A case for Stricter Work at Heights Rules for Iron Worker

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 addresses fall hazards in at least five subparts; Subpart M-Fall Protection, Subpart L-Scaffolding, Subpart X-Ladders, Subpart R-Steel Erection, and Subpart CC Cranes.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) identifies falls as one of four fatal hazards in construction.  However, falls in construction continue to be the leading cause of death in the industry. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ironworkers account for less than 1% of the construction workforce in America.  Ironworkers may not have a strong presence in the workforce.  Nevertheless, they experience nonfatal job-related injury and illness rates much higher than the average, at a rate of 751.8 per 10,000 workers.  Compared to the national average of nonfatal job-related illnesses and injuries, which occurred at a rate of 268 for every 10,000 workers.  Fatal falls were the highest among ironworkers, with a rate of 75.6 deaths per 100,000 workers.  The average rate of fatalities among construction workers was 13.2 workers for every 100,000 workers. Steel erection is dangerous, but it does not have to be if procedures are placed that protect people and are followed.

A Fall Incident that could have been prevented

On Tuesday, April 28th, 2009 (Lueck, 2008), an ironworker was critically injured when he fell twenty-five feet from a building under construction in Manhattan, New York.  Witnesses reported that the ironworker was trying to maneuver a twenty-foot steel I-beam being hoisted into place by a crane.  The worker slipped and fell from the second story of the building at about 8:30 a.m.  Witnesses said that an early morning drizzle may have made the steel slippery but did not know if that caused him to fall.  The ironworker was seen grabbing for the I-beam to steady themself.  According to witnesses, the worker fell to a concrete slab, fracturing their safety helmet, and losing consciousness.  Minerva Joubert, a spokeswoman for Bellevue Hospital Center, said he underwent three hours of surgery and was in critical condition. 

Reading the article published in the New York Times about his event leads one to conclude that the ironworker was at the perimeter (unprotected side or edge) of the structure, connecting on the second story of the building twenty-five feet above the ground without required fall protection.  OSHA regulations are clear:

§1926.760(a)(1) Except as provided by paragraph (a)(3) of this section, each employee engaged in a steel erection activity which is on a walking/working surface with an unprotected side or edge more than 15 feet (4.6 m) above a lower level shall be protected from fall hazards by guardrail systems, safety net systems, personal fall arrest systems, positioning device systems or fall restraint systems.

1926 Subpart R Steel Erection

OSHA’s Interpretation of the Incident

Initially, OSHA’s representative stated they did not believe the ironworker was required to be secured by a lanyard if he was working no higher than thirty feet (Lueck 2008).  After further investigation, OSHA found that the ironworker should have been protected from falling, but he was not adequately trained per federal regulations.  Additionally, they found the employer had not properly trained the employee in using ladders or the hazards associated with steel erecting.  OSHA issued four citations; two for training, one for fall protection in steel erection, and one for ladder use totaling $9,200.00 (OSHA, 2009).

Why did it happen in the First Place?

The weather condition reported may have contributed to a slippery surface, but this fall incident occurred because of management failures.  Management failed to preplan the work (Levy, 2008).  The hazard could have been recognized and avoided if the contractor had conducted proper preplanning.  The contractor did not provide employees with appropriate equipment to protect them from fall hazards.  Management failed to train employees to recognize the hazards associated with working at heights during steel erection.  This injury resulted from management’s lack of knowledge or commitment to safety (Goetsch, 2010).

How to Prevent a Similar Incident

Stopping falls like the one discussed above requires implementing a safety management system that exceeds OSHA minimum requirements.  Industry best practice is to adopt a six-foot fall rule requiring fall protection for all situations in construction where an employee is exposed to a fall greater than six feet.  Once developed, managers must convey the program to the affected employees (Goetsch, 2010).  Project orientation designed to train employees on the hazards associated with their work can help to ensure falls do not happen.  Enforcement of the program is another critical component.  Frontline managers cannot walk by potential hazardous situations without correcting them.  The following programs address fall protection in steel erection, the implementation of which would have prevented the incident discussed above.

Stricker Steel Erection Requirements

Connectors and employees working in controlled decking zones shall be protected from fall hazards as outlined in this paragraph.  Each connector shall: Be protected from fall hazards of more than six feet above a lower level; Have completed connector training per §1926.761; at heights over six feet above a lower level, with a personal fall arrest or restraint system, positioning device system, and wear the equipment necessary to be tied off; or be provided with other means of protection from fall hazards per §1926.760(a)(1).

Guardrail systems, personal fall arrest or restraint systems, positioning device systems, and components shall conform to the criteria in §1926.502.  Fall arrest or restraint system components shall be used in fall restraint systems and shall conform to the criteria in §1926.502.  Body harnesses shall be used in fall restraint systems.  Perimeter safety cables shall meet the criteria for guardrail systems in §1926.502.

On multi-story structures, steel erectors shall install perimeter safety cable (guardrail system) top rails at forty-two inches plus the height of the finished floor.  The midrail should split the difference between the finished floor and top rail.   Cables cannot deflect more than three inches and must be flagged every six feet and inspected twice daily for compliance.  The final interior and exterior perimeters shall be installed as soon as the metal decking has been installed (§1926.760 (a)(2)).   A mechanical device must be in place to adjust cables every sixty feet on each floor.         

After steel erection activities have been completed, the controlling contractor’s representative must direct the steel erector to leave all fall protection systems in place.  The directive should be in writing, and the controlling contractor must inspect and accept control and responsibility of the fall protection system before other trades work in the area. Other trades may not use the fall protection systems until authorized by the controlling contractor.  No one may enter the steel erection area until the steel erector gives written notification to the controlling contractor that it is safe and the controlling contractor’s authorized representative has accepted the area to be safe.

In Conclusion

With proper planning and training, falls in construction can be eliminated.  The construction industry loses too many people because of falls.  Implementing a safety program beyond the basic requirements set by regulation is only the first step in eliminating falls for Ironworkers.  There must be a cultural shift.  The only way to change a culture is for managers at every level to discuss and model expected behaviors.  People working in construction must know what behaviors are acceptable while at work.  Contractors must reinforce this behavior.  Falls can be eliminated.

Contact me if you would like an example of a steel erection safety plan or a contractor notice of acceptance.


David L. Goetsch (2010).  Construction Safety and the OSHA Standards (1st Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Sidney Levy M. (2008).  Construction superintendent’s operations manual.  (2 ed.).  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Joe Teeples (2010).  What every supervisor must know about OSHA- construction: 2010. Chicago, IL: Wolters Kluwer Law & Business.

Thomas J. Lueck (2008) Iron Worker Falls 25 Feet From Building – New York Times, Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/30/nyregion/30fall.html

OSHA (2009) Inspection: 312520315 – Falcon Steel Company Inc., Retrieved from: http://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.inspection_detail?id=312520315