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From Statistics to Solutions: Addressing Fatal Falls in Construction

A recent report from The Center for Construction Research and Training shows that fatal falls in the construction industry have increased by more than 50% over the past 12 years. Falls continue to be the number one cause of fatalities in construction year after year, and the increase is deeply concerning. As a lifelong safety professional, this troubling statistic reinforces that the way we have been addressing fall protection needs new techniques and perspectives. 

On a recent trip to Ireland to visit customers, I asked a fellow safety professional what he thought the biggest difference was in the approach to construction safety in Europe vs. the U.S. He immediately pointed to the overreliance on personal fall arrest systems in the U.S. While the use of personal fall arrest systems is one method of providing fall protection, we know that it introduces numerous variables and potential failure points. Often, workers are left to navigate the complexities of using the equipment and identifying safe anchor points, leading to serious fall exposures.

This point resonated with me. I see it all the time when I review safety inspection data in Highwire or consult with contractors and owners using Highwire to improve safety outcomes. The number one unsafe observation related to fall protection by far is the improper use of a personal fall arrest system. When exposures occur due to failure to properly use fall protection equipment, the most common root cause identified is too often that the worker made a personal choice. However, defaulting to pointing the finger at the individual worker is the easy way out. When we do this, we miss valuable learning opportunities. We take the responsibility away from project teams and organizations to look beyond the individual observation or exposure and identify the organizational shortcomings that contributed to the serious unsafe conditions or unsafe behavior.

Addressing the root causes of falls and fall exposures requires a shift in perspective. Rather than attributing exposures mainly to worker decisions, organizations must explore broader factors such as inadequate training, planning failures, productivity pressures, ineffective communication, and overall safety culture. We can implement meaningful changes to prevent future incidents by understanding the underlying causes. 

A meaningful change we have introduced at Highwire is the ability to consistently categorize, track, and investigate events with SIF-potential (SIF-P). Fall exposures represent an event with SIF-potential. They are exposures that had the potential to result in a Serious Injury or Fatality and our hope is that when project teams and organizations start to think of them like this, their reaction and level of attention paid to them will change. Each one of these events offers a valuable learning opportunity to avoid future catastrophic events. But if we continue to address the issue in the field, default to identifying personal choice as a root cause, and move on about our day, we will continue to struggle to prevent future recurrences and reduce the frequency of serious injuries and fatalities that result from falls. 

It is imperative to investigate these events with the same level of diligence as we investigate recordable incidents. As an industry, we focused on recordable rate, investigated recordable injuries consistently, implemented corrective measures accordingly and dramatically reduced the frequency of recordable incidents in the construction industry. By applying the same principles to the investigation and categorization of SIF-p events, we can gather valuable data over time enabling us to refine our approach to planning, training, and execution that are critical to preventing falls and reducing fall exposures. 

The rise in fatal falls demands different and new approaches to addressing fall exposures in the construction industry. Let us know how you’re thinking about this data in your organization!

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David Tibbetts

David Tibbetts is the Chief Safety Officer at Highwire. Prior to joining Highwire David managed the Construction Safety Program at Harvard University overseeing the implementation of the University's Construction EH&S Standard, Substance Abuse Prevention Program, and use of Highwire's Contractor Safety Assessment Program.

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