Falls at Construction Sites & Legal Issues
According to the Occupational Health Safety Administration (OSHA), falls are the leading cause of construction site accidents resulting in injury or death. Workers who are six feet or more above a ground-floor level are at risk for serious injury or death. They may fall from roofs, scaffolding, and ladders. Many falls are preventable.
Under the OSHA regulations, employers are required to provide appropriate safety equipment and gear to prevent falls and other accidents. In general industry, fall protection must be provided at four-feet elevations, and in shipyards, fall protection must be provided at five-feet elevations. Fall protection must be provided at six feet at construction sites.
In addition to supplying safety gear, contractors and other construction employers should guard holes in the floor into which workers can walk and fall through by installing a railing, floor hole cover, or toe-board. Similarly, a guardrail and toe-board must be installed around runways, elevated open-sided platforms, elevated floors, and dangerous machines or equipment, such as a vat of hazardous liquid.
Other appropriate fall protection measures in these situations include stair railings, handrails, safety nets, and safety harnesses and lines. Contractors must also offer working conditions free of known dangers and dangers that should be known, keep floors clean and dry, train workers about job hazards in languages they understand, and choose personal protective equipment at no cost to workers.
However, when initially estimating the cost of a job, some employers fail to account for all hazards, including holes and edges, and fail to include adequate fall protection in the budget. Other times, workers are not adequately trained in using protective equipment. Workers who do not understand the appropriate use of equipment are less likely to be able to guard against falls.
Roof work, for example, has a high potential for an injury-producing fall. One way to prevent these falls is with a personal fall arrest system in which each worker ties off to the anchor and uses a harness. The system must fit the individual worker, but a worker who does not understand the importance of fit may use gear meant for a much larger or smaller individual.
Recovering Damages After a Construction Site Fall
If you are an employee of a contractor or subcontractor on a construction site and suffer injuries from a fall, your financial recovery is likely to be affected by workers' compensation laws. When your employer is the only party responsible for providing protection against falls, you may only be able to recover workers' compensation benefits. Most likely, you will not be able to sue your employer in civil court for damages. In some states, however, an employee may sue an employer or its agent that acts intentionally to cause an employee's fall or other injury.
In many states, you can sue other parties that may be responsible for your construction site fall, such as the property owner, safety equipment manufacturers, or a third-party contractor. For example, if your employer provided you with a safety harness that you used properly but that had a defect, you may be able to file a products liability case against the manufacturer of the harness. Or, for example, if you fall through a non-obvious hole while estimating a project, before construction has started, and the property owner failed to warn you of it, you may be able to file a premises liability lawsuit against the property owner.
When multiple contractors are responsible for safety and construction site conditions, it may be appropriate to bring all of those contractors not specifically excluded from being sued under workers' compensation laws into a lawsuit to apportion liability and obtain damages. Often, an analysis of construction contracts and testimony from knowledgeable employees of each party will help determine who was in control of the location where the fall occurred.
Many construction site falls are caused by a violation of OSHA regulations. In some states, a violation of an OSHA regulation that causes a construction site fall can give rise to negligence per se. Unlike lawsuits based on ordinary negligence, when negligence per se applies, there will be an inference of negligence, which makes winning the case easier for the plaintiff.
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