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OSHA'S Top 25 Construction Violations

June 1, 2003
Electricians face a wide spectrum of hazards on a jobsite from lead exposure to eye injury. A handful of usual suspects, however, reappear on OSHA's listing of the Top 25 Most Cited Construction Standards year after year. Standards regulating scaffolding, grounding, and excavation are the three most commonly violated in the construction industry. This article will explore this deadly trio and offer insight into the OSHA inspection process.

Electricians once dangled off the sides of buildings without lanyards, traversed jobsites without hardhats, and worked in unshored trenches. These acts of bravado frequently led to serious injuries and sometimes resulted in worker fatalities.

“In the construction industry, people lost their lives all the time, and there wasn't anyone to oversee that or to keep that in check,” says Brian Root, project manager and safety coordinator for Broadway Electrical Construction, Inc., Kansas City, Kan. “The employers would give you a job and you would go do it. It was almost like every man for himself.”

In 1970, the government passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in an effort to lower the number of jobsite fatalities and workplace accidents. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which came about as a result of that act, provides for a safe and healthy workplace for employees. Before OSHA, the government regulated construction safety through the Wage Hour and Construction Act of 1968. Prior to that legislation, workman's comp laws protected employees by providing financial compensation in the event that they were injured on the job. However, they did nothing to improve workplace safety.

“Contractors just counted on a certain number of fatalities, illnesses, and injuries on large construction projects,” says H. Berrien Zettler, deputy construction director for OSHA, Washington, D.C. “That was just considered the price of putting a building up.”

At one time, employers rarely provided protective gear on construction sites, employees were expected to bring their own tools, and construction workers had a certain macho disregard for safety equipment.

“Nowadays, you can't go on a construction site without seeing people wearing hard hats,” says Zettler, who has worked for OSHA since 1975. “It's become a symbol of the trade. In the pre-OSHA days, that was not the case. The culture of the industry was that anyone who wore safety equipment was viewed as a wimp.”

The advent of OSHA, however, changed the safety culture of jobsites nationwide. About 1,000 federal program compliance officers now randomly inspect about 10,000 jobsites each year and hand out citations to contractors who violate the 29 CFR 1926, Safety and Health Standards for Construction. Dangers lurk around every corner on a jobsite, and inspectors typically find violations on every four out of five construction sites, Zettler says.

“It's relatively rare that we go to a construction site where there are no safety and health violations,” he says. “A contractor would have to be very attentive to safety and health to not have any violations. It happens occasionally, but not very often.”

Electricians face a wide spectrum of hazards on a jobsite from lead exposure to eye injury. A handful of usual suspects, however, reappear on OSHA's listing of the Top 25 Most Cited Construction Standards year after year. Standards regulating scaffolding, grounding, and excavation are the three most commonly violated in the construction industry. This article will explore this deadly trio and offer insight into the OSHA inspection process.


Falls accounted for more than one-third of all fatalities on construction sites in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Falls are no doubt the single greatest danger,” says Zettler, who worked as an OSHA compliance officer for six years. “It's so easy for people to not pay attention to their footing when they're focusing on a task.”

Construction workers can lose their balance on a slanted roof or fall off the open side of a floor. The most common fall hazard, however, concerns scaffolding. About 2.3 million construction workers, or 65% of the construction industry, frequently work on scaffolds. Protecting these workers from scaffold-related accidents would prevent 4,500 injuries and 50 deaths every year, according to OSHA.

One of the most frequent scaffolding violations is the failure to fully plank the platform area. OSHA requires that each platform unit must be installed so that the space between adjacent units is no more than 1 in. wide. On some of his inspections, Zettler discovered that construction workers were standing on a single plank.

“Scaffolds are usually in the neighborhood of 4 ft wide, and one plank running between the cross-members is less than 1 ft wide,” he says. “The agency has a requirement that when people are working at a certain level, they have that fully planked. We often find that that is not the case.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 72% of scaffold-related injuries could be attributed to the planking or support giving way, or to the employee slipping or being struck by a falling object. According to OSHA 1926.451(h)(1), employers must either install toeboards, screens, or guardrails to prevent workers from falling or construct debris nets, catch platforms, or canopy structures to protect them from falling objects. The OSHA construction standard also requires that workers use 100% fall protection if they're working on a work surface or a scaffold higher than 6 ft off the ground. Above a certain height, scaffolding must be tied off to a building to prevent it from tipping over. It must also be securely constructed on a stable surface. Zettler recalls seeing cinder blocks used as the footing for the scaffold on some jobsites.

“Cinder blocks can turn over very easily,” Zettler says. “The higher you build the scaffolding, the more top heavy it becomes.”

For a list of OSHA's requirements regarding scaffolding, see the Sidebar below.

Electricians can minimize the risk of falls through the use of guardrails, fall arrest systems, and safety nets. In order to adequately protect the workers, however, the safety equipment must be well maintained.

“If the body harnesses or lanyards have frays in them or look damaged or deficient, they need to be torn up and thrown away,” Root says. “There's no in-between when you're talking about someone's life.”


Construction workers often work near energized overhead or underground power lines, which places them at extreme risk of electrocution. A recent OSHA violation resulted in a fatality and a $105,000 fine when the employee of an electrical contractor came in contact with an energized power line at a substation. The employer failed to ensure that the power lines were properly de-energized and grounded, which led to the electrocution death of the employee.

Paula Walker, a lawyer with Waller, Lansden, Dortch, & Davis, says that improper grounding is a common violation on jobsites.

“It routinely hits the top 25 in terms of citations,” she says. “All of the electrical aspects of the projects involve grounding, so you see that show up quite a bit.”

More contractors are using portable tools on construction sites, and the improper use and maintenance of cords, cord connectors, receptacles, and cord-and plug-connected equipment can cause insulation breaks, short-circuits, and exposed wires. If there's no ground fault protection, the damaged equipment can cause a ground fault capable of sending an electrical current through a worker's body, resulting in electrical shock or death. Because tools often endure a lot of wear-and-tear on a jobsite, electricians should always inspect electrical equipment very carefully before each use. Any equipment with frayed cords, missing ground prongs, or cracked tool casings should be taken out of service and marked with a warning tag.

While contractors can help reduce the risk of electrocution by using double-insulated tools, OSHA also requires that employers adopt an assured equipment grounding conductor program or use ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) for all 120V, single-phase, 15A and 20A receptacle outlets on construction sites. The NEC also states that you must provide ground-fault protection for temporary wiring used for construction, remodeling, maintenance, repair, or demolition of buildings, structures, equipment, or similar activities (527.6).

For more on OSHA's grounding requirements, see the Sidebar below


Electrical contractors may only spend a short time in a trench, but if it's not braced, it could be the last job they ever work on. The fatality rate for excavation work is 112% higher than the rate for general construction.

“It's amazing how a relatively small amount of dirt can cause fatalities,” Zettler says. “If enough dirt covers a person up, then the weight of the dirt prevents the person from being able to breathe, so they suffocate.”

Electrical contractors, maintenance workers, and roadway employees can face many life-threatening hazards when performing excavation work, including trench cave-ins, inhalation of toxic fumes, a lack of oxygen in a confined space, and electrocution or explosions upon contact with underground utilities. Because of the danger involved with trench work, excavations are now part of OSHA's national emphasis program.

“Excavations come under the scrutiny of OSHA at a higher priority level,” says Walker, who works with a lot of OSHA cases. “The compliance officers specifically look for trenching violations because it's such a serious hazard.”

For example, OSHA fined one pipeline company $47,750 for exposing its workers to trenching hazards. The employees were working at the bottom of a manhole that was part of a trench with depths of up to 12 ft. An unused trench box, which would have protected the workers, stood 100 ft from the excavation. In another OSHA case, an inspector ordered a worker to get out of an unshored, unsloped, and unsafe trench by the side of the road. Thirty seconds after the employee left the trench, it collapsed.

Employers are required to follow OSHA's trenching and excavation requirements, which govern the sloping and shoring of the trench (Sidebar below). The trench must not only be securely shored, but employers must also provide a way for employees to escape in the event of a cave-in. Otherwise, workers may be digging their own graves.

The OSHA inspection process.

OSHA has completed more than a million inspections at both the state and federal level. To ensure that contractors are complying with its regulations, OSHA inspectors regularly visit jobsites nationwide for surprise inspections. While the agency only has the manpower to inspect about 2% of all the active work sites, the possibility of an inspection keeps many contractors on their toes.

“Programmed inspections are completely random, and you don't know when they're coming,” Walker says. “There are penalties if you do find out ahead of time.”

The OSHA national office provides the inspectors with a monthly list of selected active projects. Inspectors can also learn about jobsites through newspaper articles or permitting authorities.

If an employee complains to the enforcement agency, OSHA can normally take care of the issue through a paper investigation if there's no risk of immediate harm. OSHA compliance officers are required to perform an on-site inspection in the event of a fatality or the hospitalization of three or more employees. On any type of OSHA inspection, employers reserve the right to accompany a compliance officer.

“Contractors can basically shadow the inspector,” Walker says. “If the compliance officer is taking pictures of a certain condition on the construction site, they should be taking the same pictures with their own cameras.”

By duplicating the OSHA inspector's photos and samples and answering any questions during the inspection, contractors can help protect their rights.

“If there are things that he or she is not asking that would be helpful from the employer's perspective, then they can raise those issues,” Walker says. “If they don't exercise their rights to be there with the inspector during that process, then that doesn't happen. You're then in a position of trying to provide information to the enforcement agency after the citation has been issued.”

Citations are characterized as other-than-serious, failure to abate, serious, repeat, or willful, and carry with them a corresponding fine (Sidebar below). The Table lists the totals for fines in each category in 2002. If contractors are cited for more than one violation that involves the same hazard, OSHA may impose significant fines, Walker says. If a willful violation results in a fatality on a jobsite, OSHA can send the case to criminal prosecutors for legal recourse. Companies can choose to contest the citation itself, the level of the citation, the fine, or the abatement date. Sometimes the OSHA inspector and contractor can resolve the issue in an informal discussion following the inspection, but for more serious violations, cases are often handled in court or through settlement agreements.

“As you move through those penalties, the ramifications become more serious,” Walker says. “The more often you have citations, the higher you are going to see those penalties in terms of dollars.”

Construction workers may no longer work without hardhats or safety lanyards, but they still face danger in the construction site environment. By enforcing stringent safety standards, OSHA has helped reduce the amount of fatalities and accidents caused by falls, electrocutions, and trench-cave-ins. In the past 30 years, the agency has helped to cut workplace fatalities in half and reduce occupational injury and illness rates by 40%. One in every five workplace fatalities, however, still involves a construction worker. That's why electrical contractors now have more responsibility than ever to protect their workers in an ever-changing construction site environment.

Sidebar:How to Avoid Falling Hazards

Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. Common hazards include unprotected sides, wall openings, and floor holes; improper scaffold construction; unguarded protruding steel rebar; and the misuse of portable ladders. The following tips can reduce the risk of falling from an elevation on a jobsite.

  • Use guardrail systems, safety net systems, or fall arrest systems whenever employees are exposed to a fall of 6 ft or more above a lower level.

  • Cover or guard floor holes as soon as they're created during new construction.

  • For existing structures survey the site before working, and guard or cover any openings or holes immediately.

  • Construct all floor hole covers so they will effectively support two times the weight of employees, equipment, and materials.

Source: OSHA

Sidebar: How to Avoid Excavation Hazards

Electricians who work in trenches face many hazards, including cave-ins. According to OSHA, pre-planning is the key to accident-free trenching. Here are some tips on staying safe when working on excavations.

  • Evaluate soil conditions and select appropriate protective systems.

  • Construct protective systems in accordance with the standard requirements.

  • Contact gas and electric utilities to locate underground lines.

  • Test for low oxygen, hazardous fumes, and toxic gases, especially when gasoline engine-driven equipment is running, or the dirt has been contaminated by leaking lines or storage tanks. Ensure adequate ventilation or respiratory protection.

  • Provide safe access into and out of the excavation.

  • Provide appropriate protections if water accumulation is a problem.

  • Inspect the site at the start of each shift, following a rain storm, or after any other hazard-increasing event.

  • Keep excavations open the minimum amount of time needed to complete operations.

Source: OSHA

Sidebar: OSHA Construction Standard Requirements


  • Each scaffold and scaffold component shall be capable of supporting, without failure, its own weight and at least four times the maximum intended load applied or transmitted to it.

  • Each platform on all working levels of scaffolds shall be fully planked or decked between the front uprights and the guardrail supports.

  • Supported scaffolds with a height to base width (including outrigger supports if used) ratio of more than four-to-one shall be restrained from tipping by guying, tying, bracing, or equivalent means.

  • Scaffolds and scaffold components shall not be loaded in excess of their maximum intended loads or rated capacities, whichever is less.

  • Each employee on a scaffold more than 10 ft above a lower level shall be protected from falling to that lower level.


  • A conductor used as a grounded conductor shall be identifiable and distinguishable from all other conductors.

  • Use distinctively marked double-insulated tools and equipment.

  • Live parts of electric equipment operating at 50V or more shall be guarded against accidental contact by approved cabinets or other forms of approved enclosures.

  • In locations where electric equipment would be exposed to physical damage, enclosures or guards shall be so arranged and of such strength as to prevent such damage.

  • Electrical installations in a vault, room, closet, or in an area surrounded by a wall, screen, or fence, access to which is controlled by lock and key or other approved means, are considered to be accessible to qualified persons only.


  • The estimated location of utility installations, such as sewer, telephone, fuel, electric, water lines, or any other underground installations, shall be determined prior to opening an excavation.

  • Structural ramps used solely by employees as a means of access or egress from excavations shall be designed by a competent person.

  • Employees shall not work in excavations in which there is accumulated water unless adequate precautions have been taken to protect employees against the hazards.

  • Adequate protection shall be provided to protect employees from loose rock or soil that could pose a hazard by falling or rolling from an excavation face.

  • Daily inspections of excavations, the adjacent areas, and protective systems shall be made by a competent person for evidence of a situation that could result in possible cave-ins, indications of failure of protective systems, hazardous atmospheres, or other hazardous conditions.

Source: OSHA

Sidebar: Types of Violations

An employer can be reprimanded for violations ranging from failure to submit paperwork to a workplace fatality. This list defines the degree of each violation and the corresponding monetary penalties.

Willful — A violation committed with an intentional disregard of, or plain indifference to, the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and regulations. Willful violations carry penalties of $5,000 to $70,000.

Serious — A violation in which there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard. A penalty must be proposed and can range up to $7,000 per serious violation.

Repeat — A violation of any standard, regulation, rule, or order where, upon reinspection, a substantially similar violation is found. Repeated violations can bring penalties of up to $70,000. The citations don't have to be issued at the same worksite. OSHA may use citations from two different sites to set up a repeat violation.

Failure to Abate — Failure to correct a prior violation may result in civil penalties of up to $7,000 per day for each day the violation continues beyond the prescribed abatement date.

Other-than-Serious — A violation that has a direct relationship to job safety and health, but would most likely not cause death or serious physical harm. Penalties are discretionary, but may range up to $7,000.

Source: OSHA

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Amy Florence

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