Handling Construction Materials Safely

In October 2010, a construction worker in Pennsylvania was crushed to death by a section of a steel plate. The month before, a worker in Houston died when a pallet carrying a one-ton load struck him. In Maryland, two bar joists fell off a stack of joists on a flatbed truck, killing a worker.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that material handling accidents account for hundreds of thousands of injuries each year on construction sites. Safe material handling practices can prevent much needless suffering and also save contractors and their insurance companies millions of dollars in medical and disability benefit costs. These practices involve three distinct areas: Safe handling, safe storage and disposal.

Safe handling of construction materials involves several measures, including:
  • Properly securing all materials that are stored in tiers. Pipes, steel beams, poles and other heavy materials can slide or tilt if they are not stacked and blocked adequately, allowing them to potentially fall on workers.
  • Keeping combustible and flammable materials in fire-resistant containers.
  • Determining and prominently posting the maximum safe load limits of floors where materials are stored, and taking care not to exceed those limits.
  • Maintaining clear and sound aisles and passageways for moving materials.
  • Constructing ramps or graded walkways between work areas on different levels to make accidents and spills less likely.
Improperly stored material can shift or topple over, causing potentially serious injuries.

Sound storage practices required by OSHA include:
  • Stacking bricks in piles no more than seven feet high, with every layer above four feet tapered back two inches for every foot. While masonry blocks can be stacked in taller piles, but contractors should also taper the piles above the six foot mark.
  • Limiting stacks of lumber to 20 feet high (16 feet if workers will handle lumber without machines) in stable piles on level sills that provide good support. Prior to stacking, remove all used nails.
  • Keeping materials more than six feet from hoistways.
  • Not storing materials in floor openings. Storing materials more than 10 feet from an exterior wall that is shorter than the top of the pile.
  • Not storing materials on scaffolds or runways unless the contractor is about to use them.
In the hurry to get the job done, workers often dispose of construction debris in unsafe ways, such as tossing pieces of lumber off the side of the building. This risks injury to anyone standing below.

Contractors should follow these guidelines for proper waste disposal:
  • Remove all scrap, especially combustible materials, as it accumulates instead of letting it pile up. However, do not remove it until workers are certain that the people working over their heads are finished tossing it to the ground.
  • Use an enclosed chute to drop debris from the higher points of the building.
  • Barricade areas where workers will drop debris without using a chute.
  • Use separate containers for materials covered with oil or flammable liquids.
An insurance company's loss control department may have resources available to assist contractors with improving material handling. Those who want this help should check with their agents to arrange a meeting. Sound material handling practices help prevent injuries, fines and penalties, and reduce workers' compensation costs. They will also enhance the employer's reputation with potential employees. Putting these safeguards into place makes both moral and practical sense.
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Further Reading
In October 2010, a construction worker in Pennsylvania was crushed to death by a section of a steel plate. The month before, a worker in Houston died when a pallet carrying a one-ton load struck him. In Maryland, two bar joists fell off a stack of jo...
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