I Fell at Work. Who’s at Fault?

Falling is a traumatic experience. A minor slip and fall might be embarrassing more than painful—until you start experiencing severe headaches or chronic back pain. Falling from a height can cause life-changing injuries that permanently impact your ability to walk, think, or perform fine motor skills. Some falls are fatal.

For American workers, falls are a hazard in every industry.

According to OSHA, “any walking or working surface can be a potential fall hazard.” A person in any occupation may be at risk of experiencing harm in a fall, whether it’s an office worker who slips on a wet floor or a construction worker who falls from scaffolding. A fall from nearly any height can be fatal.

In some industries, falls are more common—and significantly more dangerous—than in others. This includes construction, offshore oil and gas, refining, and manufacturing. Workers in these fields risk falling overboard and drowning, falling one or more stories to the ground, or even falling into heavy equipment or hazardous chemicals.

In construction, fall hazards have been dubbed one of the industry’s “Fatal Four” (or “Focus Four” according to OSHA), alongside caught-in or -between, struck-by, and electrocution incidents. These four types of events are responsible for about 60% of construction worker fatalities in the U.S. each year, and falls are by far the most prevalent. Falls are responsible for more than one-third of all fatalities in construction.

Falls are also a leading cause of death in oil and gas extraction, most of which occur during the activity of drilling a well. Derrickmen are at a particularly high risk of experiencing fatal falls, even when wearing harnesses. According to statistics presented by the CDC, 86% of oil rig workers killed in falls between 2005 and 2014 were wearing harnesses. In 63% of these incidents, the harness was not attached to anything. In 29%, the harness itself failed.

With falls so prevalent in certain industries and possible in any field, it begs the question: Who is responsible for preventing these incidents in the first place?

Accountability for Workplace Falls

All employers have an obligation to maintain safe workplaces for their employees. This obligation extends to lawful visitors and contract workers as well. It doesn’t matter if the workplace is an offshore oil rig 200 miles from the nearest shore, a chemical plant in the heart of Texas, or a high rise under construction in downtown Los Angeles.

In accordance with the OSH Act of 1970, an employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” This includes keeping workplaces free from known hazards, complying with OSHA standards, training employees on workplace safety, and providing personal protective equipment, among other duties.

When it comes to workplace falls, specific standards and practices apply.

Employers must take the necessary measures to prevent workers from falling off overhead or elevated worksites or into holes in floors or even walls. Holes must be properly guarded. Guardrails must be installed on elevated platforms. Scaffolding must be properly constructed and guarded. Ladders must be used in accordance with OSHA standards. Employers must select and provide—at no cost to workers—the equipment necessary to protect them from falls. This might include harnesses, lines, safety nets, railings, and handrails.

Employers must provide fall protection for workers at elevations of:

  • 4 feet in general industry workplaces
  • 5 feet in shipyards
  • 6 feet in construction
  • 8 feet in longshoring

Fall protection must be provided for employees when working over dangerous equipment or machinery, regardless of the height or potential fall distance.

When employers do not comply with OSHA standards, the results are catastrophic.

2 Fatal Falls & What Caused Them

Just after 12 pm on June 16, 2022, a worker was grouting a 21-foot-tall fireplace in a home. He and his coworkers had assembled mobile scaffolding that was about 11 feet tall, consisting of 2 tiers. The workers then placed a 6-foot ladder on top of the scaffolding to reach the fireplace. The 44-year-old man was alone on the ladder for about 30 minutes while his coworkers worked in another room upstairs. The other workers heard a scream and a crash. When they came downstairs, they found the man facedown on the concrete floor in front of the fireplace. He had fallen headfirst to the ground.

Though no one witnessed the fall, it is assumed that as the worker pressed grout between the tiles, this pushed the ladder away from the fireplace and caused the ladder and scaffolding to fall. Paramedics arrived on the scene but were unable to revive the worker; he died from his injuries.

This tragedy, like most falls, was preventable. The man should not have been working alone. The scaffolding and ladder should have been properly constructed or secured. He should have had fall protection.

On June 28, 2022, a 39-year-old man lost his life when he fell 10 feet from the side of a grain drill on a farm. At the time of the accident, the worker was standing on the raised side frame of the grain drill, which is a device used in agriculture to sow small grains or fine seeds. He lost his balance and fell while trying to lift a phone line so the drill could pass beneath it, hitting his head on the ground below. His injuries were fatal.

This incident was also preventable. The worker lacked fall protection and was placed in a hazardous situation. OSHA investigated the incident and issued a citation against the employer for a serious violation of OSHA standards. Two other workers were riding on the drill in the same manner when the fatality occurred, but they were uninjured.

These two events provide clear examples of several hazards that could have been prevented if proper safety practices had been implemented.

What To Do If You Fell at Work

If you fell at work, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible and report the incident to your employer. These two steps are crucial to protecting your physical well-being and your ability to file a workers’ compensation or other claim, which may offer no-fault coverage for medical care and a portion of lost wages after a work-related injury. You may also be entitled to compensation by way of a personal injury lawsuit, depending on the circumstances of the accident. If you work as a seaman, you could be entitled to compensation under the Jones Act. The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act applies to shipbuilders, harbor workers, longshoremen, and ship-breakers.

There are different avenues for recovering financial compensation that can cover your medical treatment and ongoing care after a workplace fall. Taking the right steps can make all the difference in your ability to reach a fair outcome, which may be your only hope to pay for the level of care you need and to cover living expenses as you navigate life after a serious injury.

You may also have a limited time to come forward with a case, depending on the type of claim you have and the jurisdiction. Your best option is to discuss the matter with an attorney who has experience with workplace falls and can advise you of your rights and next steps.

Arnold & Itkin has a history of fighting for workers’ rights in the oil and gas industry, construction, trucking, and across all the key industries that support our communities and our way of life. To find out how we can help you, call (888) 493-1629. Your consultation is free and confidential.

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