The third annual National Stand-Down to Prevent Struck-by Incidents is fast approaching and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is taking the opportunity to highlight the hazards of excavation equipment.
Specifically, NIOSH has focused on the struck-by dangers involved with quick couplers on backhoes.
Struck-by incidents are one of the leading causes of death among construction workers, and have been the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in the construction industry since 1992.
Quick coupler hazards
Excavator equipment such as backhoes and trackhoes are dangerous to work around because:
- the boom and dipper arm move quickly within small spaces
- they have buckets that can weigh up to 900 pounds when empty, and
- their buckets weigh significantly more when holding soil or rock.
Some excavators have quick couplers, devices that allow for the rapid change of buckets and other attachments on the end of the dipper arm.
There are quick couplers that can be attached remotely from the cab of the excavator and others that require the operator to connect the attachment manually by inserting a locking pin.
Most quick couplers have built-in safety mechanisms, but they’re not fail-proof, according to NIOSH.
Don’t stand under loads
Three deaths have been reported since 2019 from workers being crushed by buckets that fell from quick couplers.
Two of the deaths occurred in California and both were subjects of Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) reports.
The first incident occurred when a 67-year-old pipefitter was killed while working in a trench below the bucket of an excavator. The quick coupler had a mechanical failure and the bucket detached while it was digging. The bucket landed on the pipefitter, killing him.
There was no one onsite designated as an OSHA competent trench supervisor to prevent the worker from standing under the bucket.
A second FACE report covers an incident involving a 21-year-old heavy equipment trainee who had attached a bucket with a quick coupler and stood below the elevated bucket to inspect it. The bucket detached while he was underneath, killing him instantly.
There were no records that the worker received excavator safety training.
Inside swing radius is also dangerous
To avoid these kinds of incidents, employers should discourage workers from standing or working beneath a bucket, attachment or load. Further, workers should also stay outside of the swing radius of an operating excavator.
If they stay outside of the hazard zone, workers will have much less risk of injury or death if a quick coupler failure does occur.
OSHA prohibits working beneath a load or within the swing radius of an excavator. Most industry and manufacturer guidelines also strongly discourage the practice.
How can workers avoid this hazard?
So what’s the best way to ensure workers are safe when excavators are operating nearby?
- Maintain work practices and procedures that keep workers away from elevated loads and outside the equipment’s swing radius.
- Create a training program for operators who use quick couplers.
- Ensure quick couplers are properly engaged with approved safety checks, visual indicators and warning devices.
- Perform connection tests specified by the manufacturer before using an attachment.
- Follow manufacturer guidelines for regular maintenance of the quick coupler device.
- Ensure attachments are lowered and resting on the ground before approaching the excavator for inspection of the quick coupler.
- Use only manufacturer-approved and compatible attachments.
- Install retrofit safety kits on older quick coupler devices or upgrade to newer quick couplers, if possible.
3rd annual National Stand-Down to Prevent Struck-by Incidents
The National Stand-Down to Prevent Struck-by Incidents will take place April 11-15, with free webinars on work zone safety, lift zone/heavy equipment safety and dropped objects to raise awareness on these hazards.
NIOSH encourages companies to conduct a stand-down by taking a break to have a toolbox talk, conduct a safety inspection or discuss job-specific hazards.
More information and materials can be found on the stand-down’s website.