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OSHA fatality reports give builders pause

Sean Ryan

Construction workers die when they make careless mistakes.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proved the credo with its 2009 April-to-July quarterly report, and safety directors with construction companies are reluctantly sharing the grim stories with workers in the field.

The report includes the story of an Appleton roofer who fell 18 feet after walking backwards onto a fiberglass skylight, which then broke. Another worker in Milwaukee was trapped between a mixer and a mortar tub when the mixer tipped after being removed from its wheels and placed on a bed of sand. An employee in Columbus, Ohio, was caught between an excavator counterweight and a gravel box after walking behind the excavator without letting the operator know.

Safety directors are using the OSHA narratives of workers’ fatal mistakes to get crews to avoid careless decisions. Jim Schneider, vice president of M.W. Tighe Roofing Inc., Fond du Lac, said he posts the quarterly reports so workers can read them.

He said he hates to think of the tragedies as a teaching tool, but the cold reality of the incidents gives them more weight than any hypothetical situation a safety trainer can conjure.

“This happened,” Schneider said. “You can’t read these — I can’t and the people here can’t — without it touching their lives.”

The report that OSHA’s Chicago regional office released this week lists 31 fatalities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio between April 1 and June 30. In Wisconsin, there were nine fatalities, which is higher than usual, said Brad Stehno, account executive and safety consultant for R&R Insurance Services Inc., Waukesha.

“These incidents are real, and they do take place,” he said. “And when you see them in a big list like this, it’s like, ‘Holy smokes, a lot of people didn’t make it home.’”

Workers can read through the list to see which accidents involve the sort of work performed by the workers’ companies, Stehno said.

“It’s good information,” he said. “It’s not always information we want to hear, but in reality, these things happen.”

The reports are warnings, but they also could be the impetus for creating new safety rules, Schneider said.

Tighe Roofing already requires barricades around skylights on roofs. But the story of a worker in Peoria, Ill., who was electrocuted after making contact with a power line while using a power washer might be grounds for new company rules, he said.

“Is this just evidence enough to say that if you are pressure washing, you have to be clear of power lines?” Schneider said.

But the core message from the reports is that if something can go wrong, it will, Schneider said. He said the last time one of his co-workers died on the job was more than 25 years ago, when the crew member fell while climbing a ladder that was not properly secured.

“It was an accident, and you learn from that as well,” he said. “That one right there, we got kicked. It happened to us. It happened to one of our friends.

“This kicked somebody else,” he said of the OSHA reports, “but we can still learn from it.”

OSHA Region 5 quarterly fatality reports

April 1 through June 30  (PDF)

Jan. 1 through March 31 (PDF)

Oct .1 through Dec. 31 (PDF)

July 1 through Sept. 30 (PDF)

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