OSHA's "Fatal Four" – Leading Causes of Fatalities in the Workplace
By Dennis K. Neitzel, CPE, CESCP
AVO Training Institute, Director Emeritus
Beginning in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has partnered with employers, health and safety professionals, and other safety advocates as a means of establishing safe and healthful workplaces throughout industry. Fortunately, over the years, injuries and fatalities in the workplace have decreased substantially. Unfortunately, there are many workplace injuries and fatalities that continue to occur every day. OSHA reports that there an average of 12 work-related fatalities throughout the United States every day.
As an example, the leading causes of workplace deaths in the construction industry, which is commonly called the “Fatal Four” by OSHA, include:
- Falls: Approximately 36.5% of all deaths in the workplace occurred due to employees falling. These includes workers who have fallen due to unprotected sides or holes, improperly constructed walking or working surfaces, workers who have fallen off ladders, roofs, scaffolding, large skyscraper construction areas, etc., all due to failure to use proper fall protection. Incorporating the OSHA fall protection requirements would resolve these issues, which includes 1910.269(g)(2) Fall Protection.
- Struck by an Object: An estimated 10.1% of deaths occurred due to swinging, falling, or misplaced objects. These also include falling objects due to rigging failure, loose or shifting materials, equipment malfunctions, and vehicle or equipment strikes.
- Electrocutions: About 8.6% of employees died due to electrocution. Workers face a number of electrocution risks on construction sites, such as exposed wiring, wet conditions while outlets are exposed, etc. These are caused by contact with overhead power lines or energized conductors or circuit parts in electrical panels and equipment panels, poorly maintained extension cords and power tools, as well as lightning strikes. Strict adherence to OSHA 1910.331-.335, 1910.269, and NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace would prevent these accidents.
- Caught-in or Caught-between: Employees caught in or between machines, devices, or tools causing death accounted for about 2.5% of deaths. These also include trench or excavation collapses, as well as workers caught between moving or rotating equipment, or caught in collapsing structures or materials.
The 2017 OSHA Top 10 Citations provide another insight into the causes of worker injuries and fatalities.
- Fall Protection – General Requirements (1926.501): 6,072 violations
- Hazard Communication (1910.1200): 4,176 violations
- Scaffolding (1926.451): 3,288 violations
- Respiratory Protection (1910.134): 3,097 violations
- Lockout/Tagout (1910.147): 2,877 violations – frequent violations were inadequate worker training and inspections not completed. Lockout/tagout procedures are meant to safeguard employees when machinery starts up unexpectedly or when hazardous energy is released during maintenance activities. Failing to train workers or conduct periodic inspections account for many of the violations.
- Ladders (1926.1053): 2,241 violations
- Powered Industrial Trucks (1910.178): 2,162 violations
- Machine Guarding (1910.212): 1,933 violations
- Fall Protection – Training Requirements: 1,523 violations
- Electrical – Wiring Methods (1910.305): 1,405 violations – Violations of this standard were found in most general industry sectors, including food and beverage, retail, and manufacturing. Faulty electrical wiring methods accounted for 1,405 violations—down from 1,937 in 2016. Frequent violations include improper use of extension cords.
The numbers of citations and fatalities by electrocution clearly show that exposure to electricity is a major hazard to workers. Electrocution results when a person is exposed to a lethal amount of electrical energy. An electrical hazard can be defined as a serious workplace hazard that exposes workers to the following:
- Arc flash/arc blast
Electrical workers had the most electrocutions per year with the most serious concern from working on “energized” energized electrical conductors or circuit parts or near enough to them to be exposed to the electrical hazards. Proper protocol is deenergizing and using lockout/tagout procedures, or more effectively establishing an electrically safe work condition per Article 120 of NFPA 70E-2018. Among non-electricians (e.g., mechanics, laborers, carpenters, supervisors of non-electrical workers and roofers), failure to recognize and avoid energized electrical conductors or circuit parts, as well as overhead power lines, and a lack of basic electrical safety knowledge are the major concerns.
Major types of electrocution incidents come from:
- Failure to recognize and come into contact with energized sources (energized conductors and circuit parts, damaged or bare wires, defective electrical equipment or power tools)
- Improper use of extension and flexible cords
- Contact with overhead power lines (some think these are “telephone wires”)
To better protect against the electrocution hazards:
- Always lockout/tagout to control the electrical energy source(s)
- Never leave exposed energized conductors or circuit parts unattended (e.g., equipment doors left open or covers left off)
- Locate and identify utilities before starting work; overhead and underground
- Look for overhead power lines when operating any equipment that could make contact
- Maintain a safe distance away from power lines; learn the safe distance requirements
- Do not operate portable electric tools unless they are grounded or double-insulated
- Use ground-fault circuit-interrupters (GFCI) for protection; required for all maintenance and construction work
- Be alert for electrical hazards when working with ladders, scaffolds or other platforms
Taking all of this into consideration, we need to be aware that OSHA 1910.333(c)(2), titled “Work of energized equipment, requires that “only qualified persons may work on electric circuit parts or equipment that have not been deenergized under the procedures of paragraph (b) of this section. Such persons shall be capable of working safely on energized circuits and shall be familiar with the proper use of special precautionary techniques, personal protective equipment, insulating and shielding materials, and insulated tools.” OSHA 1910.335(a)(1)(i) further requires that “employees working in areas where there are potential electrical hazards shall be provided with, and shall use, electrical protective equipment that is appropriate for the specific parts of the body to be protected and for the work to be performed.”
Training qualified electrical workers is vital to the success of any safety program. However, there are a large number of unqualified or non-electrical personnel who are, or may be, exposed to electrical hazards. Anyone who uses portable cord- and plug-connected electrical equipment or extensions cords are required to be trained on the proper selection, use, and inspection before use of this type of equipment.