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An analysis of construction accidents from a design perspective.

Behm M
Silver Spring, MD: The Center to Protect Workers' Rights, 2006 Jan; :1-19
The author analyzed 450 reports of construction workers' deaths and disabling injuries to determine whether addressing safety in the project designs could have prevented the incidents. The reports were obtained through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Using an investigation model developed for this research, the author found that in 151 cases (about one-third of those studied), the hazard that contributed to the incident could have been eliminated or reduced if design-for-safety measures had been implemented. The author aims to demonstrate the value of incorporating design considerations into a systems approach to improving safety on construction sites. Designing for safety is defined as the consideration of construction site safety in the preparation of plans and specifications for construction projects. The process often involves specifying permanent features of a project to address construction worker safety. For instance, parapet walls designed to be at least 42 inches high act as a guardrail and can provide fall protection to construction workers (Gambatese 2005; Trethewy and Atkinson 2003). Designing for safety also encompasses communicating about the safety hazards at the construction work site, for instance, noting on contract drawings the location of existing overhead power lines. The concept of designing for safety is consistent with the traditional "hierarchy of controls" approach used by safety professionals. This hierarchy calls for eliminating or minimizing a workplace hazard before relying on personal protective equipment or administrative or temporary controls to protect workers (Manuele 1997). Although construction safety professionals view the design-for-safety concept as a viable means of protecting workers, architects and design engineers (together referred to as "design professionals" in this report) are reluctant to adopt this intervention as part of their standard practice (Gambatese 2005). Design professionals lack motivating forces - legal, contractual, or regulatory - to adopt design-for-safety methods. These professionals may also avoid addressing worker safety out of fear that doing so will open them to lawsuits by an injured construction worker (Gambatese 1998; Coble 1997). Moreover, design professionals' codes of ethics, such as the code established by the American Institute of Architects (2004), set ethical priorities for ensuring final occupant safety and safety of the finished product, but do not address the safety of the workers performing construction. Regulatory and contractual requirements place the primary responsibility for construction site safety on the constructor. (In this report, "constructor" means the construction firms, contractors, and subcontractors responsible for building a project and employing the construction workers.) For instance, the federal OSHA regulations place the responsibility for worker safety on the constructor as the primary employer. Project owners who make safety a priority also place the responsibility for construction site safety directly on the constructor, by showing preference for pre-qualified contractors who have good safety records, lower insurance rates, and comprehensive safety programs. Research into the root causes of construction accidents has also focused on the role of the constructor. Abdelhamid and Everett (2000) evaluated construction accidents in the United States and developed a model for tracing the root causes of accidents. Their research addressed activities and conditions at the construction site but did not consider potential root causes in the project concept and design phases. The authors attributed unsafe conditions to four main causes: management action/inaction, unsafe acts of workers and co-workers, events not directly human-related (such as equipment failure and natural disasters), and unsafe conditions that are a natural part of the construction site (such as uneven terrain and concealed ditches). Abdelhamid and Everett's approach is consistent with conventional accident root-cause analysis, focusing solely on the actions and inactions of the constructor, rather than adopting a broader view of accident causality that looks at upstream influences, including the design process. One recent study of causal factors in construction accidents looked at the designer's role. Haslam and others (2003) studied the causes of 100 construction accidents in the United Kingdom, and found that permanent works designers (synonymous with "design professionals" in the United States) could have reduced the risk associated with the accidents in almost half of the cases. The authors also developed a construction accident causality model that described immediate causes, shaping factors, and originating influences in construction accidents. They concluded that the permanent works design influences the workers' activities, the site, and the materials and equipment specified for construction.
Construction; Construction-industry; Construction-workers; Construction-materials; Safety-education; Safety-measures; Safety-practices; Work-environment; Work-practices; Equipment-design; Attitude; Professional-workers; Engineering; Engineering-controls; Environmental-engineering; Environmental-technology; Worker-motivation; Control-equipment; Control-systems; Control-technology; Safety-engineering; Safety-climate; Worker-health; Regulations; Accident-analysis; Accident-prevention; Accidents; Accident-potential
Building and Construction Trades Dept., AFL-CIO: CPWR, Suite 1000, 8484 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910
Publication Date
Document Type
Funding Type
Cooperative Agreement; Construction
Fiscal Year
Identifying No.
Priority Area
Source Name
An Analysis of Construction Accidents from a Design Perspective
Performing Organization
The Center to Protect Workers' Rights
Page last reviewed: March 18, 2022
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division