It might seem like just plain common sense that sending workers to do a job near the edge of an overpass means you need to equip them with fall protection. But fall injuries and fatalities continue in roadworks projects. In May of 2012, a construction worker fell 21 feet to his death from a Highway 99 overpass in Chico while attempting to install a 70 pound “gawk screen”. As a result, the construction company in charge of the job has been fined $32,125 by Cal-OSHA for serious and general safety violations. The worker’s family is also considering a lawsuit.
Not a Lot of Wiggle Room
Naturally, the employer is appealing the state’s fines. However, the allegations made by DOSH after the fatal fall are very troubling. They note that:
- The “k” rail or temporary concrete traffic barrier was not of a sufficient height to protect against a fall
- There was no fall protection plan in place
- The worker was wearing no fall prevention gear
- The construction firm did not conduct a survey of site conditions to determine predictable hazards and the safeguards necessary to prevent accidents
Were These Hazards Really Predictable?
Absolutely. In fact, back in 1996, the dangers of installing and maintaining gawk screens were well known. The irony of worksite accidents occurring while attempting to make freeways safer for drivers has not been lost on Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation). A spokeswoman gave this quote to the Los Angeles Times 17 years ago about reasons for phasing out these screens, “In maintaining and replacing them, we were exposing our maintenance workers to unsafe hazards.” Redundant phrasing aside (since hazards are by definition unsafe), this is a pretty good indication that public agencies and their subcontractors should be aware of the inherently dangerous nature of roadwork projects.
Since the 1990s, roadways certainly haven’t become a safer place for workers. There’s no excuse for failing to identify and reduce risks. If the facts stated by Cal-OSHA inspectors stand up to scrutiny, there’s little chance that the construction company can avoid liability both for the penalties and the subsequent wrongful death litigation. If your agency has any plans to send crews out on the road this season, ensure you start every job with a site survey to identify hazards!