continuous Training

We've talked a lot about PPE and site safety in this post thus far, but one of the major factors that can lead to enhanced risk on a job site is the lack of a robust safety plan. Safety is never something that contractors should become complacent with, it should be an ongoing effort and workers should be provided continuous training as new risks are identified or if safety standards and procedures change.

How to Manage Risk

Safety managers need to be involved with the sites they're working on. Daily safety meetings should be held each morning before work begins and regular, recurring training should be provided throughout the year. Additionally, there should be a comprehensive onboarding safety program for new hires that workers must complete before they able to work on site. Buy-in from leadership is important to ensure that the proper resources are allocated from a safety training standpoint.

10. Material Handling

Heavy lifting and material handling are commonplace on construction projects, both with the use of equipment or manually. While we already discussed the use of the equipment and the safety risk that it poses, this item concentrates more on manual lifting. If not done carefully and appropriately, anything from muscle strain to long-term skeletal issues are possible. The risk increases in situations where manual material handling is repetitive.

How to Manage Risk

As is a common theme throughout much of this piece, training is essential. Workers must be trained on the correct posture of how to properly lift and carry heavy objects. Special consideration needs to be given when lifting hazardous materials, as gloves and full-body suits may be necessary to safely transport materials from one location to another.

The construction industry is a field that is high-risk in nature, as workers encounter a variety of health and safety risks every time they lace up their steel-toed boots. And one of the things that makes construction unique from other fields is that the health and safety hazards vary from task to task, project to project. It underscores the importance of a robust safety system and having the right PPE on hand to keep workers as safe as possible.