Heavy Equipment Safety: How to Avoid the Most Common Hazards

Reduce earthmoving machine accidents by following these tips.

Bulldozers, backhoes, graders, trenchers, compactors, excavators — these are the big machines on a construction site. They can move earth, dig foundations and turn almost any terrain, from prairie to rocky hillside, into smooth, level ground. But with these powerful giants come outsize hazards.

Following earthmoving, trenching and excavation safety best practices when operating or working near heavy equipment is not only good common sense, it could prevent an injury or save a life.

Heavy equipment accidents

Accidents involving heavy equipment can result in serious injury or death. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020 alone, accidents involving these pieces of heavy equipment led to numerous injuries that required time away from work, as well as multiple deaths:

  • Backhoes and trackhoes: 210 nonfatal injuries, 17 deaths
  • Bulldozers: 90 injuries, two deaths
  • Trenchers: 60 injuries, one death
  • Excavating machinery: 190 injuries, 24 deaths

On construction sites, some of the most common heavy equipment accidents involve:

  • Falls from equipment. Falls from elevated cabs can happen if operators slip when mounting or dismounting equipment or jump off the equipment. Falls can also occur when equipment buckets are inappropriately used as man lifts.
  • Electrocution. Live power lines on or near a worksite present a hazard, especially for machines with booms or lifts.
  • Being crushed by, struck by or caught between machinery. Sight-line issues can lead operators to accidentally strike or back over a worker. In 2020, 60 construction workers were struck or run over by a rolling powered vehicle according to BLS, and 390 workers were injured from being struck by the swinging part of a powered vehicle. Heavy equipment rollovers, while less common, also cause injuries and deaths.

Heavy equipment safety tips

Equipment operator training, pre-planning and 360-degree awareness are keys to preventing and reducing injuries and fatalities related to heavy equipment. Here are specific tips for avoiding the hazards that pose some of the biggest risks.

Preventing rollovers and tipping

Rollovers and tipping occur when the vehicle’s center of gravity shifts, typically when one set of wheels or tracks is lower than the other. This can happen when the ground is unstable or the operator misjudges a slope. Side rollovers can happen if the operator turns too aggressively.

  • Check the ground for stability before traversing it.
  • Choose the flattest route possible.
  • Don’t speed. Slow down on rough terrain and when navigating turns.
  • Drive directly up or down slopes, not across the face of the slope.
  • Avoid slopes that are too steep for the machine.
  • Don’t exceed the machine’s lifting capacity.
  • Cut a bench for the excavator to sit on when excavating a slope.
  • Keep booms and front-end buckets low during transport for improved stability.

Preventing electrocution

Electrocution is a major cause of death in the construction industry, and for non-electricians, power lines are often the source. Hitting a live overhead power line with any part of the equipment can result in falls, injuries and death. To reduce the risk, follow these tips.

  • Assume lines are live. Assume every power line is energized unless a utility employee confirms that it isn’t.
  • Maintain clearance. Keep every part of the equipment at least 10 feet away from energized power lines at all times. Use a spotter when necessary to help the operator maintain the appropriate distance. OSHA requires that a spotter be used if any part of equipment traveling with no load will get closer than 20 feet to a power line.
  • Plan around live lines. Don’t put access roads near power lines or store materials near or under them.

Preventing struck-by incidents and backovers

Struck-by and backover accidents are two of the primary dangers on large, busy jobsites. The most important thing an operator should watch out for is people, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Machines have blind spots, and worksite noise can make communication difficult. Follow these safety tips.

  • Create a traffic control plan. This may include a one-way primary travel path through the jobsite marked by barriers, cones, barrels or barricades to keep workers on foot out, as well as designated pedestrian travel zones.
  • Mark equipment entrances and exits so on-foot workers steer clear.
  • Train operators to maintain a clear line of sight. When necessary, operators should use a spotter. Spotters must wear high-visibility clothing so that other equipment operators in the area can see them.
  • Teach workers about equipment blind spots. Let them sit in the driver’s seat so they can see for themselves what the operator can and cannot see.
  • Utilize safety features. Make sure all machines are equipped with a backup alarm that’s louder than the ambient construction noise and that the alarm is functional. Add blind-spot mirrors, and consider adding a radar or sonar proximity warning system if the machine doesn’t have one.
  • Park the equipment on a level surface, lower any boom or bucket to the ground, chock the wheels (when applicable) and lock the cab upon exiting.

Preventing falls from equipment

Cabs are high enough off the ground that a fall from the equipment could result in broken limbs or other serious injuries. To reduce the risk of falls:

  • Maintain three points ofcontact when mounting and dismounting the equipment. Keep your hands free; don’t try to carry tools or equipment. Never mount or dismount a machine when it’s moving.
  • Scrape any mud or snow off of your boots to avoid slips. Clear steps, handholds and footholds of mud, snow and grease.
  • Wear the seatbelt. A seatbelt can protect the operator from being thrown if the machine hits a bump or ditch. It can also prevent the operator from being thrown, and potentially crushed, if the machine rolls over. And it helps operators resist the instinct to jump from the machine if it starts to tip.

The role of pre-shift equipment inspections

A pre-shift equipment inspection can identify mechanical issues that could pose a safety hazard. Use an inspection checklist from the equipment manufacturer or your company’s inspection checklist if it has one. Below are some of the checks an inspection might include.

  • Look for visible leaks or fluids on the ground that suggest a leak.
  • Inspect tires, rims, fans, brakes, belts and undercarriage for excessive wear, dirt or debris that could impact operation.
  • Check oil and fuel levels and look for damaged or leaking filters.
  • Inspect grease points and reapply grease if necessary.
  • Check hydraulic connections.
  • Look for worn or broken bucket teeth.
  • Verify that all backup alarms, safety cameras, mirrors, warning lights and other visual and auditory safety systems are working.

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