Most people are familiar with the iconic 1930s images by photographer Charles Ebbets of the construction of Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building, the workers sitting on I-beams 30 stories high, eating lunch as their legs dangle over the drop.
That was nearly 100 years ago; today, building a skyscraper in New York or Chicago could not be more different. Still, as these cities once again face a building boom, many of the basic risks to workers remain the same; falling, or being blown off buildings by high winds; being injured during the movement of heavy concrete and steel materials; being hurt by falling objects, etc.
A major part of today’s safer work environment is thanks to the efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, along with a dedicated approach by many municipalities and construction companies to create safer practices and preventative measures. There have also been improvements in safety and construction equipment. Some typical requirements are for workers to wear personal safety equipment such as hardhats and safety glasses to protect them from debris, and high-visibility vests to ensure that machinery operators can see that their work areas are free of personnel.
Many construction companies have dedicated safety managers who oversee general safety procedures, and cities like New York also have their own building safety codes which are checked by inspectors. This includes, for example, regulations about using cranes in the cramped New York skyline, or making sure that hazardous chemicals are not stored in locations where they might mix and cause fires or toxic fumes. In addition, state and federal safety inspectors also conduct checks to ensure that job sites have the necessary precautions to help prevent injuries.
As modern cities grow vertically with ever taller buildings, more risks come to workers. In fact, according to OSHA statistics, falls accounted for 381 out of 971 total construction industry deaths in 2017, amounting to over 39.2 percent of all construction related deaths. To combat these skewed statistics, OSHA lays out common sense rules for operating at heights; for example, anyone working above six feet is required to wear a safety harness that is attached to a hard point, in case the worker slips or is blown off the building by winds.
Handrails, railings, and toe boards also help to give workers support and protection against accidental falls. Obviously, this is a huge departure from the working practices that the photographer Ebbets captured in 1930s New York.
When working up high, however, simply falling is not the only concern. Well built, sturdy scaffolding is one of the most important factors for keeping the construction crew safe, as this supports them as they work their way up the building. This has become one of the most regulated aspects of safe high-rise construction.
Essentially, there are different kinds of scaffolding classified by how they are supported and anchored. This is important for the workers to know, since they are required to clip their safety lines to a solid support; some scaffolds do not have the same structural integrity as other kinds, making them insufficient to clip a safety line to.
While safety equipment has come a long way since the first skyscrapers were built, perhaps the biggest change is in the comprehensive rules and regulations, the ethos, surrounding safety on the job site. At the end of the day, there is no magical tool or hard hat that will stop injuries; rather, it’s this safety net of preventative measures that will keep accidents from happening in the first place.
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