Familiarity breeds confidence, sometimes to a fault, and it was 40 years and tens of thousands of incident-free cuts, into his career that one of Tim Sweeney's most seasoned, carpenters ran his thumb through a table saw.

“He didn't sever it, so you might say it's not that big a deal,” says the president of Sweeney Construction, in Madison, Wis. “But what you don't see is the residual effect on this individual” — the three or four months that the carpenter couldn't work, much less bowl or golf, two of his defining passions.

There's also the residual effect on the business. Sweeney Construction had enjoyed a stellar safety record since Tim and his brothers formed the company in 1986. A year after the carpenter's injury, another staff member slipped on a jobsite, tearing his rotator cuff. He was out for almost three months. The company's experience modifier (used to calculate workers' compensation rates) climbed from .73 — “about as low as you can go” — to .95, costing the company another $10,000 to $15,000 over a few years.

“Is that going to hurt our company? Probably not,” Sweeney says. But the emotional and physical scars remain, and the game of catch-up takes a toll on schedules, clients, and other employees.

When accidents happen, the moment of impact is often just the tip of the iceberg. In the course of assembling these reflections on real-life brushes with death and some lesser occupational risks of construction work, we learned not only of the individuals' renewed commitments to safety, but also of their coming to terms with mortality, fallibility, and, at least temporarily, dependence on others.

They hope you'll never learn the same lessons.


Rob Mathews

Curb Appeal Renovations

Keller, Texas

“I fell 18 feet off a roof on August 9, 2006. We have a contract to maintain a Boys & Girls Club, and every summer we have seven days to do six to eight weeks' worth of work.

Rob Mathews (shown with wife and partner Robin Burrill) was inspecting a roof when he stepped off it. Thankfully, his 3 nancial and legal affairs were already in order.
Michelle Thompson Rob Mathews (shown with wife and partner Robin Burrill) was inspecting a roof when he stepped off it. Thankfully, his 3 nancial and legal affairs were already in order.

“I was inspecting the A/C units on the roof, and I basically took one step too many backward. On my way down, I hit a metal handrail and flipped over, so that I landed on my head and shoulder.

“My guys were all inside painting, but I was able to drag myself up an incline, across the scorching sidewalk, and to a door that I banged on. In the hospital, I learned that I had a fractured sternum, two broken collarbones, a dislocated right shoulder, a collapsed right lung with bleeding into it, a concussion, and four broken ribs. By the time my project manager got to my truck, someone had broken into it and stolen my wallet, my tools and golf gear, and my handgun (it's Texas, and I have a license to carry).

“I was in the hospital for five days and out of work for a month or so, and I'm still having severe back problems a year later.

“We're now adamant that our staff stay off roofs, if at all possible. We're also holding monthly safety meetings, and we even hired a third-party safety inspector to review our facility and practices. At his recommendation, we replaced some ladders, which we were using to access a storage area, with a permanent step structure, and created a pulley system instead of handing things down from this elevated area.

“We've always had good insurance, but we also decided to start paying 100% of our employees' medical premiums, instead of 50%, and 100% of everyone's long- and short-term disability insurance as well.

“In hindsight, I'm lucky to be alive, and also lucky that the business was able to operate without me. Our staff was phenomenal, and our trades, vendors, and clients were very supportive. But the most important thing was that my wife and business partner Robin and I had gotten our financial affairs in order years ago — wills, medical powers of attorney, durable powers of attorney. She was able to take care of insurance and other matters, as well as to cancel my credit cards and call the bank when my wallet was stolen.

“I think that's the moral of my story. Every remodeler needs a backup plan, whether they have a partner or not. An accident could be catastrophic if the company hinged on you alone.”

U.S. residential remodelers had 16 fatal falls and 37 fatalities overall in 2006. Framing contractors had 17 fatal falls. Construction in general accounted for 1,226 fatal falls in 2006 — more than any other industry sector (U.S. Department of Labor).