Several years ago, Risk Management expert Sean Purcell was called to investigate a construction worker fatality in North Carolina. As Purcell pulled up to the job-site, he saw a two-story house with a complete roof and its siding underway. Inside the front door, he found a two-story foyer where the fatality had taken place.

When he looked up, he noticed a walkway that ran from one side of the foyer to the other. There were no guardrails. When he looked down, he saw blood on the subfloor.  

At the time of the accident, the employee had been carrying lumber across the unprotected walkway. The employee lost his balance and fell 12 feet to the subfloor below, landing head first and bringing the lumber down on top of him.   

The employee was fatally injured in the fall, breaking his neck and sustaining numerous facial fractures and lacerations. He was married with two young children. And although he had been working in construction for five years as a laborer, it was only his second week on this job.  

Falls can cost lives.

Had there been proper guardrails where required on the job-site, this accident would have been 100% preventable. After speaking with the subcontractor’s team, Purcell learned guardrails were not a part of their safety culture. They installed guardrails only when the general contractor specifically required them and felt guardrails took too long to install. Guardrails were the GC’s responsibility anyway — or so they thought.

The subcontractor received a large fine from OSHA, as did the GC. Had they realized that a fall would cost a team member his life, perhaps they would have done things differently.

The insurance claim was paid out to the widow, but Purcell is positive she would rather have had her husband and the father of her children home instead.

Understand the financial repercussions.

Purcell has investigated many fall-related claims since this case. While falls don’t always cost a life, they can cause serious injury and have huge financial repercussions. Take a look at these claims involving the lack of or improper use of guardrails, and notice the total costs from the injury reports:

Total: $2,604,500
The injured worker was on a second-floor balcony when he leaned over to call to an employee below. The temporary handrail wasn’t installed properly and gave way. He was put under a chemically induced coma and intubated on a ventilator with a chest tube in place after sustaining 12 broken ribs, a spinal fracture, a sacral pelvic fracture, and a right hemopneumothorax.

Total: $4,110,653
The injured worker fell 36 feet from a third floor that did not have guardrails. He suffered traumatic brain injury, scapula fracture, multiple pelvic fractures, abdominal injuries, pulmonary contusion, and spleen laceration.

Total: $2,470,000
The claimant stepped on a loose board and fell approximately seven feet to the ground through an unguarded opening. The claimant was diagnosed with acute spinal cord injury due to the fall and is completely paralyzed from vertebra T-11 (right above the waist) down.

Total: $4,870,000
A third party entered the insured’s home and fell 14 feet through a floor opening that was not properly protected. He sustained right leg, sacral, and scapula fractures, traumatic brain injury, and multiple pelvic fractures.

Total: $3,541,000
A subcontractor fell down an unsecured stairway without handrails, sustaining multiple fractures, spinal cord injury, hemorrhagic shock, and hematoma.

Total: $5,000,000
A real estate agent entered a home with potential buyers. As they went up the stairs, the agent’s high heel went into a gap between two 2x4s, and she fell off the unguarded stairwell to her death.

Guardrails save lives and money.

As an industry, we can’t afford to continue thinking of guardrails as a maybe instead of a must.

These totals are high enough to put a company out of business, even if the injured worker is able to return to work. However, the cost of a life is beyond measure.

Guardrails protect your team and your business. We encourage you to review the training programs and resources you have in place. Have you created a safety culture where everyone feels responsible for the lives of workers and visitors alike?

Next in our guardrails series is a product review of the fall protection systems available on the market.