More deaths occur in the construction industry every year than in almost any other industry in the United States. Fall injuries are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. There are many ways for employers to reduce worker falls. As a result, fall injuries are a significant source of lawsuits by construction workers and their families seeking compensation for the death or personal injury of a worker.
Workers’ compensation laws sometimes limit the recoveries of employees for injuries sustained on the job, including for fall-related injuries. This article discusses fall accident cases that do not involve issues of workers’ compensation. (To learn more about the workers compensation process, see Worker's Compensation Coverage for Construction Injuries.)
In the sections that follow, we will provide an overview of the most common types of fall injuries and how to avoid them. We will then describe the requirements of winning a case for personal injuries based on a fall.
Although falls come in all shapes and sizes, below are the four most common hazards that cause fall injuries at construction sites:
Unprotected sides, wall openings, and floor holes. As buildings are constructed, openings and holes spring up constantly. It would be impossible to prevent all openings and holes 100% of the time. But when workers are exposed to a potential fall of six feet or more, a hole or opening should not be left exposed. To protect workers, a protective device -- such as a guardrail system, safety net system, or personal fall arrest system -- should be used.
Improper scaffold construction. Although it can seem wasteful to an employer to spend extensive time and resources perfecting scaffolds (since they are by their very nature temporary), the effort is not so wasteful when potential scaffold injuries and related lawsuits are taken into account.
Scaffolds should be constructed according to the manufacturer’s directions to ensure stability. Guardrails should be used on all open sides and ends of platforms. Workers should not climb cross-bracing as a means of access.
Unguarded protruding steel rebar. How does exposed rebar increase falls at construction sites? It doesn’t. But it does exacerbate fall injuries that would otherwise be relatively minor. As a result, it is included as one of the primary hazards that cause fall injuries.
Exposed rebar should be fitted with rebar guards rated sufficiently to prevent impalement in the event that a person falls on the rebar. Employers should note that some rebar guards are designed only to blunt the tip of the bar. Those guards can be insufficient to prevent impalement in the event of a fall. So guards should be carefully chosen and utilized to ensure that workers are adequately protected.
Misuse of portable ladders. There are an infinite number of ways that ladders can be misused. The best advice to follow is that if the job cannot be completed without violating the rules of ladder safety, then the job should be done some other way.
Ladders should be placed on sturdy supports and should extend at least three feet above the landing. Before each use, ladders should be inspected for cracked or broken parts.
As mentioned above, many construction worker fall injury cases will be governed by the workers' compensation system. But some fall cases involve the potential liability of a third party (like a product manufacturer if safety equipment fails).
In order to win a person injury lawsuit in cases like these, the defendant must have had a duty to provide for the safety of the worker, or to provide safe equipment or a safe product for the worker's use. Not every entity involved in a construction project has such a duty. Laws are complicated and can vary by state, but generally speaking, any party that provides or maintains ladders, scaffolding, or fall protection equipment has a duty to provide for the safety of workers who will be using that equipment.
Any violation of the OSHA regulations will generally be considered a breach of the duty of care. Any other violation of a safety standard generally accepted in the industry or recommended by experts may also amount to a breach of the standard of care. And under certain instances, if a product is defective, is unreasonably dangerous, or does not perform up to reasonable expectations, the manufacturer and/or supplier of that product may be on the hook for liability if the product or equipment injures someone.