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3 Common Safety Misunderstandings and Lessons Learned

Article-3 Common Safety Misunderstandings and Lessons Learned

Tomasz Zajda/Alamy Stock Photo Construction Worker holding caution tape
These examples illustrate the importance of confirming the facts are the facts before you act.

A few weeks ago, I was asked what is written on a car’s passenger-side mirror. My response was, like many of you, “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”—and I was wrong.  

I fell for the “learning by osmosis” trap about which I often warn others. Simply put, I heard someone say it, or I read it, or I saw it in a movie and absorbed the inaccurate information as fact.  

In actuality, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, "Each convex mirror shall have permanently and indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror's reflective surface… the words 'Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.’” 

There is plenty of internet fodder “proving” that the phrase exists, like David Letterman’s top 10 lists, and there are several advertisements from the ‘70s that state the phrase “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” but I could find no images that show that phrase from a reliable, verifiable source. 

This happens in the construction world as well, especially with rules and regulations from OSHA. But just because someone yells “OSHA says…” louder or more often than someone else does not make it fact. 

Misunderstanding #1: Ladders and three-point contact 

For example, the common belief is that OSHA says, “Face the ladder and maintain three points of contact.” That makes sense, and it is great safe work practice, but the three-point contact is not in the general industry or construction standards for ladders published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. So, let’s do it—but know that OSHA doesn’t say that. 

Misunderstanding #2: OSHA rules and companies with less than 10 employees 

Another misunderstanding I often hear is, “OSHA doesn’t apply to me; I have fewer than 10 employees.” OSHA does apply to all workplaces with one or more employees engaged in commerce. This is not an easy one to find but is covered in 29 CFR 1975, Coverage of Employers Under the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This act—which established OSHA as the organization responsible for ensuring “every working man and woman … safe and healthful working conditions”—includes section 1975.4(a), which says “Any employer employing one or more employees would be an ‘employer engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees’ and, therefore, he is covered by the Act as such.”  

There are a few exceptions for certain groups, but most workplaces fall under OSHA oversight. This misunderstanding occurs when people apply too broadly the OSHA recordkeeping standard 29 CFR 1904.1, which allows companies with under 10 employees to not maintain OSHA injury and illness records. However, those companies do still remain under OSHA oversight.  

Misunderstanding #3: Steel erection standard 

A more specific case of misinterpretation is in the steel erection standard. Erectors often assume that they can place a load of materials on unbraced joists. Look at 1926.757(e)(4)(i) which states that the employer must first determine “from a qualified person and documented in a site-specific erection plan that the structure or portion of the structure is capable of supporting the load.”  

Unfortunately, this is not accurate and an extremely dangerous practice. Earlier in 1926.757(e)(4), it states that all provisions in that section need to be met. The qualified person line is only one of six requirements; it alone does not fulfill the standard. 

As construction business owners, managers and supervisors, it’s crucial to understand memories are fallible, and it is a risky choice to assume anyone knows the standard without checking when lives are on the line. Read the standard and get advice from knowledgeable and reputable experts in the industry, and don’t accept word of mouth at face value on standard or safe practices. Go to the source! 

Tim Neubauer is president and owner of Exceed Safety in Raleigh, North Carolina. His experience spans three decades in the application of safety principles while in the field. Neubauer holds a master's in occupational safety and health and is a certified safety professional with knowledge in a wide range industries, specializing in construction health and safety. He has worked with the National Safety Council and their affiliates for more than 20 years and has facilitated Advanced Safety Certificate courses as an instructor. Neubauer was also an OSHA OTI Level 500 instructor in Region 5 and a certified National Center for Construction Education and Research instructor.

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