Injury-proof your construction sites

As office employees rushed to their work on a freezing Friday morning last December, the steel cables of a derrick crane some 200 meters above the streets swayed violently to gale force winds that whipped through the narrow glass and concrete canyons of downtown Toronto’s business district.

In moments, the buffeting winds slam the cables into four panes of plate glass between the 30th and 40th floors of the 51-storey Bay-Adelaide Centre that was under construction. Deadly shards of glass came crashing to the pavement below. The impact sent debris skidding through the busy streets and sidewalks as far as a block away.

Luckily no one was hurt. However, the incident highlights the need for jobsites to be made safe not only for the work crew but for members of the general public as well.

Legal liability

In 2006, close to one million Canadians were injured on the job, about 1,000 workers were killed in workplace accidents and more that $12 billion in compensation was paid out to victims. In Ontario last year, at least 100 workers died due to workplace accidents. In British Columbia, an average of 36 deaths each year are attributed to workplace accidents or injuries in the province’s construction sector alone.

Although staggering, these figures do not reflect the number of non-work crew victims injured or killed in construction or maintenance jobsites. Most workplace occupational safety organization statistics focus on worker casualties rather than those of the public, according to one industry insider.

“Finding records is very hard because the public is rarely involved in worksite accidents. But when it does happen it usually means big trouble,” says Doug McVittie, assistant general manager and director of operations for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario (CSAO). McVittie is a 35-year veteran who has held a wide variety of jobs in the construction industry since age 16.

Whether it’s a massive explosion caused by a road crew that accidentally punctured a gas pipe, tools or debris falling from a condo project or a pedestrian falling into uncovered trench at a construction site, lives are at stake. Contractors and building companies face stiff fines and legal liabilities, while representative and officers of these businesses could be jailed, McVittie says.

Section 217.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code states: “Anyone who undertakes or has the authority to direct how another person does work or perform task is under legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or other persons, arising from that work or task.”

The section also establishes rules for attributing criminal liability to organizations or corporations in the event of injury or death of workers or members of the public. Fine for summary conviction are currently set at $100,000. There is no ceiling set for fines on indictable or more serious offences.

An ounce of prevention
Many potential accidents can easily be avoided when site supervisors have a sharp eye for hazards and a strong resolve to eliminate or mitigate risks, according to Tom Schoenholz, assistant training coordinator for the Canadian arm of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Experts we talked to suggest the following:
Safety inspection teams — Because the construction site environment is constantly changing, Schoenholz suggests that a safety monitor or team be assigned to inspect the jobsite. Team members can take turns conducting the inspection before, after and during work hours. Inspections should be conducted often and regularly and take into account safety of the crew and public.

“Are the materials properly secured and stored. Are debris lying around and a potential slip and fall hazard? Are construction-crew-only areas properly marked and sealed off? It’s usually this little things that are overlooked in the din and activity of the construction site,” he observes.

Safety catch nets — These should be installed alongside multiple storey construction to prevent falling debris or tools for spilling over to streets or pedestrian walkways.
Pathways — Paths adjacent to construction sites are also prone to get muddied and end up becoming slippery, according to the training coordinator. He suggests that supervisors assign workers to keep these areas clean and clear from obstruction. “The last thing you’d want is a person skipping to avoid a muddy pathway only to fall into a trench or get into the path of a truck.”

When work is being done above a pedestrian walkway, a protective hangar or scaffolding should be installed over the path and the main jobsite boarded up, says Schoenholz.

“The main idea is to separate the construction or work area from the public area because every time elements of these two areas meet, there’s a potential for accidents,” explains McVittie of the CSAO.

Signs and barriers — Builders or work crews should check with municipalities to determine the specification for signs and barriers in the area they will be working on, he said.

Typically ,“Danger”, “Keep Off” or “Construction” signs need to be large enough and visible from at least 10 meters away both at night and day.

Barriers or temporary boarding are generally made of plywood faced on a timbre frame with a minimum mass per unit surface area of 7kg/m2. The minimum height above pavement level is usually 2.4 meters.

Access gates, scaffoldings and gantries — Access to and from the site should be organized to allow vehicles to enter and leave the site in a forward gear. When necessary, gate marshals or “flaggers” should be stationed to ensure safety of pedestrians using adjacent public footpaths. Scaffolding and gantries that encroach on or overhang public highway or areas will need approval from authorities.

Vehicle and heavy equipment — When practicable, all loading and unloading of contractor vehicles should be within the site boundary. Police should be consulted about movement of vehicles and heavy equipment if there is potential for traffic congestion and risk to motorists or pedestrians. Parking of construction vehicles should not impede public traffic. Wheel washing facilities in the site will minimize the deposit of mud onto public roads.

Equipment and material handling — “Improperly handled materials and equipment are the most common causes of fires in job sites,” according to Tim Meadows, vice president for sales of Victaulic, a global pipe systems provider with offices in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Tools such as welding equipment should only be operated by trained and licensed operators, he says. Not only does welding pose an electrocution and fire risk, but it also gives off harmful gases.

Gas cans and flammable liquids should be locked and stored in a “flammable substances storage cabinet or trailer.” Fire extinguishers should be within a 50-foot proximity from the storage.

Substances that give off toxic fumes must be kept in a ventilated storage. Handlers must wear appropriate masks or protective clothing, Meadows says.

Electric shock — Running power cables outside the jobsite must be avoided. If this could not be avoided, the cords or cables must be placed away from wet or damp areas, must be covered with non-conducting material and warning signs must be clearly posted. When work or equipment might come into contact with overhead high-tension power lines, heavy-duty insulation must be used to cover the lines.

Trenches and excavations — Excessive trench depth increases the risk of collapse or cave-ins. Collapse protection must be installed and the trench properly sloped before work proceeds.
Any excavation or digging must be properly cordoned off or covered to prevent pedestrians from falling in.

The excavation team must also check with municipal authorities and service companies to ensure that they will not be hitting any power, gas or service lines when they start digging.

Job site safety precautions are typically based on common sense, says McVittie. But site supervisors need to be extra vigilant in order to protect the public from work area hazards.

“Construction workers are used to functioning in a constantly changing environment. The typical pedestrian is not and that’s where all these precautions come into play,” he says.

Nestor E. Arellano is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can contact Nestor at [email protected].