Technology’s effect on the future of regulations and training.

When it was suggested that I write about technology trends I thought it would be a no-brainer, what with me being an engineer.  The word technology suggests science, engineering and the industrial arts, which is how Mr. Webster defines it in his dictionary.  As long as I had the dictionary handy, I decided to look up trend and discovered that it meant “general course or prevailing tendency.”  Put the two words together and you have some engineer wandering around talking about science and engineering in the most confusing way.  After some introspection, reality set in and I realized that not only could “technology trends” apply to science and engineering but “technology” can also apply to “the application of knowledge for practical ends.” Actually, I didn’t come up with that—Webster has that definition in his dictionary too.

Realizing that a scaffold frame hasn’t changed much in 75 years and not much has changed with round tubing or clamps in the same time period I decided to focus my thoughts on other aspects of the scaffold industry.  Let’s face it; a scaffold frame isn’t exactly the cutting edge of the scaffold business.  Fortunately, aerial platforms and suspended scaffolds have more opportunities for advanced technology than a scaffold frame will ever have.  Isn’t it interesting that both use motors and electricity?  Who knows, maybe we’ll have nuclear powered suspended scaffolds some day.  Better yet, can you imagine a nuclear powered scissors lift?

After some more introspection, I decided to address technology trends as it applies to regulations.  That’s right; this article is somehow going to connect technology trends with scaffold regulations.

Think about it: Regulations have been around forever or so it seems.  Until recently these regulations were only available in a paper format.  If you wanted to bring the regulations with you to a jobsite, you had to carry the book with you.  Every time the regs were revised, the book had to change.  Not a problem if you were the paper vendor but for the rest of us it could get tough to keep up.  Luckily, some governmental entities handed out free copies so you could keep up.  In spite of the freebies, it was a cumbersome system that was extremely inefficient and resulted in inconsistencies in the distribution of accurate information.  Often the result was lack of compliance due to confusion, frustration, and lack of understanding.

And then, the computer came along.  Now we could really generate a lot of regulations because we could keep vast data bases of marginally useful information.  But it still didn’t help with the distribution of increasingly voluminous amounts of regulatory tidbits of dubious value.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your outlook, the internet came along.  For the first time in history, we have the tools for easy distribution of vast quantities of information including all those regulations we contrive and dispense to anyone remotely involved in the industry.

So, what is the trend for the future, you ask?  I think we will become so inundated with regulations, we won’t know what to do.  For the scaffold industry, we will succumb to the least common denominator of illogical application of poorly developed and contrived regulations.  But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.  On the brighter side, access to regulations, standards, codes, manufacturers’ recommendations, and instructional tools is unprecedented.  There is even an app for the Army Corp of Engineers infamous EM-385 standards available for your i-phone.  Life doesn’t get any better than that!  Accident statistics are accessible by a simple click of a button.  Companies’ OSHA records are there for everyone to see—no hiding anymore.  Letters of Interpretation, Directives, court rulings, you name it, are there for anyone with an internet connection.  Photographs inundate the net for all to see, giving everyone bragging rights for the scaffold of the week.  Long distance learning and web based training provide knowledge access to scaffold erectors, designers, users and inspectors, expanding the body of knowledge that improves the safe use of scaffolds.  It can only get better if we use the knowledge in a proactive way.  On the other hand, will all these things actually improve the safe use of scaffolds?

Long distance learning and web based training eliminate the need for daily intercourse of ideas, isolating the student from class interaction; vast amounts of information don’t make the student any smarter if not correctly applied.  The sinister side of technology is the misapplication of information and the abuse of the regulatory system.  And this seems to be the trend.  Technology has provided the highway to transport scaffolding to a new state of regulatory restriction and destruction of creativity.  Scaffold designers decline to be resourceful in fear that an enforcer of the regulations will stifle ingenuity utilizing the cloak of regulation.  Instead of using his head (and brain) the scaffold erector will choose to use the easy path; the heck with thinking—I’ll just do what is marginally acceptable.  No need to understand the concept of a safe scaffold; I’ll just follow the rules.

And it is so easy to make new rules.  As a matter of fact everybody is in on it.  Employers make up rules, contractors make up rules, owners make up rules, state agencies make up rules, and even the Scaffold Industry Association makes up rules.  Of course, rules aren’t all that bad if they’re good.  But if experience is any indicator, the internet and all that access to information isn’t being used to tap into the wealth of knowledge.  New rules are made because of perception, perception that something is broken and needs to be fixed.  If someone else printed the rule it must be good.  Copy, cut, paste and you have your own rules.  Never mind whether it is necessary or proven to be of use, based on reliable statistics.  We don’t need a basis if the perception warrants the rule.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the scaffold industry.  I cannot think of a better example than fall protection for aerial platforms.  No doubt fall restraint is needed in a boom lift due to the possibility of being catapulted out of/off the platform.  But personal fall protection on a scissors lift in addition to a guardrail system?  There may be a legitimate reason but I have yet to hear it.  Amazingly, due to the wording of the regulations, OSHA has determined that scissors lifts are mobile scaffolds, governed by the rules of 29 CFR 1926.452(w).  If you believe that, then you don’t need guardrails if you have personal fall protection–unless of course, the manufacturer requires it.  OSHA often refers back to the manufacturer’s recommendations, assuming the manufacturer understands the industry and the regulations.  Knowledge is power and ignorance is bliss—take your pick.  Technology gives you the choice; what’s the trend?

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