Updated on April 21, 2020
Safety is arguably the most important aspect of the construction industry, as this sector regularly faces many health and safety risks. Losing workers to illness or injury can slow down a project and hurt team morale. However, taking a proactive approach to construction site safety sends two important messages to your employees: that you value them and that you are a trustworthy employer.
One of the best ways to keep employees and your business safe is to keep up with standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While keeping your job sites OSHA compliant may seem like a hurdle, in nearly all cases, it benefits you and your employees’ safety. You want to do the job right, and that means keeping your workers safe.
We’ve created this guide to help you stay OSHA compliant on all your construction sites, so you can protect workers and avoid fees and penalties for noncompliance.
OSHA Construction Safety Standards
OSHA has several resources — with updated best practices — to help construction companies keep their workers safe while remaining OSHA compliant. They recommend the latest construction techniques, equipment, education and more to help employers provide the safest working environment possible. Laborers and unions fought hard for these regulations, and workers today are safer because of them.
Because the construction industry has a higher than average fatal injury rate, OSHA regulations for construction are extensive. You can explore many construction industry guidelines on OSHA’s website. OSHA construction site requirements are contained in a standard divided into the following subparts:
- General Safety and Health Provisions
- Occupational Health and Environmental Controls
- Personal Protective and Life-Saving Equipment
- Fire Protection and Prevention
- Signs, Signals and Barricades
- Materials Handling, Storage, Use and Disposal
- Tools — Hand and Power
- Welding and Cutting
- Fall Protection
- Helicopters, Hoists, Elevators and Conveyors
- Motor Vehicles, Mechanized Equipment and Marine Operations
- Concrete and Masonry Construction
- Steel Erection
- Underground Construction, Caissons, Cofferdams and Compressed air
- Blasting and the Use of Explosives
- Electric Power Transmission and Distribution
- Rollover Protective Structures; Overhead Protection
- Stairways and Ladders
- Toxic and Hazardous Substances
- Confined Spaces in Construction
- Cranes and Derricks in Construction
Getting through all these regulations can be overwhelming. So, we’re going to focus on the most important construction site safety rules that protect people from what OSHA deems the leading construction site hazards. Here are some of the most significant risks and how you can avoid them:
Year after year, falls account for more fatalities than any other type of accident in the construction industry. In 2018, just over a third of all construction fatalities were due to falls.
The main thing to note concerning OSHA’s requirements for fall protection is that workers should never stand on an unstable surface. When they are on a surface elevated six feet or more off the ground, they must be protected with guardrails, safety nets or personal fall arrest systems. These same rules apply when there is a potential for employees to fall into a hole or opening, like a roof skylight. Covering these openings is another way you can protect workers.
Ask yourself — is there a way a worker could fall six feet or more? If so, you know you need to introduce some protective measures.
2. Stairways and Ladders
When workers need to access hard-to-reach or elevated areas, stairways and ladders make all the difference. Because they’re common tools for construction workers, OSHA has a subpart dedicated to regulations for using these instruments on a construction site.
OSHA requires you to provide a ladder or stairway for workers when they need to access a place with a difference in elevation of 19 inches or more. The exception is if you have a ramp, runway, slope or hoist for employees to use to access the higher or lower area.
OSHA lists the exact specifications that ladders and stairways need to meet, so you can avoid accidents. Workers must also be mindful of OSHA’s requirements for using ladders safely. For example, they should always keep one hand on the ladder for balance and support and should face the ladder while moving up or down.
Another one of the leading hazards at construction sites is scaffolding. Scaffolding can protect workers as they access ceilings or upper stories of buildings from the outside. However, these devices can also be dangerous if misused or if the equipment itself is unsafe. OSHA includes a subpart on regulations that apply to scaffolds in construction.
If you use scaffolding at your job site, pay careful attention to these guidelines, which cover things like capacity, scaffold platform construction, access, fall protection and more. These regulations also specify the correct ways to use scaffolding. For example, someone should visually inspect scaffolds and scaffold components before every work shift to make sure there are no defects.
Electrocutions are one of the construction industry’s fatal four. In 2018, 86 construction workers died from electrocution. Other electrical hazards include electric shock, fires and explosions. Following OSHA’s regulations can prevent these terrible tragedies from occurring.
If you work with electrical equipment on your construction site, read through all the standards in Subpart K. Some of these guidelines include providing adequate clearance around electrical devices and using insulation, guarding or other protective measures to keep workers safe. It’s also crucial that workers are aware of any electrical hazards present on the job site, so they can take the necessary precautions.
5. Trenching and Excavation
Trenching and excavation are especially dangerous construction activities, so supervisors and employees must take every step possible to stay safe while working in a trench. Subpart P of the construction standards covers the regulations for trenching and excavation.
Trenches five feet or deeper must have a protective system. OSHA provides a helpful summary of how to create these. The words to remember are slope, shore and shield. Sloping or benching trench walls consists of angling them away from the excavation. You must then shore the walls by installing supports to keep soil from moving. Finally, use trench boxes or other tools to prevent cave-ins — this is shielding.
Read through the relevant regulations if you’re engaging in excavation or trenching work. As always, OSHA is specific in what they consider safe and unsafe practices. Observing these rules can prevent both minor and fatal injuries on the job.
6. Motor Vehicle Safety/Highway Work Zones
If your work zones are on or near a highway, or if you operate motor vehicles on your job site, you need to take precautions to protect workers from vehicle accidents. Most fatalities in road construction work zones in the U.S. are caused by a vehicle or piece of heavy equipment hitting a worker.
- Danger signs
- Caution signs
- Exit signs
- Safety instruction signs
- Directional signs
- Traffic control signs and devices
- Accident prevention tags
Remember to pay attention to Subpart O: Motor Vehicles, Mechanized Equipment and Marine Operations. This section covers other ways you can stay safe while using heavy equipment on your job site.
Other Requirements That May Apply to Your Construction Site
In addition to these key standards — which are relevant to most construction companies — OSHA identifies several other crucial guidelines that commonly apply to construction sites, depending on the type of work you’re doing. Make sure you’re aware of the details of any relevant standards for the work you do. Here are a few to stay on top of:
- Hazard communication: If you work with hazardous chemicals on your job sites and employees may be exposed to these substances, you must follow OSHA’s requirements for hazard communication. Create a written Hazard Communication Program and implement it. You must also provide Safety Data Sheets, give the required training and label hazardous materials accurately.
- Hand and power tools: Hand and power tools are fixtures at nearly every construction job site. OSHA provides some rules for how to use these devices safely. For instance, employers must provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) if they’re using tools that create dust, fumes or other harmful airborne materials.
- Silica: Silica dust is a common hazard on construction sites. Breathing in respirable crystalline silica can lead to problems like silicosis and lung cancer, among other issues. Workers must receive protection from exposure to more than 25 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air (25 μg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA).
- Concrete or masonry: If employees use concrete or masonry products, you need to be mindful of the requirements in Subpart Q of the construction standard. These regulations specify safe practices for using equipment and tools. They also cover specific tasks involved with cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, lift-slab construction and masonry construction.
- Cranes, derricks, hoists, elevators or conveyors: If you use any of these devices on your worksite, you need to review the regulations in Subpart N, which cover the use of helicopters, hoists, elevators and conveyors, and Subpart CC, which covers derricks and cranes.
- Welding, cutting or brazing: If your operations involve welding, cutting or brazing, you want to read up on OSHA’s regulations for engaging in these tasks safely. These rules cover specific directives for gas welding and cutting, arc welding and cutting, fire prevention, ventilation and protection and preservative coatings.
- Confined spaces: Construction workers commonly face hazards associated with confined spaces. These are areas spacious enough for employees to fit inside, but have limited access. These spaces — such as a manhole — aren’t meant for continuous occupancy. Because confined spaces can be dangerous, OSHA provides requirements for protecting employees in these situations.
- Steel erection: If your construction involves steel erection, such as the development or repair of buildings and bridges, review Subpart R. This section covers safe practices for hoisting and rigging, structural steel assembly, falling object protection and more.
- Fire safety and emergency action planning: Construction employers must create and stay on top of a fire protection and prevention program that remains effective throughout all phases of construction work. You should also have an emergency action plan in place, so employees know exactly how to respond during a fire or some other emergency.
Best Practices for Prioritizing Safety
In addition to reviewing the relevant standards, there are more sweeping measures you can take to keep safety at the forefront of your company and fulfill OSHA’s expectations. Here are a few of the best practices:
1. Conduct Regular Inspections
Rather than leaving a construction site’s compliance to chance, project managers need to be proactive about keeping a construction site safe from debris or other unsafe working conditions. Always inspect the worksite and make sure all vehicles and equipment are functioning properly — especially in snow and cold weather. The weather can create hazardous conditions, such as falling trees or down power-lines.
The best way to prevent hazards from slowing down your day is to get to the site ahead of time and do cleanup before workers arrive. This process mitigates risk and communicates to your staff that you are willing to go the extra mile to protect them.
2. Keep the Latest Protective Gear Available for Employees
First-aid kits are a must-have for complying with OSHA standards. Yet, there are other ways to ensure employee safety that managers often overlook. Personal protective equipment is critical to maximizing worker safety. PPE protects workers from variables that create a dangerous environment. While items such as winter gear and hard hats are obvious, it’s important to go above and beyond the bare minimum.
Looking for ways to save your business money is a great idea, but you shouldn’t compromise site safety. Arming your employees with quality PPE sends a positive message and can save them from issues that have long-term effects — in addition to immediate hazards. Items such as hearing protection and respiratory protection are too often overlooked, yet are crucial to preventing incidents on the job.
3. Regularly Train Employees on New Safety Programs
Whenever you implement safety measures, simply announcing the changes isn’t sufficient. Beyond being an OSHA violation, it is also counterproductive to your workers’ understanding of the guidelines. Employees must understand safety rules and be prepared for every situation.
Taking a few hours per month to brief employees on the newest standards and practices will provide a safer environment for all involved. It will also ensure your organization is OSHA compliant. This factor is especially important in the construction industry, where many employees need to use potentially harmful substances on the job.
4. Encourage Communication on Health and Safety Concerns
Among some construction companies, workers experience a stigma against speaking up when there’s a safety concern. Employees want to avoid coming off as whiny, and certain company cultures may encourage “just dealing with it.” However, taking care of safety issues is in everyone’s best interest.
Rather than depending on employees to notify you when something goes wrong, actively encourage them to talk about health and safety problems they see on-site. If stigmatization is a problem in your organization, work to build a stronger safety culture and allow employees to submit concerns anonymously if needed.
How to Pass OSHA Job Site Inspections
If you have more than 10 employees, OSHA has the right to randomly inspect your job site to ensure you’re providing a safe working environment for your workers. Individuals and unions who are afraid for their safety can request an OSHA inspector to come out. When this occurs, employers rarely receive advanced notice, so you always need to be ready. Learn what these inspections tend to look like, so you can prepare and pass.
OSHA inspections start and end with a conference. In-between this briefing and debriefing is a walk-through of all or part of the job site. According to OSHA, the process could take anywhere from a few hours to multiple weeks. It all depends on the size and scope of your construction site and the potential hazards present.
During an OSHA inspection, you should:
- Be compliant: As long as you’re sure it’s truly an OSHA inspector who has arrived, you should comply with the process. Provide the inspector with whatever they ask for and do not do anything to impede their investigation.
- Know your rights: While you definitely want to be compliant, you can also have a say in the process. For instance, the opening conference typically includes both employees and management. If you would prefer for the inspector to address your employees separately, though, you can request that.
- Be transparent: Remember, OSHA is there to aid worker safety, so you should never see them as the enemy. Don’t shut down equipment or change conditions that would normally affect your job site to appear safer. If these practices are indeed unsafe, you want to hear it from the OSHA inspector.
- Have documentation ready: Since OSHA requires employers to have certain things in writing, such as emergency action plans or records of safety issues from past years, you should have these documents ready to show the inspector.
- Accompany the inspector: There should be one representative from management who accompanies the OSHA inspector on their walk-through. This way, you can immediately learn about the inspector’s findings. You may also appoint an employee representative to join.
- Take notes: Make sure you, or whoever is representing management on the walk-through, keep a notebook handy to jot down anything important the OSHA inspector says. Essentially, you want to duplicate the same documentation the inspector is going to come away with.
- Address problems: If the inspector uncovers safety concerns, you should do whatever you can to fix these issues as quickly as possible. Send a letter to the OSHA inspector outlining how you addressed the problems they brought up.
If you want to avoid citations and pass an OSHA inspection, be sure to maintain a safe work environment. You can’t count on avoiding inspection or having lead time to fix problems before an inspector shows up. When OSHA standards influence how you run your company and how employees work on the construction site every day, you’ll be confident if an inspector ever comes knocking at your door. More importantly, you’ll avoid illnesses and accidents that can put your employees out of commission.
Staying Safe on the Job With PowerPak Civil & Safety
Safety should be a top priority for construction companies, and complying with OSHA construction standards is a great way to help you maintain a secure working environment. At PowerPak, we understand just how critical workplace safety is, and we offer many of the tools you need to protect construction workers on the job.
From signage to PPE to first-aid equipment and more, PowerPak has you covered. Our high-quality gear ships quickly, so you’ll get what you need in under 24 hours. To learn more about the products we carry, download our catalog, or contact us with any questions.