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Scaffolding Safety -
Facts About OSHA Requirements

Written by Steve Hudgik

Scaffolding safety is a hot topic from virtually any perspective. The manufacturers believe that OSHA needs to step up and recognize new and potentially safer types of scaffolding. There are even differing opinions among manufacturers. Some suggest that foreign scaffold manufacturers have lower standards and less traceability of the materials used in the construction of scaffolding.

Here in the US, OSHA statistics tell an eye-opening story. Scaffolding safety makes their top 10 list every year with more than 10,000 scaffold-related injuries reported annually. An estimated 2.3 million construction workers, or 65 percent of the construction industry, work on scaffolds frequently, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Protecting these workers from scaffolding accidents would prevent 50 deaths every year.

In the UK, organizations such as the National Access & Scaffolding Conference have acknowledged a broad range of collective measures available to scaffolds and employers. These include new anchor devices that enable scaffolds to attach their harnesses to higher points above the working platform - reducing fall distances.

Everyone agrees that more safety training and other precautions are needed. These frightening accidents are generally due to improper construction or negligent scaffolding maintenance including planks giving way, workers slipping and being struck by falling objects. For those in the construction, painting and window washing industries, scaffolding is a part of life. Scaffolds give workers access to elevated heights and stable work surfaces. From a project management viewpoint, erecting and dismantling scaffolding adds valuable time and additional labor to workflow, deadlines and budgets. In the construction business, speed equals profitability.

Meanwhile, almost every day workers continue to fall from scaffolds. Just recently, a specially trained fire fighter in New York rappelled more than 22 stories to rescue two stranded scaffold workers whose rigging broke and had nothing but their safety harnesses to keep them from falling.

So, how do we deal with a situation that's not going away? Before we launch into all that, let's take a few steps backward and review the facts, the history and an anatomy of a scaffolding system and an overview of safety resources.

Many believe scaffolds were used in the building of Egypt's pyramids and the Great Wall of China. While scaffolding materials have evolved - from wood to steel to aluminum and designs such as adjustable steel props, welded frames, horizontal restraints and couplers have changed to reflect safety concerns - the purpose of the scaffold remains the same.

First of all, there are three basic types of scaffolding:

  • Self support which has supports from the group with poles or frames. Examples include mobile or rolling scaffolding.
  • Suspension. The platforms look similar to self supporting scaffolds because they consist of a platform with supports. Supports are from overhead structures and suspend in the air with ropes and pulleys.
  • Specialty. A roof supported scaffold that has triangular shaped supports and fastens right to the roof.

Anatomy of a scaffolding system

Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support people and material during construction or repairs. It is usually a modular system of metal tubes or pipes.

Most frame scaffolds consists of end frames and cross braces plus base plates and a guardrail system.

The distance between frames is determined by the length of the cross braces.

Working heights are about 4 to 6 ft. above the scaffold planks.

Once the height exceeds three times the minimum width of the tower, one must tie the scaffolding to the building at specific intervals.

In the US, tubes are either steel or aluminum. The tubes come in a variety of lengths and a standard diameter. Boards provide a working surface for users of the scaffold. They are seasoned wood and come in different thicknesses. The board ends are protected by metal plates called hoop irons or sometimes nail plates. Timber or steel decking is used to laminate boards. Aluminum planks are also used.

In addition to boards for the working platform there are sole boards which are placed beneath the scaffolding if the surface is soft or otherwise suspect, although ordinary boards can be used.

Couplers are the fittings which hold the tubes together. The most common are called scaffold couplers. There are three basic types: right-angle couplers, putlog couplers and swivel couplers. To join tubes end-to-end joint pins (also called spigots) or sleeve couplers are used, or both together.

Before getting started, all those working with or near the scaffold should know the answers to these questions and others:

  • Are you using effective Scaffold and Ladder Safety Signs and Labels to communicate the safety policies of your construction site and to make your workplace and employees safe?
  • Have you checked for missing planks on platforms, proper access or proper tying off to buildings?
  • Have you considered hiring an outside scaffold erector?
  • Do you have a competent person on site with scaffold safety training?
  • Are frame scaffolds the best choice for the job?
  • Are all employees involved with or near the scaffold wearing hard hats?
  • Are footings sound and rigid?
  • Is the scaffold level?
  • Are wheels/casters locked?
  • Are all platforms at least 18 inches wide?
  • Does scaffold conform to the 4 to 1 base to height ratio requirement?
  • Does the scaffold meet electrical safety clearance distances?

Since OSHA compliance is the number one US safety watchdog and there's a fear and monetary factor associated with non-compliance, consider:

Critical OSHA Scaffolding Safety Requirements

  • Guard railing is required by OSHA if a worker is exposed to a 10 foot or greater fall. Guard rails must be at certain heights and must be able to withstand certain amounts of force
  • Toeboards are required by OSHA if the scaffold is 10 feet or higher. There are minimum height requirements. Toeboards must be able to sustain certain amounts of energy.
  • Work platform decking is required by OSHA. The entire work level must be completely decked. Planks should be inspected before installation and load capacity checked. Be sure to not overload decking with too much weight.

"There is incredible room for improvement from the scaffolding industry to teach the end user about safety installation, usage, inspection and procedures," said Brian Clarke from Hoffman Construction.

Some manufacturers are taking steps to improve safety.

"There are various safety measures that we use depending on the type of scaffold we are erecting. We have swing tubes wrapped in yellow and black reflective tape to allow for access and for the protection of a guardrail while working. We have mud sills that are used under screw jack base plates for leveling of sloping ground. Outriggers are used for free standing or rolling scaffold, to stabilize against tipping. We use guy wires, locks on casters, wind locks on decks for bad weather conditions and caps to put on the ends of tube and clamp scaffold to avoid cuts and abrasions. We also use netting, so that tools and equipment stay in place," said Shannon Gwynne, Sky-Hi Scaffolding.

There are bright spots in scaffolding safety training such as The Scaffold Training Institute (www.scaffoldtraining.com), offering on-site and off-site training to workers and trainers. Topics include OSHA's "competent" person regulations, building and dismantling several types of frame, tube and coupler scaffolds, how to determine what size scaffold is needed, how to do scaffold drawings, how to calculate the scaffold material required and how to calculate the weights in the scaffold planks, bearers, couplers and posts.

Additional scaffolding safety resources include:

  • OSHA's Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health, www.osha.gov/doc/accsh/index.html, an advisory body established by statute that provides advice and assistance in construction standards
  • The Scaffold Industry Association, www.scaffold.org
  • The Scaffolding, Shoring & Forming Institute, www.ssfi.org

There isn't really one solution to this major challenge. A better approach should be many-tiered: greater awareness of the dangers of scaffolding, increased access to scaffold safety training, continued manufacturing innovation and OSHA keeping its collective eye on all things scaffold-related.

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