Work-related deaths are more common in construction than in any other industry. The AllLaw website cites these statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: 18.5 percent of U.S. workplace deaths occur in the construction industry and 57 percent of those deaths are caused by what the agency calls "the fatal four": falls, electrocutions, being struck by an object, or being caught in between objects—that is, crushed by cranes, bulldozers, etc.
If you’ve—knock on wood—never had an accident on a jobsite, or there has been an accident but the injuries weren’t severe, count yourself lucky. What would happen if an accident occurred and the injuries were severe, or even fatal?
Expect an OSHA investigation
For a roof fall (or a fall from scaffolding) there will almost certainly be an OSHA (or similar state agency) investigation. OSHA procedure, as outlined in agency documents, is complex. But it will involve interviewing all witnesses, mapping the site to see who was where when the accident occurred, determining the sequence of events, and so on. Investigators will want you to show that you had safety rules and equipment in place and will expect you to prove documentation showing that your employees were trained in the use of the equipment and in how to maintain it. Lie to OSHA, and you could end up behind bars, as was the case with a Philadelphia roofer who also instructed his employees to lie to OSHA investigators after a worker fell from scaffolding and died in 2013 while working on a church.
If you’ve previously been cited by the agency, that investigation will be particularly rigorous. Regarding a fatal five-story fall from scaffolding, one North Carolina law firm observes, “While many companies do try their best to adhere to proper safety protocol, we see the same offenders violating these laws again and again.” (Here are their suggestions on scaffolding safety
Other parties besides OSHA may also investigate
OSHA (or a comparable state agency) isn’t the only party that may be involved in an investigation. A law firm may send in investigators if a suit has been filed. An insurance company may investigate, if relatives file a workers’ compensation claim. Or, a “third-party investigator” such as Safety Management Group could get involved. (You may even be the one hiring that third-party investigator.) SMG, recommending a “third-party investigator” as a way of ensuring an “objective investigation,” says that its professionals are “trained in construction accident, fatality, injury, and near-miss investigations.”
Prepare for a lawsuit
According to the website AllLaw, in the aftermath of a fatal jobsite accident, “a lawsuit is the furthest thing from the minds of close family members.” But, with the disappearance of a breadwinner, people begin to examine their options. Any lawyer they’re in touch with will quickly inform them that there’s a limited amount of time to file. (In fact, that amount of time varies from state to state.) Of potential suits that your company could be hit with, one law firm’s site points out that there are two kinds: Wrongful Death, and Survivor Actions. Defining these, the site states: “The wrongful death claim refers to the claims of a grieving spouse and the decedent’s children, while the survival claim refers to any pain and suffering or lost lifetime wages of the decedents.” The company notes “in the vast majority of cases, the deceased worker’s family files both claims in the same case.”
Beasley points out that Pennsylvania juries reject 90 percent of medical malpractice claims because they’re so difficult to prove, but “juries in construction site falls … are more welcoming to wrongful death claims because the standards governing those companies are so clear.”
You could be criminally charged
In May 2014, criminal charges against Joe Novack, owner of Black River Builders, in Sparta, Mich., were dismissed by a judge—but not before Novack found himself facing a year in jail as the result of a rooftop fall that resulted in the death of 38-year-old subcontractor foreman Brian Tarachanowicz. Novack’s attorney, Tom McCarthy, called the situation “a tragic accident, but not a crime,” and the judge apparently concurred.
Procedures Prevent Injuries
The simplest way to prevent on-site accidents or injuries is to establish procedures that minimize the possibility of them occurring. Note: “OSHA's construction standards require construction employers to have accident prevention programs that provide for frequent and regular inspection of the jobsites, materials, and equipment by competent persons designated by the employers.”
Take the following steps, and document that you have taken them:
- Acquire appropriate safety equipment;
- Train workers in the use and maintenance of the equipment;
- Appoint someone on staff as safety director (preferably someone who has taken an OSHA safety course);
- Assess your jobsites for potential hazards and take necessary measures to minimize the risk of accident or injury.
Start with the OSHA Pocket Guide that explains the agency’s safety standards and requirements. See also the website of Trent Cotney, a Tampa, Fla., lawyer who specializes in construction litigation and arbitration (including OSHA citation defense) and who offers this information about How to Stop OSHA Violations Before They Happen.