Scott Opperman, 38, had been at his new job in Connecticut for only a month when it happened. He was doing exactly the kind of work he'd done for the past 16 years, but early one winter afternoon, the journeyman carpenter went hurtling through an open second-story window. He'd been standing on a stepladder and drilling into a window frame when the drill slipped, and he lost his balance. Falling 14 feet head first, he crashed into the frozen ground below.
"The last thing I remember was that I had slipped, and the next thing I knew, I woke myself up yelling for help," he recalls. What he didn't know as he lay crumpled on the ground was that he had just broken his neck.
Opperman was lucky simply to have survived. Falls are the number one cause of accidental death in the construction industry, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But Opperman, who had been working alone, also beat the odds in another way. When no one heard his calls for help, he managed to get up, broken neck and all, and stumble across the job site to tell his supervisor what had happened. "He thought I was joking," says Opperman. "I said, 'I fell out the window, my neck feels funny, and I want to go to the hospital,'" he recalls.
Though convinced, the supervisor at first urged Opperman to drive himself to a nearby hospital; he finally relented and told a laborer to take him there. "It was the worst automobile ride I ever had," says Opperman.
Once Opperman entered the hospital, a nurse immediately spotted the telltale way he was walking and ordered him not to take another step. He was rushed onto a gurney and strapped to a backboard. When the doctors discovered he had dislocated two vertebrae in his neck, cracking one of them, they couldn't believe he had just walked into the hospital under his own power. Most people suffering injuries similar to Opperman's end up paralyzed from the neck down.
Construction work is the most dangerous occupation in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the US Department of Labor. In 2007, construction workers accounted for 21 percent of workplace deaths, even though they constituted less than 6 percent of the total workforce. In all, 1,178 construction workers died that year. While the number and the rate of fatalities continue to be high in construction, the reason isn't clear, according to H. Berrien Zettler, deputy director of construction at OSHA. "We just haven't got the data that we need yet to figure that out. But that's one of the things that we're very interested in," Zettler says.
Within the industry, death and injury rates vary widely. As Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, says, "Every type of construction work has slightly different hazards." Still, there are some overall trends. A study of seven states by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found this pattern: Nearly one-quarter of fatal falls were through skylight openings or smoke-vent skylights without protective railings or screens. Besides falls, according to BLS data, the leading causes of accidental death are transportation-related, exposure to harmful substances, and being struck by an object.
But there are a host of other hazards that, while seldom fatal, can result in crippling injuries. Many of these are incurred while in motion -- lifting improperly, moving awkwardly, and continuously repeating the same motion, for example. Other hazards include workers' exposure to noise, dust, solvents, lead, hazardous waste, vibration from tools and equipment, and extreme heat and cold. Assessing some of the subtler hazards is difficult, according to Schneider. "We know a lot about the injuries and fatalities because they're easier to count. But we don't know a lot about the diseases caused by exposure," he says.
Repetitive motion injuries are an especially serious problem, Schneider says. About one-third of construction workers' injuries -- including those to the back, shoulder, knee, hand, and wrist -- are related to ergonomics, or workplace design, he says. He estimates that such injuries account for about half of all workers' compensation costs in the construction industry.
But Schneider says ergonomic injuries will eventually decline because more and more contractors are responding to workers' concerns. They're supplying more tools and equipment designed to make construction work safer and less taxing, such as shoulder pads to wear when carrying lumber or other material, or special grips that clamp onto a shovel handle and provide a more natural grip. Others are more specialized, such as special plumbers dollies for moving toilets. As Schneider puts it, "We always talk about working smarter, not harder."
Interestingly, labor department statistics show that although the fatality rate for construction workers is high, it's on the decline. Between 2006 and 2007, fatal injuries dropped 5 percent in the industry. Non-fatal injuries and illnesses also fell. Zettler says that OSHA has undertaken outreach and training with both unions and contractors in a number of areas, including programs on how to dig trenches, protection against falls, and how to construct scaffolding for maximum safety. Contractors and organized labor groups have developed a number of recent safety initiatives, which include pushing for more effective weekly "tailgate" safety meetings held on job sites. Opperman, who returned to work after several months of rehabilitation, thinks job sites are safer now than when he took his spill in 1991.
"Nowadays, with a contractor who was committed to safety, there would have been a scaffolding outside, or you would have to wear a harness and tie off to something secure," he says. Either of those measures could have greatly reduced his injuries.
When an accident does happen, it's also extremely important that contractors or supervisors respond appropriately. The supervisor who sent Opperman to the hospital in a car later received a well-deserved tongue-lashing from the hospital staff for failing to call an ambulance. With Opperman's injuries, riding in a car could have paralyzed him, even though the fall itself hadn't.
Workers should take an active role in promoting on-the-job safety, Schneider and Zettler say, and bring hazards to their supervisor's attention. (See 15 Safety Tips for Construction Workers ). If that doesn't fix it, Schneider urges members to call officials in their local union. Unionized or not, workers can also report problems to OSHA. "We can either handle it by a letter to the employer, pointing out that this hazard has been brought to our attention and asking the employer to voluntarily fix it, or we can do an investigation and an inspection of the work site," says Zettler.
Employers can help significantly through educating for safety and upgrading work conditions, but there's no substitute for workers being cautious. Luckily for Opperman, he was wearing a hard hat when he fell. But like many construction workers, he often found his hard hat annoying and took it off when he worked alone. He reasoned that without other workers around, he was in little danger of objects falling on his head.
"In this case, for some reason, I left it on," he says. "It saved my life."
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) 800/232-4636
Shishlove, K.S. et al. Non-fatal construction industry fall-related injuries treated in US emergency departments, 1998-2005. Am J Ind Med. 2010 July 15 [Epub ahead of print]
Welch LS, Hunting KL, Anderson JT. Injury surveillance in construction: injuries to laborers. J Occup Environ Med. Sep;42(9):898-905.
Mount Sinai-Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Construction Hygiene and Ergonomics Program (CHEP). http://www.mssm.edu/cpm/selikoff_clinical_center/thechep/index.shtml
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Table A-1: Fatal occupational injuries by industry and event or exposure. All United States, 2007. http://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary 2007. August 2008. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm