PRACTICAL. RESPONSIVE. EXPERT ENGINEERING CONSULTANTS SINCE 1985

A clarification of the role that wood scaffold plank in the construction of a scaffold platform.

When I tell someone that I work in the construction industry and I design scaffolding, the response is interesting.  If its fellow engineers, they think I’m nuts for working in such a dangerous field.  The liability must be incredibly high.  If I tell a safety person, sympathy is extended due to an obviously difficult career choice.  Tell an accountant and I’m asked how I ever make any money.  Fortunately my mother had always thought it kind of exciting.

But really, can such an activity like scaffolding erection and use be exciting?  Especially since so many people think it is so dangerous?  I can only speak for myself but it is my opinion that it isn’t dangerous and yes, it can be exciting, especially when there is a challenge for access that must be resolved.  Not dangerous you ask?  That’s right; in the overall scheme of life scaffolding is no more dangerous than a lot of other activities.  It’s just that scaffolding appears to be dangerous.  And besides, it’s easy to spot certain deficiencies in an erected scaffold.  You don’t have to be an expert to notice a missing guardrail on a supported scaffold. And you don’t need a doctorate in engineering to ascertain the lack of access.

OSHA consistently issues enough citations to employers each year for scaffold violations that the product of our efforts appears on the Top Ten list year in and year out.  It’s no wonder that the populace thinks we’re crazy with a track record like that.  Is there something sinister going on—perhaps a diabolical industry wide plot to perpetuate the perception of danger in the business of providing access to workers?   I hope not!  Let’s take a look at how the system works.

Scaffolding is a highly regulated business.  Besides federal OSHA standards that dictate minimum behavior, states and even local jurisdictions have regulations that specify how scaffolds are to be erected.  To be sure, the federal OSHA standards are performance standards meaning that the employer and employer have some leeway in achieving compliance with the standards. But that leeway comes with a price.  And herein lies the first problem.  The price for the opportunity to have some flexibility in complying with performance standards is the requirement that the scaffold erector and user must have knowledge about the hazard and the available options to mitigate that hazard.  This also means that the erector must know about the hazard and the applicable regulations in the first place.  In other words, if you want to dance you better know the song.

This brings us to the next problem which is the requirement that erectors, users, evaluators (site safety manager) and compliance officers have an understanding of the intent of the standards.  In fact this may be the biggest problem.  Nobody knows what’s going on!  The erector hasn’t been properly trained and consequently either believes anything a compliance officer tells him or thinks she knows everything.  In any event, everybody starts making up stuff because they don’t know any better.  The compliance officer, on the defensive because he hasn’t been provided adequate training in the subject matter, uses intimidation to make the point.  If that doesn’t work, then threats always seem to win the day.

The next problem is founded in ignorance.  When an individual doesn’t know any better, common sense, openness, a desire to learn and an open mind disappear.  Its replacement is an irrational desire to “win,” no matter the cost.  What a system.

So, how does all this result in scaffolding consistently showing up on OSHA’s Top Ten?  It’s simple: scaffolding is an easy target and we perceive that it is killing people all the time.  Furthermore, it’s an easy citation to write.  Drive down the street, look at a construction project and what do you see?  Yep, it’s a scaffold.  What do you see missing?  Yep, it’s the guardrail.  That’s an easy citation to write.  Let’s see what else I can find.  I remember a regulation that says erectors have to have fall protection and those guys putting up the scaffold aren’t tied off.  I don’t know much about fall protection and I can’t remember the criteria for a correct personal fall protection system but I’ll cite them anyway.  The erectors probably don’t know anything about it either.  That’s an easy citation to write.  Of course, while I’m staring at the scaffold as I drive by, I’m not paying attention to my driving and rear end the car in front of me, injuring the child who isn’t in a child seat or strapped in.  But that’s okay; we accept killing thousands of motorists and injuring many more thousands.  But heaven help the erector who isn’t “tied off.”  I can tell he’s dangerous and the scaffold he is working on is dangerous too.  How can the scaffold not be dangerous?  Just look at all those citations each year.

If we focused on the real hazards on a jobsite instead of the easy fixes, the jobsite would be a much better place.  If we actually trained the compliance officers to the real hazards, the Top Ten would look a lot different.  If we actually trained scaffold users to the real hazards, the Top Ten would look a lot different.  But that takes too much work.  It’s a lot easier to dumb it down.  Of course, the result of that approach is that too many people think scaffolds are dangerous.  And of course, that’s really dumb to think that.

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