Construction Safety: The Ultimate Guide

Managing risks on the job site is a contractor’s prime responsibility — both to keep workers safe and healthy and to protect the entire project’s bottom line. Every year, workers suffer serious injuries or even tragic fatalities due to preventable incidents.

To keep productivity high, mitigate risks and avoid unnecessary accidents, contractors need to have the right safety procedures and protocols in place to ensure everyone plays a part in keeping the worksite safe.

This ultimate guide to construction safety will cover some of the most essential areas of safety and hazard prevention, ensuring you keep everyone healthy and committed to protecting themselves and others. Here's how you can start improving your worksite:

Jump to a section:

  1. Safety Training
  2. Safe Equipment Operation
  3. Personal Protective Equipment
  4. Construction Safety in Hot Weather
  5. Construction Safety in Cold Weather

 

1. Safety Training

The foundation of a safe construction site starts with the quality of its safety training programs. Every worker needs to be fully up to speed on basic safety requirements and expectations, and they should make an ongoing commitment to protecting themselves.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), safety training programs are highly effective. Since OSHA was enacted in 1970, occupational injuries and deaths have dropped by 60%. Despite this success, there’s still a shocking number of workplace injuries and fatalities that occur every year, partly due to the growing number of people joining the workforce. This phenomenon creates a higher risk of incidents.

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 4,779 private industry worker fatalities, and over 21% of these incidents involved the construction industry. Over half of these construction industry fatalities were attributed to what OSHA calls the “fatal four.” By eliminating these top common hazards, we could save nearly 600 lives every year.

As the statistics and case studies show, construction safety training isn’t optional.

What Makes a Good Safety Training Program?

OSHA sets the standards for expectations in construction safety training. However, how the training programs are implemented is up to each respective management team. When creating your worksite safety training program, consider these essential components of a successful initiative:

  • Leadership commitment: Construction safety starts with the behaviors and attitudes modeled by leadership. When management demonstrates a steady commitment to safety, everyone else knows what to expect.
  • Employee engagement: Leadership sets the standard, but employees make the difference. It’s crucial that workers buy-in to the overall safety culture and feel they have an important role in keeping themselves and others safe. Without employee engagement, safety training programs are just documents without action.
  • Hazard identification, control and prevention: It’s everyone’s responsibility to know what common construction safety hazards look like and how to actively control and prevent them at all times. The four most important risks for workers to understand and prevent are falls, caught-in or -between incidents, struck-by incidents and electrocution hazards.
  • Ongoing evaluation: Construction safety training is dynamic and can always be improved. A good safety training program continually evolves by covering the latest barriers to safety as they arise. Effective programs emphasize open communication channels and increase the resources needed to protect everyone.

 

2. Safe Equipment Operation

All operators must learn the basics of operating construction equipment safely. Even if your operators are incredibly experienced, it’s always a good idea to stick to the basics to avoid becoming complacent. If you’re managing a construction site, it’s important to have a standard expectation of all equipment operators, as well as those employees on the ground.

Here are some critical basics on operating construction equipment safely:

  • Get certified: Anyone operating heavy machinery needs proper training and certification. Different classes of machinery have their own operating procedures, so an operator’s experience should be relative to the type of equipment in question.
  • Stay alert and focused: Operator fatigue and distraction is one of the leading causes of workplace accidents involving heavy machinery. Operators should always be well-rested and never under the influence of drugs or alcohol while operating construction equipment.
  • Double-check when in doubt: Never pull out or back up without being absolutely certain no one is standing in your blind spots. In just 30 seconds of distraction, someone could have approached the machine and may be out of view. If you know you weren’t paying attention, get out and double-check. It’s always the operator’s responsibility to inspect their surroundings.
  • Know your limits: Whether it’s speed restrictions, load capacities or clearance heights, we all have limits, and equipment operators are no exception. Observe the job site’s speed limits as well as the manufacturer’s machine capacities. Always beware of overhead clearance restrictions before lifting loads.
  • Perform pre- and post-operating inspections: Construction equipment operators and supervisors should perform routine safety inspections before and after operation. Use a standard checklist every time to ensure nothing is missed.
  • Mount and dismount correctly: Equipment operators can fall, slip or trip by improperly mounting or dismounting equipment. By rushing or not paying close attention, you can easily stumble or strain your lower back. Always observe the three-point contact rule when getting in and out of the cab.
  • Communicate: Equipment operators and workers on the ground should have a way to communicate about positioning. A two-way radio is the best option since it gives the operator a direct line with fellow workers. If radios aren’t available, use hand signals and make sure workers always stay within sight of the operator.
  • Use your seatbelt and protective equipment: Using a seatbelt is non-negotiable and should be automatic. Rollovers do happen, and even operating on rough terrain can jostle you around. As with all workers, equipment operators also need to wear the correct personal protective equipment (PPE), including hard hats, high-visibility vests and steel-toed footwear.

 

3. Personal Protective Equipment

Personal protective equipment is a must for construction workers, contractors, suppliers and anyone visiting a construction site. These products protect the individual worker's health and safety. As opposed to rules and procedures that inform a worker’s behavior, PPE provides a direct defense against hazards should they threaten the worker’s immediate physical health or safety.

PPE is worn to prevent accidents. When safety rules and procedures break down, PPE keeps you safe from injury or fatality. OSHA prescribes five main categories of PPE that address critical aspects of personal health:

  1. Eyes and face: Facial PPE must protect against flying debris.
  2. Head: Head protection prevents bumps from falling or fixed objects and injury by electrocution.
  3. Ears: Protective hearing devices prevent hearing damage from loud equipment.
  4. Hands: Hand protection provides non-slip control over tools and prevents burns, scrapes and cuts.
  5. Feet: Foot protection prevents slips, falls and crushed toes.

Each PPE category contains specific types of products that keep you safe. In addition to these main groups, you also have access to other personal protective equipment that prevents injuries from different hazards, including falls and struck-by hazards. Here are the vital pieces of construction personal protective equipment workers should have or may need:

  • Head protection: Hard hats and safety helmets are basic PPE every site visitor and worker should wear. When there’s a high risk of falling objects, hard hats protect you from severe head injuries. Always ensure your hard hats are in good working condition. Replace any that have cracks or dents.
  • Eye and face protection: Safety glasses and face shields protect your eyes and face. This type of PPE prevents foreign objects from getting in your eyes, nose or mouth when cutting, nailing, grinding or welding. Glasses and shields should be clean and scratch-free to prevent impaired vision.
  • Hand protection: Wear heavy-duty, well-fitting gloves when working with tools to avoid hurting your hands and fingers. For electrical work, always wear properly insulated gloves.
  • Hearing protection: Earplugs and ear muffs protect your hearing when working around loud machinery. Keep your hearing protection clean to prevent ear infections and wax buildup.
  • Foot protection: Steel-toe work boots with non-slip soles protect your toes and prevent you from slipping. Repair or replace old, worn-out boots when the soles begin to peel.
  • Fall protection: Employees working above 6-foot heights on construction sites need to wear personal fall arrest systems. Full fall protection includes a harness, lanyard, lifeline, connector and anchorage point.
  • Visibility vests and full-body protection: High-visibility vests are essential when working around moving vehicles and construction equipment. Depending on the nature of the work, workers might also require full-body protection such as coveralls or thermal gear for winter conditions.
  • Respiratory protection: Some construction work presents respiratory hazards from gases, fumes, dust and other particulate matter. Ensure workers wear the appropriate respiratory PPE as needed, from face masks to air-purifying respirators.

 

4. Construction Safety in Hot Weather

Though summer is the best season for construction, it can also be the riskiest to worker health and safety. According to OSHA, thousands of workers every year become sick from occupational heat stress injuries. A sudden change from spring to summer carries a unique set of hazards that construction supervisors need to understand and plan for. During the summer, temperatures and worker well-being should be closely monitored to prevent a range of heat illnesses.

Overexposure to heat is uncomfortable, but it can also be deadly. Everyone on a construction site should understand the severe consequences of heat exposure and its signs. Here are the common heat illnesses that put workers at risk:

  • Heat rash: Heat rash happens when you sweat and lack an adequate way to ventilate or wick away moisture. Sweat can clog pores and produce a painful, itchy rash that can become infected if left untreated.
  • Heat cramps: If a worker becomes dehydrated enough, they can develop heat cramps — painful and intense muscle spasms. These usually affect the calf, arm and back muscles and can be aggravated by strenuous activity.
  • Heat fatigue: Heat fatigue is a natural sense of lethargy you might feel when you’ve been out in the sun. When you’re too tired from sun exposure, you feel slow and less focused. Heat fatigue can become severe if left unmanaged.
  • Heat exhaustion: Caused by excessive sweating, heat exhaustion affects the entire body and produces symptoms like dizziness, nausea and headaches. It can quickly escalate to full-blown heatstroke if left untreated.
  • Heatstroke: Heatstroke happens when your internal body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Heatstroke can cause nausea, vomiting, a racing pulse and disorientation, and it requires emergency care.

Protect Yourself From Heat Hazards

Heat hazards can be severely debilitating if not properly managed. Managers and supervisors must know what the risks of heat illness are and how to prevent them. Here are some ways you can promote better construction safety in hot weather and protect you and your workers from heat hazards:

  • Educate workers about heat stress: To stop heat hazards, you first need to know the signs. Educate workers on the indications of heat illness and encourage them to watch for symptoms in themselves and fellow workers. Teach them how to intervene and when to call 911 for emergency treatment.
  • Encourage sunscreen use: Sunburned skin retains heat and can make symptoms of heat stress worse. By using a sun protection factor (SPF) product of at least 15, workers can prevent sunburns and subsequent overheating.
  • Promote the importance of breaks: When working outside in the summer heat, individuals must take regular breaks and get into the shade. Encourage workers to rest regularly and avoid overexerting themselves if they’re not used to working in the heat. They should also do this if they’re experiencing any symptoms. Take a break under a tree, or sit in your vehicle's cab with the air conditioning on if there’s nowhere cool to rest.
  • Hydrate often: Staying hydrated is the best way to prevent any type of heat stress. High temperatures and humidity increase sweating, meaning your body can lose fluids faster than you can replace them if you’re not drinking water consistently. OSHA recommends workers drink four cups of water every hour — one cup every 15 minutes.
  • Schedule jobs wisely: Consider that when temperatures hit extreme highs, productivity will decrease. Schedule projects accordingly. Encourage workers to do the most labor-intensive work before noon and resume any strenuous activity after 3 p.m. when the sun isn't as intense.
  • Take acclimatization seriously: The human body needs time to build up a tolerance to heat. According to OSHA, 50%-70% of heat stress-related fatalities occur within the first few days of working in hot environments. Most people need a few weeks to get used to the heat before they can work at full capacity.

 

5. Construction Safety in Cold Weather

Workers need to be concerned about more than just the heat. When temperatures plummet, the risks of severe injury and illness increase, too. Depending on the climate, winter weather can last months, meaning some workers will be exposed to the cold for extended periods. Without proper precautions, workers can develop a range of cold stress illnesses, particularly when there’s a sudden temperature drop or an increase in the wind chill.

If you manage construction projects in a cold climate, you should know about the hazards of working in winter weather:

  • Chilblains: Chilblains occur when someone is repeatedly exposed to cold — but not freezing — conditions. Working in cold weather over a prolonged period causes the blood vessels in your exposed skin to swell, leading to painful inflammation, red patches, blistering and burning. It usually affects improperly protected or unprotected extremities, like the fingers and toes. You’ll recognize chilblains when your affected skin turns from red to dark blue.
  • Trenchfoot: Trenchfoot is a cold stress illness caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. If workers don’t adequately dry out their cold, wet feet, their tissue can lose circulation, go numb and eventually die from lack of blood supply.
  • Frostbite: Frostbite usually affects extremities like your fingers, toes, nose and ears, and exposure to extremely low temperatures causes it. The first sign of frostbite is usually numbness, meaning it can go undetected. If left untreated, frostbite can cause permanent damage or result in amputation in extreme cases.
  • Hypothermia: Hypothermia happens when someone experiences prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. If a worker’s internal temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below, their body continues to lose heat faster than it can be replaced. A major sign to watch for is when a person begins to shiver uncontrollably. In this case, they will need emergency care.

Protect Yourself From Cold Hazards

Cold stress is completely preventable as long as you prepare for it. Workers with the right cold protection gear can continue performing most of their regular duties, weather permitted. If you’ve got construction jobs to run in the winter, here are the appropriate ways to protect workers from cold hazards:

  • Train workers to detect cold stress: Workers must be aware of what cold stress is, including the most important signs to watch for. Employees should know how to help fellow personnel in need when they spot signs of this condition in others.
  • Provide shelter and heated environments: Workers need access to indoor, heated environments where they can take regular and frequent breaks to warm up as needed. While individuals are working, try to protect them from wind chill as best as possible.
  • Dress appropriately: All workers should have and wear proper cold climate PPE, including cold-weather clothing. Wearing at least three layers of clothing made from materials like wool or synthetics will provide insulation and protect the skin from moisture. Avoid wearing tight clothes that restrict blood flow, and make sure to wear an insulated weatherproof coat. Workers should also shield their extremities with winter work boots, face masks, hats and thermal gloves.
  • Drink warm fluids: It might seem counterintuitive, but dehydration does occur in cold environments. It’s just as important for workers to replenish their fluids during a cold snap. Drinking warm beverages is also a way to keep body temperatures up, so you consume less energy.
  • Avoid overexertion: In cold weather, our bodies expend more energy while trying to keep us warm. This factor means there’s less energy available for performing strenuous activities. When cold weather hits, try to limit the amount of rigorous movement in one day by spreading out duties over several days instead.

Cat® Equipment Puts Safety First

Cat® equipment is expertly engineered with the highest commitment to safety. Caterpillar continuously improves safety features and technology to provide the ultimate reassurance to our customers and workers around the world.

When renting any piece of equipment, always refer to the operation and maintenance manual to understand the full scope of safety features available on our Cat machines. Knowing what the basic safety features are and how to use them will keep you and your workers safe and productive every day.

As part of your commitment to construction safety, you must ensure the construction equipment you use is well-maintained. For that, you need an equipment rental dealer you can trust. The Cat Rental Store and authorized Cat rental dealers adhere to the highest standards in construction rental equipment.

By partnering with your local Cat Rental Store, you’re guaranteed a safe and reliable machine — one that has been expertly maintained and is available when you need it. Thanks to our extensive Cat dealer network, you’ll always have access to high-quality construction equipment. To learn more about construction equipment rentals, browse our rental inventory online, or contact a Cat Rental Store location near you.

Find a Cat Rental Store Near You