By Kristin Kloberdanz. M.A.
Over the past 20 years, thousands of construction workers have fallen to their death -- many of them from ladders and scaffolds. Here is how you can protect yourself:
- Get trained on how to use this equipment and how much weight it can safely hold.
- Ensure scaffolds and ladders are inspected before each shift, as well as extended three feet above roofs or floors and tied off at the top.
- Be sure not to step on unsecured shingles on a roof, which -- as many a roofer has discovered -- can go flying out from under you and send you soaring to the ground below.
- Don't walk or sit on a skylight. Dozens of workers have died from falls after they stepped or sat down to eat lunch on a skylights, which then broke under their weight. To prevent such falls, install guard rails or a sturdy protective screen on every skylight floor opening and hole before starting work.
- Put safety netting underneath any roof openings during construction -- this may save a life -- perhaps yours.
Avoid toxic materials
- Avoid lead poisoning when working around bridges. Bridges, tunnels, and elevated highways are frequently coated with old paint that contains lead. If you work in any of these areas, have your blood lead level checked regularly and talk to your employer about ways to reduce lead exposure.
- Don't breathe the asphalt (fumes). Workers are exposed to potentially harmful fumes when roofing, waterproofing, or paving roads with hot coal tar. These can cause skin, eye, and respiratory problems, and possibly even cancer down the road. Make sure you're using the best equipment available to reduce fumes, as well as wearing proper protective gear.
- Watch out for asbestos, lead, and other toxins in older homes and buildings. Ask your employer for tips on how to spot dangerous substances. If you think you may have come across one of these hazards while working on a job, ask that the material be sent to a lab for analysis. If the material tests positive for contaminants, wear personal protective gear at all times.
- Be aware of the hazards of stone-cutting. The National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH) warns that you can get the lung disease silicosis from dry-cutting masonry or stone, since the dust may contain silica. Wet-cut this material instead, or make sure your employer supplies you with a full respirator system.
Ergonomics in construction
- Use ergonomically correct hand and power tools. You may love your electric drill, but does it vibrate so much that your hand feels numb? And what about your pliers, hammers, tin snips, and screwdrivers? When used frequently, even these classic tools can cause overuse injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Look for lighter tools that require less force to use and ones that are balanced, meaning they won't tip forward or backward during use. Also, test each tool handle to make sure it's comfortable and fits your hand. (If it's too small, you'll end up with a painful "pinch grip.") For more information, check out NIOSH's "Choosing Safer Hand Tools in Construction" factsheet on its Web site.
- Keep your wrists and arms in neutral. Working with your wrist flexed back or forwards increases the chances that you'll develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Avoid working with your arms outstretched, if possible; this puts more strain on your body. And if you develop pain, swelling, tingling, and signs of an overuse injury, take the time to rest. Trying to work through the pain will only make it worse.
- Lift things properly. Many back problems could be prevented by proper lifting. You probably already know this, but just in case: Bend your knees when lifting -- bending at the waist puts too much strain on your back. Put one foot slightly in front of the other for balance, avoid twisting to the side, and you'll avoid a lot of back aches.
- Balance that tool belt. If one side of your 15- to 20-pound tool belt is a lot heavier than the other side, it can pull your body out of alignment; the muscles on one side will also work overtime, causing back pain. If one side has heavier tools, try to carry nails or other weighty materials on the other side to even things out. And remember to take your tool belt off during breaks to give your body a rest.
- Sit down on the job. That is, when you have to work at a lower level. It's often easier to sit on a stool than strain your ligaments by stooping at the waist. It's also better than squatting, which can strain your knees and put you in an unstable position. Move a stable stool close to your work and enjoy some solid support.
Watch for live wires
- Don't shock yourself. Before you or an electrician starts working on electric equipment, make sure the power is turned off. This may seem obvious, but reports from the Electronic Library of Construction confirm that people responsible for installing or maintaining electrical equipment often fail to turn off the power source before beginning to work on it, sometimes with tragic results. Avoid risky shortcuts as well, including removing the third prong from a plug, using household extension cords, overloading a power box, and interfering with safety lights.
- Avoid dampness when using electric tools. If you're working in standing water or have on wet clothing -- or even if there's high humidity -- wear protective equipment such as insulated rubber gloves and boots. And in hot weather or a warm environment, towel off frequently -- believe it or not, even perspiration can be conductive! Dry your hands carefully before handling flexible cords and equipment that's plugged in, and if possible, turn off the electricity before you start working. Don't run extension cords in damp or wet areas, and be especially careful on ladders or scaffolding -- even a small shock can make you lose your balance.
- Always wear eye protection. According to NIOSH, the best safety combination is to pair eye goggles with face shields. This will protect you from dust, chemicals, and airborne particles such as flying metal shards.
- Protect your lungs. Respiratory problems, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, and lung cancer, are common among construction workers. Wear a facemask whenever working on a job that creates dust. If you're working with paint or lacquer, use a respirator to avoid breathing in the hazardous fumes.
eLOSH: The Electronic Library of Construction, Occupational Safety and Health. This information clearinghouse, sponsored by NIOSH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offers comprehensive safety material on dozens of construction trades. http://www.elcosh.org/index.html
Welch LS, Hunting KL, Anderson JT. Injury surveillance in construction: injuries to laborers. J Occup Environ Med; Sep;42(9):898-905.
Welch LS, Goldenhar LM, Hunting KL. Women in construction: occupational health and working conditions. J Am Med;55(2):89-92.
Rivara FP, Thompson DC. Prevention of falls in the construction industry: evidence for program effectiveness. Am J Prev Med. (4 Suppl):23-6.
Construction Safety. Oklahoma State University. http://ehs.okstate.edu/manuals/ppsafety/const.htm