Previous articles have discussed various portions of the new OSHA regulations that address scaffold use and erection, including the new requirements that specify that a competent person evaluate each scaffold erection project for the feasibility of providing erectors with safe access and fall protection. On what basis does the competent person make that evaluation?
What historical data exists that can assist the competent person in recognizing hazards that occur during the erection process. Does any data exist that tells us the high risk age bracket? Does any data exist that tells us the level of training that is most effective for erectors? Does any data exist that tells us the minimum level of expertise that can be expected to return the maximum level of safety? Does any data exist that tells us what subject matter should be taught to erectors? Does any data exist that tells us the techniques and methods that should be utilized by erectors? Does any data exist that tells us what erectors were doing at the time of an accident? Does any data exist that would tell us what NOT to do? Do manufacturers have any data that would improve the safety for the erectors? Does the Scaffold Industry Association have any data that would help members improve the safety of erectors? Does OSHA have any data that would help members improve the safety of the erector?
Some time ago the Scaffold Industry Association (SIA) conducted a survey of its’ members to determine how many members were getting injured or killed while erecting scaffolds. The results, as described in last month’s newsletter lead article, suggested that erector falls were “almost non-existent” and that most injuries “happened on the ground or by inexperienced and/or untrained workers.” It is a fact that this survey was unscientific and flawed in that it did not include data that was available but not used, data that indicates that “professional” erectors do indeed get injured and killed. Additionally, data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institutes of Health, and others, would indicate that there is a problem with erectors not staying on the scaffold where they belong. For example, OSHA claims that 11% of scaffold fatalities are erectors. What were these erectors doing at the time of the fall? Was the fatality due to a fall? What experience did the erector have? What could be done to eliminate or minimize the hazard in the future? Would fall protection equipment have helped? Could the scaffold been used as an anchor? Would using the scaffold as an anchor jeopardize the safety of other workers on the scaffold?
Lots and lots of questions but very few answers. From my perspective, it would appear we are reacting emotionally to a very serious subject. It has been said that when we have no facts we are driven by emotion and that is exactly what is occurring with this issue. Those in favor of 100% tie off are either ignorant of the very complicated forces that occur or choose to ignore these facts. Those in favor of no fall protection for erectors are either ignorant of the opportunities that exist in many circumstances or choose to ignore those opportunities. Can either side be criticized when none of us have the facts? Further complicating the situation is the litigious nature of the business and the risks that are associated with making a wrong decision. It’s no wonder that manufacturers are adamant about using a proper anchor and discourage the use of scaffolds as anchors. And yet, owners, contractors, safety officials, and compliance officers, blind to the inherent dangers that may exist, demand fall protection that generally results in the erector violating 1926.502(d). (That’s the requirement that non designed anchors support 5000 pounds.)
What possibly can be done with this issue? It is no secret that scaffold erectors daily tie off and are still able to erect or dismantle a scaffold. The question is, and this is a big question, what level of safety does the erector have? Is he/she at a greater risk because he/she is tied off to the scaffold? Has the hazard exposure for fellow workers increased because of this? What happens during a fall. Test results illustrate the complexity of the subject; sometimes the scaffold works as an anchor and sometimes it doesn’t. I sure hope all of you choose an anchor that works but frankly, guessing is a risky business. Why not try a scientific approach since it’s doubtful a regulatory approach will be fully effective. Imagine the success if the erector’s competent person can make an evaluation based on historical data, research, and even testing. I don’t know about you but I would be a lot more comfortable if I had more information – and I design anchors. I am convinced that the facts will solve the mystery and the competent person’s decision will be respected. This industry has the obligation, and OSHA has an obligation here also, to do the research to get these facts. We have an obligation to the erector and we have an obligation to the competent person to get this information. It’s encouraging that the SIA is working on a fall protection plan and this is a good start. Beyond that we need to continue searching for better methods, training, and techniques. Give me the facts – just the facts!