No house gets built without a certain amount of pain and
bloodshed. Cuts, scrapes, blood blisters, and blue thumbnails
are all in a day's work for many builders. Builders also tend
to discount the kind of long-term injuries that develop over
the course of years in the trades, including hearing damage,
aching knees and elbows, and beat-up hands.
Unfortunately, this tough-it-out mentality has a way of
spilling over into other areas. Cultivating a casual attitude
toward the types of hazards that cause minor injuries can lead
to carelessness about things like ladders, scaffolds,
excavations, and other hazards that can send you to the
hospital or kill you.
The following stories describe the experiences of a half-dozen
builders who suffered serious on-the-job injuries. In most
cases, the lessons are obvious. The trick is to recognize these
sorts of situations as they develop, and head them off before
you become a cautionary tale for the next guy.
As a favor to a friend at the asphalt paving company where he
worked, Jim Bagwell agreed to spend a Saturday morning hooking
up a sewer line at an existing house. Using a rented backhoe,
the friend dug down to the sewer pipe, about 14 feet below the
level of the sidewalk. Digging the trench, Bagwell recalls,
took longer than expected. "The dirt was real hard," he says.
"It came up in big chunks."
Bagwell had already shoveled the dirt away from the buried
pipe and knocked a hole in the side to make an opening for the
new connection, when a section of the wall above suddenly
collapsed — the result, he later learned, of
unconsolidated soil in an old trench parallel to the one he was
working in. "If we'd cut across the old trench, we would have
known about it," Bagwell says. "But we didn't have any warning
Bagwell was crouched over the open sewer pipe when the soil
gave way. The backhoe bucket fortuitously protected his head,
but his entire body was instantly buried beneath several
thousand pounds of soil. He remained in that position,
struggling for breath, for the next seven hours, as an area
search and rescue unit shored up the trench with sheet pilings
and hydraulic jacks before painstakingly digging him out. "My
legs were folded up under me. The pain was bad for about an
hour and a half — then they went to sleep," Bagwell
Onlookers cheered and applauded as the fully conscious Bagwell
was hoisted out of the trench on a backboard, but in reality
his ordeal was just beginning. Although he had no broken bones
or other obvious injuries, like most trench-collapse survivors,
he was suffering from a life-threatening injury known as
"The victim often looks great when he's rescued," says Dr. Jay
Johannigman, a trauma surgeon at Cincinnati's University
Hospital, where Bagwell was treated. "But soil pressure cuts
off most of the blood flow to buried parts of the body, just
like a tourniquet."
When the pressure is removed and circulation is restored,
Johannigman explains, a flood of toxic substances that have
formed in the dying muscle tissue surges into the bloodstream,
damaging the kidneys and other organs. The damaged muscles
swell grotesquely. To relieve the pressure, it's usually
necessary to make a series of lengthwise incisions in the tough
sheath that surrounds them. ("They cut me open from hip to
knee," Bagwell recalls.) Limbs are often so badly damaged that
they must be amputated. If the muscle damage is extensive
enough, death is all but inevitable.
Trench-collapse accidents claim the lives of
about 100 workers in this country each year. A
cubic yard of average soil weighs about a ton and a
half, and although the impact of falling soil can
break bones or cause massive internal injuries, the
immediate cause of death is usually suffocation: A
victim buried to the chest or above typically can't
expand his or her lungs enough to survive until
rescued. And attempting to dig out a buried victim
without taking proper precautions is itself
tremendously risky. Multiple fatalities sometimes
result when coworkers who rush to help are engulfed
by a secondary collapse.
Excavating safely calls for experience and good
judgment, including a working knowledge of various
soil types. A good excavation sub will have all of
these, but everyone who sets foot on a construction
site should understand the basics of trench safety
— not only for their own safety, but also for
the protection of those around them:
* According to OSHA, vertical-sided trenches must
not be more than 5 feet deep. For each foot of
depth beyond that depth, the upper portion of the
trench should be sloped 1 1/2 feet away from the
* Because the added weight of excavated soil
increases the risk of collapse, dirt removed from a
trench should be piled at least 2 feet away from
* Heavy equipment should not be operated near an
open trench, because the resulting vibrations can
cause the soil to collapse.
* While work is going on in a trench, someone at
the surface should watch for danger signs, such as
surface cracking or soil falling from the face of
the excavation. Be aware, though, that soil may
collapse with no warning at all.
* Trenches deeper than about 4 feet should have a
ramp or ladder to allow workers to get out of the
trench quickly if necessary and if there's
* Trust your instincts. If an excavation doesn't
seem safe to you, stay out of it, and don't send
anyone else into it.
Bagwell was relatively lucky. He spent ten days in the
hospital and endured weeks of painful physical therapy, but two
months after being pulled out of the earth, he hobbled back to
work with the aid of a pair of aluminum forearm crutches.
He had little choice. Because his injuries were unconnected
with his regular job, they weren't covered by workers'
compensation, and Bagwell had no private medical insurance.
"I've got to work," he says. "I've got to eat."
At first, he couldn't do much more than sit on an upturned
plastic bucket and rake asphalt. Today, three years later, he's
able to walk fairly easily on flat ground, but he still can't
climb a ladder. "They tell me I'm as good as I'm going to get,"
Some days, that's not saying much. Permanent nerve damage in
his legs means that he lives with a lot of pain, especially at
night. "My legs cramp up," he says. "They draw up and my toes
spread apart until I have to get up and walk around until I can
lie down again and try to sleep. I've taken every kind of
painkiller you can take, but they don't do much good." When it
comes to excavation work, Bagwell now offers some simple
advice: "Quit the job before you go down in a hole without a
— Reported by Jon
Defeated Guard Costs a
Several years ago, I was running a crew that was in the middle
of an interior trim job. There were some very complicated
built-up crown moldings, some of which involved four, five, or
six different pieces of stock. To simplify making all the
necessary cuts, we'd developed a really slick plywood auxiliary
fence for the miter saw that let us cut both narrow and wide
material without spending any extra setup time. An unintended
side effect was that the jig pushed the blade guard out of the
way prematurely during miter cuts, but that seemed like a
pretty minor problem. The jig was great, because we were facing
a very tight deadline. We'd been working 12 hours a day, 6 days
a week for some time, and we stood to lose a couple of thousand
dollars if we didn't finish on schedule.
Late one morning, I was working the saw and passing material
up to the three or four guys who were up on scaffolding. I'd
mitered one end of a piece of dentil molding, and I reached out
to clear the little offcut so I could turn it around and miter
the other end. The blade jumped a little bit as the brake
engaged, and I felt what I thought was a piece of offcut flick
my finger. I thought, "Whoa, that was close." My next thought
was, "If that was just a close call, why do I have my hand
clamped under my arm?"
All things considered, I was pretty lucky. I'd taken off the
tip of my index finger about halfway down the nail, just
clipping off the end of the bone. In fact, I actually got out
the first aid kit and went outside with it before I realized
that this wasn't a problem I could handle with a couple of
band-aids. One of the guys drove me to the hospital, while
everybody else took time to clean up the blood that I'd
spattered all around on my way to the door.
At the hospital, the doctor used the severed piece of my
finger — which was still connected by a little flap of
skin — to make a skin graft to cover the tip. It healed
well, although it was very sensitive to cold that first winter.
It also hurts a lot if I bang it on anything, and I have to
keep what's left of the nail cut very short or it gets caught
I was out of work for several days after the accident, and we
missed out on the incentive clause in the contract. But, as it
turned out, we would have missed the deadline anyway, because
our supplier didn't deliver the doors on time. If we'd only
known that earlier, we wouldn't have had to rush.
— Eric Doherty is the
production manager for a home builder in upstate New
I was the siding sub on a new house, and as the owner of the
company, I was anxious to get the job done. So I decided to
move things along by spending a Saturday putting up the cedar
I drove to the site, put on my tool belt, and climbed up the
40-foot ladder leading to the roofing brackets we'd set up on a
subsidiary roof below the gable end we were working on. It was
a cold day, but the sun was out and soon I was making good
progress. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the
hospital, hurting all over.
There are some things about what happened that morning that
I'll never know, because no one was there to see it. I was hit
on the head hard enough to permanently erase my memory of the
minutes just before the accident as well as the accident itself
— not an uncommon situation with head injuries, I'm
As best I can reconstruct it, here's what happened: I was near
the end of a course of siding. Instead of climbing down the
ladder and moving it over so I could finish from the ladder
rather than standing on the staging, I must have reached way
out to drive the last few nails. In the process, I put too much
of my weight on the short length of scaffold plank that
overhung the bracket. The plank kicked up and dumped me to the
ground 30 feet below.
I was probably unconscious for a while after I hit the ground,
but I temporarily came to long enough to crawl the 50 feet to
my truck — the emergency workers later told me they could
see the blood trail I'd left — and call 911 on my cell
phone. At the hospital, they found that I'd fractured my T8
vertebra — which is located just about between your
shoulder blades — and fractured a rib, which had punched
a hole in one of my lungs and partially collapsed it. I also
had an ugly scalp wound, which took a lot of stitches to close
up. I was in the hospital for about a week, then spent several
more weeks recovering at home and going to physical therapy. I
wasn't able to work again for three months.
One of the hardest things about being out of work was the
feeling that I'd let down the guys who work for me. I didn't
know how long it would be until I could work again, or what
would happen with my business. So I had to tell these guys,
some of whom had worked for me for years, that their best bet
would be to find another job.
The accident has made me more careful about staging, and now
when I put up a ladder, it's braced in as many ways as
possible. Safety has become a big priority for me, but it's
still a struggle to get the message to some of the younger guys
who work for me. I recently saw a guy doing something I thought
was unsafe, and I said to him, "Hey, what are you doing?" He
answered, "Well, just because you broke your back doesn't mean
I'm going to."
— Bob Mullaney is a
contractor in Derry, N.H.
Dumbwaiter Nearly Claims an
I had just completed a new home in a remote area. The job
included a two-story dumbwaiter, the second such unit I'd
installed that year. The first installation was textbook, but
the second was nothing but trouble. A week after I'd made what
I thought were the final adjustments, the client called to say
she couldn't open the access doors. A safety latch keeps them
locked until the cab stops in precise alignment with the
opening. The cab was raised and lowered by a 1/4-inch-diameter
stranded-steel cable on a reversing winch and was configured to
complete an up or down cycle before changing direction. I
figured the problem had to be improper spooling of the cable
due to a kink or slippage.
To open the door at the basement level, I overrode the safety
latch and disabled the kill switch that stopped downward
travel. Then I pressed the call button to drop the cab far
enough to allow me to reach above it. I intended to grab the
cable, pay it out all the way, pull out the slack, and then
guide its rewind onto the spool. But when I activated the winch
again, the cab went up, jamming my arm between its top and the
opening header. The winch cranked away, pinching my arm down to
the bone, just below the left elbow. After a moment of panic, I
reached out with my foot and flipped the emergency switch. But
I was stuck. Intense pain subsided into numbness during the
minutes I struggled. Even though I was in a basement in the
middle of nowhere, I yelled help a couple of times. Which, at
the time, I actually found hilarious.
I could just reach my flat bar with my right foot and dragged
it toward me. But prying between the cab and head jamb didn't
relieve the pressure sufficiently for me to pull free. And with
my arm jammed, I couldn't brace my body for proper
After being stuck like that for perhaps ten minutes and
feeling desperate, I decided to pull as hard as I could, even
if that meant losing a lot of the meaty part of my arm. I was
ready to do whatever it took to get out. I hauled down hard,
and my arm slowly scraped out of the crevice — thankfully
intact, but scraped raw, and with a deep, bruised indentation
and total numbness below the crease. I went outside in the
sunshine to shake off the adrenaline. Ironically, the building
inspector showed up a few minutes later to sign off on the
The doctor found no permanent damage; six years later I have a
faint crease across my forearm and slight, local numbness. It
could have been a lot worse.
Although I was familiar enough with the system to properly
handle the repair, at the time I was focused only on my
annoyance and on getting the callback over with as fast as I
could. I returned several days later to complete the
adjustment, equipped with humility and plenty of mental
— The writer wishes to remain
Nail in the Eye
A friend and I were working on a new house. I was standing on
a stepladder, taking a section of overhead floor apart by
pulling the gun nails with my ripping-claw hammer, when a nail
flew out of the claws and straight into my left eye. I ran
around swearing, with the nail stuck deep into my eyeball, then
reflexively pulled it out on the spot. There was a little bit
of blood, but most of what leaked out was clear fluid.
My friend Webster Allen drove me to the local fire department,
where an EMT put a patch on the eye, then wrapped a bandage
around my head, covering both eyes to prevent sympathetic eye
movement. From there, Webster drove me to the nearest emergency
room and led me in by the hand.
ER doctors undid the bandage and found that the nail had
struck directly in the pupil, but they found two holes —
one from the nail, the other apparently from me pulling it out.
They checked my eye with a flashlight, looking for pupil
response, then covered my right eye. The doctor told me to look
at a chart and tell what I saw. But I couldn't even see him,
let alone the chart.
I was referred to a nearby ophthalmologist, who performed some
more tests. He told me I'd lost quite a bit of fluid, done some
damage, and would be unlikely to recover full vision in my left
eye. He looked at the eye a while longer and then left the room
to consult with someone. When he came back, he told me it was
worse than he'd initially thought. He said that if I wanted any
chance of saving the eye, I'd have to get myself to a hospital
in Boston, and left me to choose one.
After I picked a hospital, he gave me some eye drops, and told
me to douse the eye every five minutes and to try not to move
my eyes. I was so worried by this time that I don't think I
even moved my head the entire 100 miles to Boston. When I
arrived at the hospital, I was immediately prepped and taken
into surgery. I was bedridden there for a week with an
antibiotic IV drip and constant applications of eye drops and
During the operation, the doctors had determined that the lens
had been destroyed, and that a lens implant would not be
possible. They sent me home with a steel patch over the eye and
directions to avoid straining my eye, since that could pop the
stitches and cause me to lose it altogether.
How to Keep Your
This magazine regularly hears from readers who
call, write, or e-mail to complain about
photographs that show unsafe work practices. The
most common complaint, hands down, has to do with
photo subjects who aren't wearing safety glasses
while doing work that puts them at risk of eye
injury. (For the record, while we try to screen out
glaring examples of unsafe work, there's a limit to
what we can do. Because JLC relies on actual
job-site photos, rather than staged or studio
shots, it shows the world of residential
construction as it is, not the way it should
Why are so many builders careless about protecting
their eyes? We've all heard (and maybe offered) the
standard excuses for going without safety glasses:
They're goofy looking. They get lost. They scratch.
They break. They collect dust or fog up. They're
Feel free to add your own favorite reason to the
list. But remember: Things look very different when
seen with one eye than they do with two. Here are a
few pointers on choosing and using eye
* Modern safety glasses are available in a wide
range of styles, some of which are
indistinguishable from expensive sport glasses.
Many nonprescription versions are available for $10
or less. Select ANSI-approved glasses that carry
the inscription "287" or "287.1" on the inside of
* To provide good visibility in everything from
bright sun to subdued indoor light, it's a good
idea to have several pairs of glasses available,
with both clear and tinted lenses.
* Ordinary prescription glasses are better than no
eye protection at all. But they're much less
impact- resistant than true safety glasses, which
are tough enough to stop most pneumatic nailer
misfires and other high-speed projectiles.
* If you wear glasses, consider investing in a
pair of prescription safety glasses. The cost is
comparable to that of ordinary glasses, and, except
for the removable side shields, they're similar in
* The best place to store safety glasses is on
your face. Choose eye protection that you can wear
comfortably all day, and you won't have to waste
time looking for your glasses when you need
As the doctors monitored my recovery and the eye appeared
stable, they opted for a series of injections into the eyeball
instead of the multiple follow-up surgeries originally
expected. The injections apparently settled the concern over
eventual, catastrophic retinal tearing or pressure buildup
leading to fluid loss.
Eventually, I was fitted with a thick contact lens that had a
nipple on the end to help pull the eye back into a spherical
shape. However, the lens was such a nuisance — it made my
eye water constantly and acted as an irritating sawdust magnet
— that I soon decided I'd rather do without most of the
vision in the eye than put up with the annoyance and
frustration of dealing with the contact lens.
Although I'm thankful that I've kept the eye, I have very
little vision on the left side. I can see light or darkness,
but not much else — something like looking through a
completely out-of-focus camera lens.
Mine was a weird accident, but probably half the guys you talk
to have had a table saw kick material back in their face and
hit them all around the eye zone. I just happened to score a
bull's-eye. At work, today, I always wear safety glasses.
— Dave Handren is co-owner of
Handren Bros. Building in Harwich, Mass.
In the initial shock that accompanies a serious
job-site accident, the last thing you'll be
thinking about is how it will affect your liability
insurance. But it won't be long before you'll have
to think about that. A single accident is likely to
boost your workers' comp rate for several years and
may make it difficult for you to obtain coverage at
With rates already at an all-time high for many
builders, and many insurance companies looking for
any excuse to dump customers seen as bad risks,
this is a good time to get serious about safety.
Steve Joyce, an agent with the Walsh & Parker
Insurance Agency in Hudson, Mass., who works with
many residential builders, offers some general
advice on how you can run a safer company and help
control your insurance costs:
* The basic rate companies pay for workers' comp
is set on an industry-wide basis within your state.
For a carpenter in Massachusetts, Joyce explains,
the current rate is about $11 per hundred dollars
of payroll. That figure is multiplied by an
individual-experience-modification factor, or
"mod," assigned to each individual company. Your
mod depends on the number of accidents you've had
in the preceding three-year period, and ranges from
.7 or so to about 1.9. The effect of the mod means
that a company at the bottom of the range might pay
as little as $7.70 per hundred dollars of payroll
for a carpenter, while one at the top would pay
nearly $20. Many states impose an additional
penalty based on the severity of reported
* Your mod is adjusted annually, but it's based on
performance over the preceding three years. Joyce
notes that a lot of builders "sort of give up"
after a serious claim, in the belief that they'll
be paying more for insurance forever. That's not
the case. You will pay more the following year and
for two years after that, but if you don't have any
additional claims, your rates should go down the
* If you've had a claim this year, there are no
two ways about it: Your rates will be going up next
year (they may be going up anyway, of course, but
that's another story). Joyce points out that it's
essential to get a straight answer from your
insurance agent on how much that increase will be,
because that increased overhead has to be factored
into any bids you prepare for upcoming work.
* All insurance companies have loss-control people
who will help you set up a formal safety program
that can make your company a more attractive
customer, especially if you've had a recent claim.
The bigger the company, the more elaborate a
program will be. At a minimum, you will have to
designate a safety-program coordinator who reports
directly to the owner, hold regular safety
meetings, and keep records of meeting attendance
and topics covered. Joyce stresses that all this
has to be done consistently and conscientiously.
"Your underwriter doesn't want to hear talk about
how safety conscious you are," he says. "It wants
to see actual safety programs in place, starting
with the owner on down."
* Don't assume that your company is safe just
because you've never had a serious injury. "Some
people are just lucky," Joyce says. Implementing a
safety program before you have an accident
may save you money — but, more important, it
will help protect your employees.