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Excavation, falls, renovations highlighted in latest OSHA safety updates

OSHA officials have announced their national and regional programs would focus on excavation, falls and renovations at a recent seminar in Wauwatosa.

While worker fatalities have improved over the last few decades, agency officials said trenching and ladder safety were still high among their priorities.

Chris Zortman, director of the OSHA Milwaukee Area Office, spoke to around 30 professionals from different industries about the agency’s emphasis programs and policy changes. One policy change early this year saw penalties rise by thousands of dollars.

The agency’s national emphasis program will focus on trenching and excavation because of continued deaths after cave-ins and collapses, agency plans said. A total of 39 workers died as a result of trench collapses in the U.S. in 2022, double the number of deaths from the year before.

The new guidance will require each area and regional office to create outreach programs to hand out compliance assistance material to excavation employers, industry associations, equipment rental vendors and other entities involving excavation, program plans showed.

Compliance officers will start inspections whenever they see an open trench or excavation, regardless of if they see a violation, program plans showed. Officers might see violations during travel or during programmed or un-programmed inspections, and inspections of trenches and excavation operations will follow incidents, referrals and complaints.

When Zortman started her job in the 1980s, she would receive daily calls about trenching deaths.

“In 2023 we don’t get as many, but they’re still happening,” she said.

OSHA’s regional focus included fall hazards for construction and general industries, especially with ladders. Compliance officers will start inspections based on what they see and use informal complaints and referrals from outside sources to start inspecting, program plans showed.

“Area Directors will upgrade non-formal complaints alleging serious fall hazards,” plans said. “The unsafe use of portable or fixed ladders will also be included.”

Work sites with steel erection, masonry construction, roofing, open-sided floors and wall openings, bridge repairs, signs, water towers, cell towers and scaffolds are all considered sites with potential falling dangers, the plan said.

If an officer sees a fall hazard while traveling, they will call the supervisor with the name of the contractor and site location, the plan said. If the site hasn’t been inspected in the last 30 days, officers will get permission to perform another check. If there’s an imminent danger present, officers can inspect within the 30-day period.

Another regional focus was on renovation and rehabilitation of existing buildings, plans showed. OSHA looked at risks with ungrounded electrical installations, unguarded wall openings and exposure to asbestos, silica and lead while crews perform numerous reconstruction projects in Milwaukee and Madison.

Construction continues to be one of the most dangerous industries to work in after a total of 951 construction and extraction workers died on the job in 2021, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed. A total of 370 workers died from slips, trips and falls that year, with more than 700 trades workers killed in accidents.

OSHA raised its maximum penalty fees from $14,502 per violation to $15,625 every time an employer makes a serious or other-than-serious violation. Penalties for failure to abate rose from $14,502 per day to $15,625, and the maximum penalty for purposeful or repeated violations bumped up from $145,027 per violation to $156,259.

Penalties were adjusted as the consumer price index changed, Zortman said. Minimum fees for willful violations were up from $10,360 to $11,162.

The agency announced in January it would cite violations for serious offenses like falls, trenching, confined spaces, machine guarding and respiratory protection on an “instance by instance” basis. OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker said local offices should issue citations for each instance an employer violates rules like falls, lockout/tagout and trenching.

About Ethan Duran

Ethan Duran is the construction and development reporter at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (414) 551-7505 or [email protected]

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