This is the story of Brian Sipes, an ironworker from Colorado who I met at a major project for Intel this year.
I remember the day that I first picked up my tools to become an ironworker. Both my grandfather and father were ironworkers and we were all proud that I decided to continue this tradition in our chosen field of endeavor. I was young, strong and full of enthusiasm for my new job.
Before reporting for work I was reminded of the many facets of my job that would be tough and demanding, and of course, dangerous. I was also reminded that I was not allowed to feel any fear and that any such weakness would probably lead to my demise or a serious injury. After all, it was said that on average an ironworker is seriously hurt or killed within the first seven years in the business. We all knew and accepted this as a fact. We just didn’t talk about it much because to do so would have required us to face the fear we all had but no one wanted to admit.
One day, ‘the monster’ came calling on me. I was working for a company that had accepted and encouraged the use of new safety standards and work practices in our business. The company genuinely tried to comply with both the letter and intent of the law. It implemented a thorough safety plan and provided us with the appropriate fall protection gear needed to meet the policies and standards outlined in that safety plan.
Despite this effort, a series of human errors led to the fall that took me 20 feet down from the steel onto a concrete portion of the building structure. We were placing bundles of decking for installation onto the structural framework on the first floor level as we continued erecting the building. A miscommunication occurred between the signalman and the operator and the load swung into my path knocking me off the steel and to the structure below. Since I was under the required height for mandatory fall protection, I was not using personal fall arrest equipment.
The x-ray tells the story of the painful and serious injuries I suffered as a result of this incident. Notice I did not say accident. I have since come to understand the difference between an accident and an incident. This was not an accident.
In addition to the surgeries and significant pain and permanent damage to my body that affected my ability to work in this trade for the rest of my life, I also learned the impact that such an event has on a family. My children were in the emergency room that day and saw my upper arm bone sticking out of my elbow area along with all the blood and frantic activity that naturally scared them. I’m sure those images will be with them forever. I only hope that they will learn from this experience how important safety is in any job and even at home.
I can also tell you that I was lucky because my employer was kind enough to supplement my income from worker’s comp through the many months I was unable to work. Without their help, I could not have fed, housed and clothed my wife and eight children. Most people injured at work are not nearly as fortunate to have such a wonderful employer.
I hope this story will make all who read it understand the importance of safety in the work place. Falls have killed and maimed many of my co-workers and colleagues over the years. This simply does not have to happen. Safety is important, not because the law says we must do it, but because lives are at stake. Nothing is as important as taking care of yourself and your loved ones.
Brian’s story and many like it are the reason for this discussion about fall protection standards in the steel erection industry. Please look carefully at his x-ray. It is a poignant reminder of why fall protection is so important in our industry.
First, you should know that many communications from the federal OSHA office have repeatedly confirmed that ‘Subpart M’ – Fall Protection Standards for the Construction Industry DO NOT apply to steel erection. Many regional, state and area OSHA offices have attempted to enforce these standards within the steel erection industry. This has left many contractors baffled as to exactly what standards apply and how they are expected to comply with them.
Steel erection was clearly defined and then excluded from the coverage under Subpart M. This was done because standards already existed for this application and because OSHA knew they would be revising these standards to more appropriately reflect current work practices and specific hazards that exist in the industry today.
Currently, a contractor has two choices regarding which set of standards they choose to apply to their steel erection activities. You can either comply with the existing Steel Erection standards, 29 CFR 1926.750-753 as well as 29 CFR 1926.105(a) OR you can elect to comply with the proposed revised steel erection standards as developed by the SENRAC Committee under the negotiated rulemaking guidelines set forth by OSHA.
If you choose the latter you should be aware that OSHA has established one exception to this application. It involves the controlled decking zone and says that a company is not required to provide or ensure the use of fall protection by workers involved in the decking operations until the working height exceeds 30 feet. This assumes, however, that all other requirements of this section of the proposed standards are met in terms of employee qualification, training, etc.
Until new guidelines on this matter are developed or the new standards are fully implemented, the old 25 foot rule, per 29 CFR 1926.750-753, & 105 (a), will be enforced during decking operations. It should be noted that various applications of this policy might occur from office to office within the OSHA system. If you are cited for violations other than these specific standards you should contact a qualified professional to determine how to contest such citations.
My advice for contractors is to work toward a company policy and a plan of action that is in compliance with the new proposed standards since this is acceptable and appropriate under existing policy. Such a move will also ease the transition to the new standards once they are fully implemented. This is especially true for pre-engineered metal building erectors and metal roofers since the new proposed standards are both more specific to, and appropriate for, the general types of conditions and hazards faced by them.
A detailed explanation of the proposed standards will follow in the March issue of metalmag.com. In the meantime, if you have any questions concerning this article of any part or its content please contact me.
Mel Hedin is a Professional Safety Consultant who has authored many training courses, programs, policies, and business communications on occupational safety and health.
He has served as a professional witness in many legal cases and has consulted extensively with the Systems Builders Association, the Associated Builders and Contractors, members of MBMA and with many contractors in the pre-engineered metal building business as well as roofers who specialize in metal roofs and decking installations.
He can be reached at 602-721-3776.