Play It Safe: How to Lower Your Risk for Jobsite Falls

Falls from ladders, scaffolding and roofs can be extremely costly to painting businesses and their employees. Here’s how to avoid them.

The primary business goal of any painting operation is growth. The primary business function – to paint surfaces. But when it comes to your employees, neither of these take top priority. The most important thing is to keep you and your team safe on the job.

On the surface, that may seem obvious. But jobsite realities offer no shortage of serious safety risks day in and day out. Your painters ascend and descend towering extension ladders. They scale scaffolding and platforms multiple stories up. They traverse perilous rooftops. The risk factors are high, and your employees are constantly operating in scenarios in which one misstep could lead to a potentially fatal fall – which happens more frequently than you might think.

According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor data, slips, trips and falls caused nearly 800 fatalities in 2018 and many more injuries in the workplace. Within the construction industry, falls are the number one cause of fatalities, with an average of more than 10,000 seriously injured and more than 200 construction workers killed every year. That’s roughly one-third of all on-the-job injury deaths.

The risk for painters

Painters in particular are exposed to several occupational risk factors for falling. “These injury risk factors can be classified into three major groups: environmental factors, job task factors, and human factors,” says Dr. Hongwei Hsiao, Chief of the Protective Technology at The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and author of Fall Prevention and Protection: Principles, Guidelines and Practices.

Environmental factors include variations in structure configurations, work heights, weather, and lighting conditions. Job task factors include worker overreaching, overhead painting, ladder and scaffold access, mobile platform use, time constraints, and availability and use of fall protection devices like guard rails, safety nets and fall arrest harnesses. And human factors include a worker’s health, age, risky behaviors and situational awareness.

Painters are second only to roofers in the incidence of nonfatal falls on the job, according to the most recent statistics. And falls from ladders, specifically, make up nearly a third of all fall fatalities. In starker terms, a work-related ladder fall fatality occurs, on average, every two days.

But perhaps the most notable detail among them all is this: These falls are preventable. It’s no surprise, then, that for 10 years in a row, fall protection has been the most frequent citation of Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standards, with thousands of violations every year.

The rising costs of falling

Small business contractors may be particularly at risk for falls, says Hsiao. “Often, workers and employers may not respect the potential severity of fall hazards or may not be familiar with the resources available to address these challenges,” he notes.

Adhering to OSHA fall protection standards is, first and foremost, about saving lives and protecting the painters who serve you and your business.

But there’s also a strong business argument for maintaining stringent safety standards: Falls and injuries are financially costly for painting businesses, both directly and indirectly.

First are the direct medical costs your business will incur, including workers’ compensation claims. Workers’ comp costs differ by construction sub-sector, but a National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) study estimated that workers’ compensation costs for construction industry employers are 71 percent higher than the percentage for the overall goods producing industries combined. Claims related specifically to falls from ladders or scaffolding average out at nearly $70,000 per incident, according to OSHA.

Direct medical costs, however, are just the beginning of the impact on your bottom line. There are also the costs of OSHA penalties – which have consistently increased over the years – for any preventable hazard that led to the fall. A single OSHA violation today can cost up to $13,494. Failure to correct the factors that cause the violation can cost $13,494 per day until they’re corrected, and a willful or repeated violation can cost a massive $134,937.

Related to OSHA penalties are the costs of remediating the safety problem (including, in some cases, costly equipment repair or replacement), regulatory paperwork and inspections for approval to return to active work and lost production from down time.

Other indirect costs of an injury, which are often harder to calculate, can include lost staff productivity, increases to your insurance premium, lower company morale and the potential loss of new business if your reputation takes a hit. The Safety Management Group estimates the indirect costs of an on- the-job injury total, on average, four to 10 times the amount of the direct costs, with a $2,500 emergency room visit ballooning to a cost of $10,000 to your business.

For valuable context, OSHA’s $afety Pays cost calculator can offer a look at the total impact an injury can have on your profit margin.

Safety tips and tools

On the flip side, according to OSHA, upholding an effective safety and health program can save $4 to $6 for every $1 invested in time or resources. As a leader in your painting company, the effort starts with you – it’s your responsibility to prioritize fall safety training and to model how seriously you take a strict safety regimen for your company.

How you implement or enhance fall safety policies will depend on your culture, but a good starting point is to familiarize yourself and your staff with fall prevention standards of the Fall Prevention Campaign, a combined effort by OSHA, NIOSH, the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA).

The campaign is founded on three basic principles:

  1. Planning ahead to get the job done safely. This means knowing what time and extra safety gear are required to get the job done safely, then ensuring those costs are reflected in estimates to your customers.
  2. Providing the right equipment to keep your team safe. When workers are six feet or higher off the ground, they’re at risk of serious injury or even death. Choosing the appropriate ladders, platforms and scaffolding for your specific job is a critical step in helping to reduce the hazard of falls.
  3. Training everyone to use the equipment properly. The right equipment only goes so far. Your team needs to know the proper methods for setting up their gear and using it to prevent falls on the job.

There is an abundance of free industry resources available to help inform you, train your team and keep safety at the forefront of everyone’s focus while on the job. Learn more about these useful tools in our companion story, Free Resources for Professional Painters: Ladder Safety and Fall Prevention.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of PPC magazine. Written by Diane Walsh, Vice President, Market & Channel Development for Shurtape Technologies, LLC, makers of FrogTape brand painter’s tape. She is a regular contributor to PPC magazine.