Staging Safety: Supporting the Reduction of Scaffolding Accidents

Scaffolding has been used for decades, yet it is still a major contributor to construction accidents, specifically slips, trips, and falls that result in serious injury or even death. This guide will examine the causes, explore methods of prevention along with initiatives and regulations that help improve statistical outcomes.

Identifying the Main Causes

There are many causes for scaffolding failure. They can be divided into one of several main causes:

PPE Failure

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) includes non-slip protective footwear, hard helmets, appropriate clothing that won’t catch or snag on the scaffolding itself, and appropriate eyewear given the task. PPE also includes fall arrest systems – harnesses that are designed to secure workers on the scaffold and minimize the risk of injury or death if they do fall.

Improper Scaffolding Construction

When scaffolding is not properly installed or braced, serious injury or death could occur. For example, if the scaffolding is not properly braced, it may blow over.  Brace retention and locking systems should be used to secure the platform, and counterweights should always be employed to prevent excessive movement of the scaffolding.

Workers on scaffolding may experience momentary disorientation and lose balance without these measures if the wind catches the platform or if they unintentionally rock the platform while working.

Improper Training

Safety regulations help protect workers. Employees and contractors should be properly trained and educated on the risk of working on scaffolding as well as how to minimize those risks. When proper training is not given, workers may not understand how to properly secure scaffolding, how much can be carried onto the platform, safe procedures for walking onto and off from the scaffolding and how to brace during an impact or sudden movement.

Improper Load and Balancing

When improper loading or balancing occurs, the scaffolding can be tipped over or rocked sufficiently to cause an employee to lose his or her balance. When this happens, workers may slip, fall, or become seriously injured.

Lack Of Guardrail Use

Lack of guardrail use could result in serious injury or death. Regulations mandate the use of guardrails on at least three sides of a scaffold that face away from the building if the scaffold is more than 10 feet above the ground.

Proper guard-railing includes a top rail, a middle rail, and a toe board or bottom rail. These guard rails are often made to be removable so that materials can be hoisted onto the scaffold platform. Workers who do not replace the rails, or who do not use safety gear while the rails are not in place, put themselves and others at serious risk of falling.

Lack of Inspection or Maintenance

Scaffolding should be regularly inspected and repaired, when necessary. A supervisor and a competent person (a safety officer) must periodically inspect scaffolding to ensure that there is no damage or that the integrity of the scaffold is not compromised in any way.

Improperly maintained scaffolding can fail at a critical time, causing serious injury or death.

Scaffold Accident Prevention Awareness

In order to prevent scaffolding from failing, the main causes and risks of failure must be addressed.

Use Fall Arrest Systems

The single most important piece of PPE is the personal fall arrest system. This system consists of a harness with a high tensile strength cord that protects workers from falling.

Body harnesses typically wrap around the chest, shoulders, wait, and groin or hip area. They are secured using buckles, and attached to a lifeline high-tensile strength cord. The webbing and harness used should have a maximum arresting force of 1,800 pounds.

When fully rigged, the employee should not be able to free-fall more than 6 feet or contact any lower scaffolding level. Personal arrest systems should be adjustable to accommodate the work environment. If they are not, a different arrest system must be used.

Systems should be able to bring a worker to a complete stop and limit deceleration distance to 3.5 feet, while still having sufficient strength to resist twice the potential impact energy of the worker in free-fall up to 6 feet.

System components must be periodically inspected to ensure that there is no fraying in the webbing or damage to any of the buckles, lifeline, or harness. Personal arrest systems are not attached to the guardrail systems or hoists.

Use Guardrails

The use of guardrails is a secondary protection system that provides barriers for workers working in conditions where scaffolding or platforms are raised more than 10 feet into the air. Guardrails should be placed around hazard areas, safety nets should be deployed, and personal fall arrest systems should be used.

However, the use of the guardrail adds a layer of protection where safety nets may not be possible and reduces the risk that the personal arrest system will need to be used. When employers use guardrail systems, the top edge height of the uppermost rails have to be between 39 and 45 inches above the working level on the platform.

The only exception is when conditions warrant other placement or heights based on specific, unique, circumstances.

For example, when employees are using stilts, the top edge of the rail would need to be increased to equal the height of the stilts. Midrails or screens must be used in these systems and must be installed midway between the top guardrail and the walking level. Any screen that it uses must extend from the top rail to the lower level (working area), but only when there is no wall or other structure which is at least 21 inches high.

Otherwise, midrails must be midway between the top guardrail assembly and the working level. Intermediate members between posts have to be no farther than 19 inches apart, and other structural components, like additional midrails or supports, must be installed so that openings do not exceed 19 inches. This is to prevent someone from falling through the midrail openings between intermediate members.

When guardrails are in use, they must be able to withstand at least 200 pounds of force being applied to them within 2 inches of the top edge of the rail. In other words, the top-most guardrail must be able to withstand 200 pounds of force being applied to it in any direction and at any point along that edge.

The top edge of the guardrail cannot deflect downward less than 39 inches from the top of the working level. Midrails and screens must be able to withstand at least 150 pounds of force which could theoretically be applied from any direction at any point along the midrail.

Finally, the top and midrail cannot overhang terminal posts.

Inspection

Scaffolding should be regularly inspected by a qualified individual, either a supervisor or a competent person (safety officer), or both. Inspections should consist of a test of the equipment, a visual inspection for any wear or damage, and recommendations for maintenance.

Equipment should be replaced or repaired when there is evidence of any damage that might compromise the integrity of the platform or scaffold, including guardrail systems, or PPE (including lifelines, harnesses, and associated clips and fasteners).

Inspection should be done every day prior to using the equipment.

Safety Training

All workers who will use the scaffolding should be trained in its use, including any and all OSHA regulations concerning the use of PPE, guardrail systems, and clearance for platforms. Workers should understand weight limits for the scaffolding as well as mechanics of how the scaffolding works.

Never exceed the maximum weight limit for any scaffold or use equipment which may create uneven balancing on the platform when in use.

The Effect Of Regulations

Current regulations in many states do provide for the safety of workers, but some important additions are being considered to further enhance and augment the current regulations.

For example, in New York, proposed regulations would make it unlawful to assemble or disassemble any supported scaffold unless the individual or company has been issued a certificate acknowledging competence in how to assemble and disassemble the structure. In New York, this certificate is called a “Supported Scaffold Certificate of Fitness.”

Another proposed change to existing regulations would include changes to maximum heights of scaffolds without prior approval. Any scaffold over 75 feet would require approved drawings and would have to be signed off on by a professional engineer.

OSHA Federal Regulations would also require the designation of a competent person to inspect the scaffold prior to each day’s use. This is in line with current regulations requiring a competent person to inspect scaffolding each day.

The results of the inspection would be recorded in a logbook available at the job site.

Employers would be prohibited from allowing an individual to assemble a scaffold who hasn’t been issued a Supported Scaffold Certificate of Fitness. The individual would also be prohibited from disassembling, repairing, maintaining or modifying any supported scaffold without such a certificate.

Training programs would require individuals to certify for the certificate, and the program would be at least 32 hours to ensure competency.

OSHA would approve all scaffolding certs and training programs – such programs would need to be run by professional and recognized training companies or union-approved by the DOB. Every individual working on, assembling, disassembling, or otherwise maintaining or modifying a scaffold would need to maintain his or her certificate by completing an 8-hour safety training program.

An individual may also be issued a certificate if he or she can prove that a training program was completed within the last 10 years prior to the effective date of the proposed regulation. OSHA would be the sole authority, and would have the power to revoke any certificate from any individual if said individual willfully or negligently violated any of the proposed rules and regulations.

Finally, a fee would be imposed for obtaining the Supported Scaffold Certificate of Fitness. Regulations, and proposed regulations, similar to these highlight several key aspects of current law:

  • While there are existing safety protocols and procedures, more could be done to protect workers in the construction industry.
  • Current safety laws and regulations do not address the construction and maintenance of scaffolding or, where they do address this, the standards may not be consistent across all counties or areas within the state.
  • Existing safety protocols are aimed at personal protective equipment, but may miss more important safety issues like the proper construction of scaffolding.

Addressing Sidewalk Sheds

In addition to proposed regulations concerning scaffolding, additional regulations attempt to address sidewalk sheds. A sidewalk shed is a particular type of scaffolding designed to protect pedestrians from falling objects at a construction site.

These types of structures are used extensively in larger cities or densely populated areas where it may not be possible to prevent pedestrians from walking at or near the construction zone. The shed is a makeshift tunnel that individuals can walk through, providing them safe passage through construction areas.

Existing laws require them when construction work is over 40 feet high or 25 feet high for demolition work or whenever there is a dangerous or hazardous condition at the construction site.

This could mean any demolition or potential for falling debris.

These sheds are also important safe passage ways for construction workers to enter or exit the construction zone, so making sure these structures are safe is important for the health and well-being of the employees as well as general pedestrians.

Sidewalk sheds are designed to support a “live load” of at least 300 pounds per square foot. Furthermore, storage cannot exceed this amount. Minimum width for these sheds is specified at 4 feet, with ample lighting for safe passage.

Safer Working Conditions In New York

These and many other proposed regulations may not completely eliminate accidents, but they are designed to minimize risk by employing expert analysis and safety audits on job sites where there may be no formal structure for such audits.

At the same time, if you feel that the risks that you’re being asked to take are unreasonable, or if  you’ve been injured on a construction site, don’t hesitate to speak with an attorney. While some proposed regulations are not actual laws yet, you still have rights, and you shouldn’t be afraid to assert them.

Additional Resources

OSHA: Scaffold Use In The Construction Industry