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May 19, 2022 7 min read
A range of standards, rules, and best practices have drastically reduced ironworker accidents and deaths over the past 50 years. Yet the occupation remains one of the most perilous in construction, an industry with an already-high fatality rate.
This article reviews on-the-job safety rules for ironworkers, some recommended best practices, and essential safety equipment, including fall arrestors and ironworker hard hats.
Massive bridges and towering skyscrapers alike are the handiwork of ironworkers, who assemble and repair structures using reinforced concrete and steel. Some are called “rodbusters” or “steel fixers" and place rebar so that concrete can be poured. Others engage in structural ironwork, hoisting and securing enormous metal slabs, along with flooring and roofing, to form structures.
These are dangerous activities—and the high rates of ironworker deaths and accidents illustrate the risk. Joining loggers and roofers in the top 10 deadliest occupations are ironworkers, who (thanks largely to falls, slips, and trips) face nearly 10 times the average risk of death compared to other workers.
Ironworker groups and construction contractors work to improve safety by focusing on 12 significant areas of concern termed the “deadly dozen.” These leading causes of ironworker accidents include:
Addressing these risks with smart safety practices—along with equipment such as ironworker hard hats—has made the occupation far less risky. Today, ironworker deaths are five times less frequent than in 1992.
Heights are part of the thrill—and peril—of being an ironworker. Before electricians install lighting or carpenters build walls, ironworkers labor amidst networks of open iron frames and concrete, often without a floor to stand on. For a vertigo-inducing illustration of this work, look at this footage from a GoPro attached to an ironworker’s hard hat:
Unsurprisingly, a leading cause of ironworker accidents and deaths is falling. Falls, slips, and trips make up nearly two in five on-the-job fatalities for all construction workers, and almost all of these deaths involve plummeting from one level to another below. Four of the “deadly dozen” contributors to ironworker deaths are ultimately about falls: impalement, falling during high-elevation floor and roof installation, plummeting through a floor opening cover, and inadequate fall protection or arrest equipment.
The injuries caused by falls vary, but traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are among the most concerning. These head injuries cause as many as 25% of on-the-job deaths in construction. Most happen during a fall. And historically, fatalTBIs have been three times more common in the construction industry than in American workplaces overall.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for fall prevention are lengthy. Structural ironworkers must follow guidelines explicitly designed for the construction industry and rules specific to tasks like steel erection. In general, though, fall protection is required for work at least six feet above a lower level (and even lower when working near dangerous equipment). When hazards are present, employers must train employees on the use of fall protection systems and OSHA’s other fall protection requirements.
Many fall-related ironworker deaths can be prevented with guardrail systems, safety net systems, or fall arrestors. Employers must guard floor holes and place rails around open platforms. Further, rebar or other protrusions must be covered (or otherwise protected) if they may impale people working nearby. Special care is required where a “leading edge”—an unprotected side—is under construction.
For those involved in steel erection, OSHA regulation 1926.760 adds a few more safety requirements. To prevent ironworker accidents, employees must have fall protection when working on a level with a side or edge more than 15 feet above a lower level. If the structure is more than one story high, safety cables are required at the interior and exterior edges as soon as metal flooring or roofing has been installed.
The requirements are slightly different for connectors, who work with hoisting equipment to install structural members. These ironworkers typically need a personalfall arrest or restraint system (not nets or rails) when working at heights between 15 and 30 feet above a lower level.
Two ironworkers engaged in steel erection at Massachusetts General Hospital. Image source:Paul Keheler via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA 2.0, cropped)
Finally, head protection is required any time there’s a potential danger from impact, falling or flying objects, or contact with electrical equipment. Although workplace regulations mandate using protective gear, statistics suggest that fewer than one in five workers who suffered a head injury were wearing hard hats.
And while OSHA doesn’t regard ironworker hard hats as a required means of fall protection, even type I helmets—those that protect only against blows to the top of the head—can offer an excellent defense against fall injuries. Research published in Annals of Biomedical Engineering in 2022 found that all Type I helmet models studied “demonstrated excellent performance for fall protection compared to the barehead control group.”
On the shore of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, PA sits the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. For more than 40 years, this massive facility has served as the site of presidential campaign rallies, an international summit, and even conventions for cartoon enthusiasts. But during the facility’s renovation in 2002, one of fifteen 165-ton trusses fell, leaving two injured workers suspended more than 100 feet above the ground and killing 37-year-old ironworker Paul Corsi. An investigation led to fines for the contractors and two key discoveries: the truss was secured by the wrong bolts, and those bolts weren’t sufficiently tight.
Catastrophic failures during the renovation of this multi-story convention center injured two ironworkers and killed a third. Image source:The Zach Morris Experience via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Structural ironworkers provide other contractors with a stable, safe foundation on which to do their work. But the process of getting that foundation in place is fraught with danger. To keep metal towers from tipping over, ironworkers engage in “guying,” a process that relies on wire rope or other materials that temporarily anchor towers to a secure surface. A similar method called “bracing” provides support using beams of solid material. Improper bracing, anchoring, or guying creates instability—and can cause a building to wholly or partially collapse.
Three items on the ironworkers’ “deadly dozen” concern collapse: unsecured steel joists, anchor-bolt-related column failures, and unsupported reinforcing steel. But fall arrestors and other protective equipment can prevent life-threatening ironworker accidents. Each worksite should have a plan that includes a clear delegation of safety responsibilities. Bolts securing columns and beams must be carefully chosen by the supervising contractor and properly installed. Guying and bracing must be done per OSHA’s rules and best practices. Foresight—and care—remain essential.
Rounding out the “dirty dozen” of ironworker accidents and deaths are five other hazards that range from electrical shock to impacts from moving objects. Each is a concern in the construction industry overall—and arguably more critical in the risky, fall-prone environments faced by those who work with structural steel.
Material handling injuries
Metal materials can be heavy, sharp, and unwieldy. Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) like ironworker hard hats and gloves can prevent injuries.
OSHA requires personal protective equipment on any job site with potential electrical hazards. The specifics vary by which body parts are threatened and how. But flame-resistant clothing can protect the body against arc flashes, as can non-conductive, heat-resistant face protection. Ironworker hard hats designated Class E (electrical) can also provide substantial protection—they’re tested up to 20,000 volts—while Class G (general) hard hats provide more modest protection at 2,200 volts.
Heat illness and chemical/contaminant exposure
Surrounded by metal and, often, an open sky, ironworkers face a high risk of heat-related injury and illness. It's essential to drink water, wear loose clothing, and watch for tell-tale signs like red skin and an elevated pulse.
Similar advice applies to exposure to various on-the-job contaminants and chemicals. Minimizing exposure to asbestos, solvents, lead, and dust can prevent severe and life-threatening conditions. So can using ventilators, gloves, and other PPE.
Injuries from falling and flying objects and “caught-between” injuries
Construction sites are busy places with heavy materials in constant motion. A slip of the hand or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a fatal mistake.
Some accidents, called “caught-between” injuries, happen when a worker is pinned or crushed between two objects. These injuries can (and should) be prevented with careful planning and execution. Beams and girders must be secured appropriately, and paths from one location to another should be designed to minimize exposure to moving objects.
Meanwhile, falling and flying objects can usually be managed with simple gear—namely, tie-off equipment and proper containers. According to OSHA regulation 1926.759, equipment not in use while aloft must be secured; further, overhead protection must be provided when steel erection is in progress (or activities below must stop). The American National Standard Institute (ANSI) has developed a standard called ISEA 121-2018 to help contractors identify suitable attachments, tethers, and containers.
In these situations, ironworker hard hats are an essential and required form of protection. Type II helmets can protect against impacts to the top, front, back, and sides of the head, offering substantial defense against horizontal and vertical collisions.
Overall, workplace injuries and illnesses in the United States have plummeted over the last half-century, from nearly 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 in 2019. The ironworker industry has generally followed this trend, but it’s still an inherently risky job. Thorough planning, careful work, following safety regulations and best practices, and the right equipment—from ironworker hard hats to fall arrestors—remain essential.
For more guidance on staying safe in construction work, check out our in-depth look at the standards for hard hats and construction helmets and our explainer on injury prevention on construction sites.
And be sure to explore the rest of the Hard Head Veterans blog for the latest in the science of head protection.