Construction-related injuries are decreasing. This trend is most likely due to increased awareness of the potential risks surrounding construction jobsites. Although the concrete industry boasts one of the lower jobsite-injury rates, an understanding of the potential risks of concrete construction and proper training is necessary to limit injuries.
It is often said that everyone is a safety official—any person can call a halt to operations if conditions look unsafe. In fact, the ultimate safety of a construction project is the responsibility of everyone associated with the project. Owners are tasked with implementing a safety program and providing safety equipment; managers are responsible for conducting safety training, planning jobs according to the safety program, and ensuring employees are adhering to safety standards; superintendents and foremen must enforce the safety regulations and be prepared to halt unsafe actions; and the workers utilize safety training by recognizing hazards, wearing and using safety equipment, policing fellow workers, and reporting unsafe conditions.
Recognizing health and safety hazards is the most important element in preventing injury and death. The second element is the precaution implemented to prevent or reduce the hazard.
Health and Safety Hazards
Construction jobsites are full of hazards, and concrete construction jobsites are no exception. These hazards can be dissected into categories for better reference.
Cement comprises 7 to 15 percent of total concrete volume. As an alkaline material, wet cement is caustic, and can cause severe chemical burns to exposed skin and eyes. Thus, working with fresh concrete presents an obvious risk. That’s why it’s so important to always wear water-proof gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, full-length trousers, and proper eye protection. If you have to stand in wet concrete, use water-proof boots that are high enough to keep concrete from flowing into them. Wash wet concrete, mortar, cement, or cement mixtures from your skin immediately. Flush eyes with clean water immediately after contact. Indirect contact through clothing can be as serious as direct contact, so promptly rinse out wet concrete, mortar, cement or cement mixtures from clothing. And always seek immediate medical attention if you have persistent or severe discomfort.
In addition to the caustic nature of cement, 95 percent of cement particles are smaller than 45 µm.—compared to tobacco smoke of approximately 3 µm—suggesting that the danger of inhalation is possible. Workers opening bags or sacks of cement and cement products should always wear a dust mask in addition to their regular safety attire.
Rotating machinery is always a potential source of injury on a jobsite. Early-entry saws, concrete/masonry saws, cut-off saws, and power trowels pose a threat to appendages when used improperly. In addition, any sustained or sudden noise above 85 decibels emanating from machinery can be damaging to the ear.
Hydraulic jacks used in shoring, compressed air and hydraulic concrete pumps, belt conveyors, welding equipment, post-tensioning jacks, demolition devices, and other equipment also create potential hazards on a concrete construction site.
Besides the mechanized saws and power trowels listed above, sharp-edged trowels, hammers, chisels, utility knives, etc. can be dangerous if used carelessly or incorrectly. Long-handled bullfloats, when used near utility wires, can also be dangerous.
The number-one leading cause of construction-related injuries and fatalities is attributed to falls from height. Sources of height associated with concrete construction include but are not limited to scaffolding, ladders, bucket-trucks, catwalks, elevated or wall forms, and elevated floors. Owners, managers, contractors, and laborers should be aware of specific height sources on a project as they are virtually unavoidable in construction.
As a practice, concrete placement and finishing is one of the most benign forms of construction. However, certain practices associated with concrete construction contribute to risks. The use of cranes for lifting and placing concrete buckets, for tilt-up concrete panels, and for lifting precast members present hazards to the finishers and erectors. Concrete pumping, hydro-demolition, or shotcreting operations where high pressures are generated in hoses prompt safety concerns for the nozzle men. Reinforcement construction can demand heavy materials, protruding steel, oxyacetylene torches or welding equipment, and height sources, each of which introduces a safety hazard either singularly or in any combination. Post-tensioning operations impart stresses nearly equal to the yield strength of prestressing tendons – which can be 250,000 psi. Such forces are dangerous to jack-operators or on-looking personnel. Precast plants with heavy table forms, consolidation equipment, and curing rooms must follow safety procedures.
The general condition of the jobsite can also be hazardous. Cramped, confined projects or sections of a project affect operations and safety. Locations exposed to traffic, utility wires, excavations, or hazardous materials can produce unsafe conditions. Even weather (i.e.: snow, ice, rain, standing water, heat) can result directly in injury or combine with another risk to inflict injury to workers.
When potential hazards are considered and combined with preventive measures, the occurrence of work-related injuries and death can be significantly reduced.
In general, hardhats and hearing protection are always necessary on a construction site when overhead hazards and loud or sustained noise is present. When working with cement, sand, or any other fine material, the use of a respirator is necessary.
For more information on personal protection when working with concrete, see PCA’s Skin Safety with Cement and Concrete.
All equipment should be properly maintained and equipped with manufacturer-recommended safety devices. Disabling or removing safety devices is dangerous and should be avoided. All unsafe or inoperable equipment should be marked as such to prevent further use of the equipment.
All workers should be trained and tested by the manager or superintendent before operating any equipment (from drills to backhoes). Knowledge of the hazards associated with specific equipment is the first line of defense against injury.
Although anyone may recognize a safety hazard, it is the responsibility of the manager to provide a safe jobsite for workers. As such, the manager or superintendent should ensure that potential hazards at the project site are identified and corrected or, at minimum, made known to employees. This preparation should be directed to the categories of safety hazards listed above.
For more information regarding construction safety, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or check out the ASCC Safety Manual available from the American Society for Concrete Contractors.