Any person who works with or near heavy machinery and equipment may be at risk of experiencing what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) refers to as a “struck-by” or “caught-in/between” accident. These are two of what the agency has deemed construction’s “fatal four,” the four leading causes of construction worker fatalities in the United States.
Workers may be struck by:
- Falling or flying objects
- Moving vehicles
- Any equipment or machinery in motion
They may also be caught in between vehicles and fixed objects, heavy machinery, or equipment.
These incidents cause horrific injuries and claim workers’ lives at an alarming rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that contact with objects and equipment was the third leading cause of occupational fatalities in the United States in 2020, leading to 716 workers’ deaths. Transportation incidents, which may include not only roadway accidents but also workers being struck by moving vehicles, were the leading cause of worker fatalities, with 1,778 deaths. Struck-by and caught-in accidents are the leading cause of death in U.S. oilfields at well sites.
Like all workplace accidents, these incidents are preventable. Understanding how they can be prevented starts with identifying the hazards themselves—the equipment and practices that put workers at risk of being struck by or caught in equipment, vehicles, or machinery.
Hazard #1: Backing Vehicles & Equipment
Construction and all motor vehicles tend to present the greatest risk to workers when they are backing up. While reversing a vehicle, the operator will have limited visibility. If the worksite does not have a spotter and proper procedures in place to prevent workers on foot from entering blind spots, the risk of injury or death is considerable. Workers may be run over, struck by, or crushed between a vehicle and an object while the vehicle is backing up.
Real-life example: A man working as a flagger at an asphalt resurfacing job was backed over and killed by a tack truck. He was standing with his back to the truck at the time of the incident, so he did not see the approaching truck. The operator of the tack truck also did not see the victim and backed over him, thinking he had passed over a manhole cover. The driver of the truck finally stopped when another worker, a dump truck driver, ran over and waved his arms to get his attention. The two drivers found the victim lying face down on the ground.
Hazard #2: Vehicle Rollovers
Forklifts, cranes, tractors, trucks, and other vehicles at various worksites may tip or roll over if they are overloaded, improperly maintained, or driven on unsafe or uneven surfaces. When this happens, the operator of the vehicle and any workers in the vicinity will be at risk of being struck by or caught underneath the vehicle, which can cause life-threatening injuries.
Real-life example: A worker was driving a front-end loader up a dirt ramp at a worksite when the tractor tread began to slide off the trailer. The tractor started to tip over. The worker was not wearing a seat belt and jumped from the cab, but as he hit the ground, the tractor’s rollover protective structure fell on top of him. He was crushed and died from his injuries.
Hazard #3: Unguarded Moving Parts
One of the leading causes of caught-in and caught-between injuries is unguarded moving parts. Equipment or machinery that has moving or rotating parts can cause catastrophic injuries if it is not properly guarded. A piece of clothing or part of a worker’s body may become caught and entangled in or crushed by a machine, causing fractures, amputation, or even death.
Real-life example: A crew was installing an underground telephone cable in a residential area. They had just finished using a boring machine to drill a hole under a driveway; the borehole rod had been removed from the ground. The rod was still rotating when one of the workers straddled it as he bent to pick it up. His pant leg was caught in the rotating rod, the force of which flipped him over onto materials and tools. His injuries were fatal.
Hazard #4: Improper Lockout/Tagout Procedures
Lockout/tagout procedures are essential in workplaces that utilize heavy equipment and machinery. These are procedures and devices that prevent a piece of equipment from becoming energized while it is being serviced or cleaned, or in any other scenario where it should be off and unable to transmit energy of any kind.
When it comes to caught-in and caught-between hazards, as well as struck-by incidents, lockout/tagout procedures save lives and limbs. When they are improperly followed or ignored altogether, the results can be catastrophic.
Real-life example: A worker lost his fingers while attempting to unjam a machine at a tire plant. The machine was still on as he tried to clear the jam, and his fingers were caught in the equipment and severed.
Struck-By & Caught-In Hazards Can Be Prevented. Here’s How:
Employers have an obligation to maintain safe worksites for all employees. This includes protecting them from struck-by and caught-in or caught-between hazards, training them on these hazards, and constantly enforcing safety standards.
Struck-by and caught-in hazards can be minimized or eliminated when employers:
- Ensure vehicles are equipped with seat belts that meet OSHA standards.
- Check vehicles before each shift to ensure they are in proper working order.
- Ensure all machinery or equipment is properly guarded.
- Implement and enforce lockout/tagout procedures.
- Allow vehicles to be driven only on surfaces that are properly constructed and maintained.
- Ensure all vehicles are operated within manufacturer guidelines (such as lift capacities).
- Use flaggers, signs, and barricades at sites near public roadways.
- Ensure all workers wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Only allow trained and certified workers to operate forklifts and other specialized vehicles.
- Implement safety measures and use spotters to make sure workers are clear of vehicle pathways, particularly when they are backing up or hauling loads that limit visibility.
Consider the incident involving the flagger who was backed over by the tack truck. This young man lost his life because neither he nor the driver of the truck knew of the danger. The truck was not equipped with a backup alarm. There was not a proper procedure in place that would have alerted the tack truck driver that someone was in his path. It was another worker who saw the incident happen and alerted the truck driver. He had even attempted to warn the flagger, but the flagger did not see him.
Or, there’s the incident involving the tractor that rolled over and crushed its operator. The tractor was properly equipped with a rollover protective structure (ROPS), but there was no seat belt. The driver, in attempting to jump free from the falling tractor, was crushed instead. There should have been a seat belt, he should have been properly trained on what to do in the event of a rollover, and the grade he was driving on should have been safe and steady enough to avoid a rollover in the first place.
There is no excuse for struck-by and caught-in hazards, not when workers pay with their lives.