Injury prevention on construction sites
When talking abouit injury prevention on construction sites is important to mention that nearly one in five workers who lost their lives last year was in the construction industry. Construction is obviously a dangerous work. But it doesn’t have to be with an injury prevention plan. Whether repairing a roof, digging a trench, installing insulation or laying foundation, construction accidents are preventable.
Hispanic construction workers need to be particularly aware of injury prevention on construction sites, because they are injured or lose their lives on the job at a higher rate than any other group of workers.
As Secretary of Labor, I’m often called the “top cop” on the jobsite. I oversee the programs, agencies and services that make sure workers are kept safe on the job and are paid what they deserve, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Wage and Hour Division. And every construction worker in America should know about them.
Injury prevention on construction sites
Since becoming Labor Secretary – and I’m very proud to be the first Hispanic ever to hold the job – I’ve made protecting underserved and vulnerable communities, including Hispanic construction workers, high on my list of priorities. I’ve hired more Spanish-speaking staff to investigate workplaces for health and safety concerns, and fair pay and overtime complaints; produced much more of our educational material in Spanish and other languages to make sure that all workers are aware of their rights; and partnered with community leaders across the country to help get the word out to workers.
Here’s one example: In April 2010 in Houston, Texas, I brought together safety advocates, employers, unions, church/faith groups and many others under one roof for a first-of-its kind summit to discuss how to create a safe working environment as well as ways to reduce illnesses and deaths among Hispanic construction workers. For two days, more than a thousand people focused on this important issue.
I heard first hand from Juan Mirabel, the surviving worker from a 2009 construction accident in Austin, Texas. He had warned his employer not to overload a scaffold. His employer ignored his warnings. When the scaffold – uninspected, improperly assembled and burdened with too much weight – collapsed, Mirabel hung on for his life while three of his co-workers fell to their deaths.
Mirabel is clear in his message to all workers: Speak up for safety.
From his story and others like it, we learned that the hardest part about speaking up about construction safety and other workplace concerns is that many workers don’t know their rights. So I’ve made it a point to travel all over the country to tell workers that they have rights and that their employers have responsibilities. Too many workers also don’t know that U.S. labor laws protect the rights of workers regardless of their country of origin or legal status.
I want every worker to come home safe and healthy at the end of the day, and to be paid what they rightly deserve. We are educating employers and workers about injury prevention on construction sites and how to make sure that happens.
One of the most important steps in injury prevention on construction sites is to know what hazards to look out for. Here are some of the most common dangers on the job.
Falls, including falls from roofs and ladders, are the number one cause of construction worker deaths every year. By law, fall protection (harnesses, guardrails and safety nets) must be provided if you are working at 6 feet or higher on construction jobs. Regardless of the height, protections must be provided when working over dangerous equipment and machinery. The law applies to both residential and commercial construction.
To prevent falls:
- Use guardrails, safety nets and personal fall protection systems such as harnesses
- Limit access to ledges, holes, and other dangerous areas with guardrails, or other barriers
- Get and practice fall-prevention training at a level and language you can understand – by law your employer must provide this
Injury prevention in trenching
Trenching is one of the most hazardous operations in construction. Two workers are killed every month in trench collapses. Some ways to protect a trench collapse include sloping the sides, cutting steps or benches, using support beams and using hydraulic jacks. Remember these tips on how to reduce the risk of trench cave-ins:
- Never enter an unprotected trench
- Always make sure there is a safe way to get out of the trench, like a ladder, steps or ramps
- Check for and remove any water from the trench (such as after rain) – water can loosen the dirt, increasing the possibility of a trench collapse
- Inspect trenches before every shift
Electrical hazards can cause burns, shocks and even death, so it is important to:
- Assume all overhead wires have lethal voltages
- Never touch a fallen overhead power line
- Stay at least 10 feet away from overhead wires during cleanup and other activities
- Stay inside your vehicle and continue to drive away from the line if an overhead wire falls across your vehicle while you are driving
- Never operate electrical equipment while you are standing in water
- Never repair electrical cords or equipment unless qualified and authorized
- Have a qualified electrician inspect electrical equipment that has gotten wet before energizing it
Many construction workers are hurt or killed because they do not know how to use a nail gun safely. Nails can also hurt workers if they splinter, puncture material or hit an electrical wire. When using nail guns:
- Wear safety glasses with side shields
- Keep fingers away from trigger when not driving nails
- Never point it at anyone and always watch for coworkers behind the nailing surface
- Train on safe operating procedures, proper body placement and appropriate personal protective equipment
Another important and easy way to stay safe on the job is by using personal protection equipment for construction. Employers are required to determine if goggles, safety glasses, facemasks, respirators, gloves, hardhats, and hearing protection among others, should be used; and if so, they must train you on how to use the equipment properly in a language and vocabulary you can understand. Employers must also supply most of this equipment free of charge.
Just as important as safety is making sure you get the pay you deserve by law. That is where the Wage and Hour Division comes in. Like many other workers, those in construction are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. Like workplace safety, the rules and laws regarding your wages can sometimes be complicated and difficult to understand – especially for workers who don’t speak English.
To make it easier for you to understand your rights, we have partnered with the consulate offices of Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. If you are a migrant working living in the United States from one of these countries, or they are the country of your birth, you should feel comfortable contacting them to learn more about your safety and health at work, and about your wages. Consulate staff has been trained by U.S. Department of Labor experts to answer your questions and provide you with the advice and information you need.
Remember, too, you can always call the U.S. Department of Labor if you have a question or need to file a complaint regarding unsafe working conditions or unfair hours and wages. The number is (866) 4-USA-DOL, the call is free, and we have operators that speak Spanish. Any information you provide will be kept confidential.
Your family needs you to come home safe from your job every day. They are counting on your wages to pay rent and put food on the table. But you don’t have to be taken advantage of, and you don’t have to work in unsafe conditions. Your employer has responsibilities, and you have rights. I want you to know that. And just like Juan Mirabel, I want you to speak up.
—By Hilda L. Solís, U.S. Secretary of Labor