It seems that speculation runs rampant at the beginning of every year as forecasters speculate about the economy, markets, jobs, stability and politics. Along those lines, it is time to speculate about the future safety of the scaffold and access industry. More specifically, will scaffolding still rank up there in the OSHA top 10 list of citations at the end of 2015 or will the industry somehow miraculously alter the trend? More importantly, is scaffold safety accurately measured by using the OSHA Top 10 as a reference?

It is generally accepted that OSHA regulations address hazards. Take, for example, the requirement that all extension ladders must extend at least 3 feet (0.9 m) above the upper landing surface. The hazard here is that the worker loses stability while exiting or accessing the ladder. Infractions of this regulation are often cited and consequently show up on the OSHA Top 10 list of citations, suggesting that employees are frequently injured and killed because the ladder doesn’t extend 3 feet above the landing. Since the hazard is a lack of a handhold as the ladder user exits or accesses the ladder, can it be reasonably assumed that the lack of the ladder extension always results in injury or death? Can the correlation be made that the number of citations equals the severity of the hazard? Or is there another explanation that has very little to do with the hazard?

Using the ladder regulation as the example, it is my opinion that the number of citations has more to do with the ease of identifying a violation of a given citation than it is has to do with the severity of the hazard. While it is true that losing your grip while exiting a ladder can result in an injury or even death, it is also true that it is very easy to identify whether a ladder is extending 3 feet above the landing surface or not. In fact you can probably spot this violation while driving down the street. It’s a no-brainer citation. On the other hand, how many citations have been written for a safety factor (29 CFR 1926.451(a)(1) violation where it takes some analysis and calculations to determine if a violation occurred?

The same “no-brainer citation” argument can be used for guardrail systems, particularly on scaffolds. A quick look at a scaffold will determine if the guardrail has been installed. Bingo – another easy citation! This is not to say that fall protection regulations should not be enforced, especially since falls in construction are a leading cause of injuries and death; rather guardrail violations are easy to identify and therefore it is not surprising that guardrail violations consistently show up on citation lists.

Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense said it best: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.” The secretary’s wise words of wisdom can be applied to the subject at hand. The known known is the number of citations. But wait; there is an unknown known. The number of citations does not necessarily indicate the severity of the hazard but rather the number of citations for a specific regulatory infraction. Frankly, I think it indicates the ease of citation. If a worker falls from a scaffold, it is typically concluded that the lack of fall protection is to blame. But is it? Was the investigation sufficient to warrant such a conclusion? Were the investigators qualified to make such a determination?

Because the OSHA “Top 10 most frequently cited OSHA standards violated” list is commonly used to evaluate the safety of a specific sector of the industry, and because scaffold citations always appear in the Top 10, scaffolding is frequently perceived as a dangerous product in a dangerous industry.   Perception leads to faulty conclusions which of course leads to more faulty conclusions. The Top 10 list can be dangerous if not used properly.

Consider this: Federal and state OSHA has approximately 2,200 inspectors who did 89,664 inspections in 2013. (41 inspections per inspector—not quite one per week on average.) Federal OSHA did 39,228 of those inspections utilizing a budget of $535,246,000.00 to do so, or $13,645.00 per inspection. Are we getting our money’s worth? It is very important that first, citations are accurate and secondly, they stick. That is, the employer agreed to the fine and/or the validity of the citation. Just because a citation was issued doesn’t mean it was a valid citation. Many citations are unwarranted and never result in a fine or agreement by the employer that a violation occurred. Unfortunately this may not show up in the Top 10 List, leading to faulty conclusions.

So, here are the known knowns: Worker deaths have decreased from 38 deaths a day in 1970 to 12 a day in 2012 – that’s good. The bad news is that in construction, 796 workers died in 2013; that means 3 workers in construction died per day! 294 of those deaths were from falls. Here are the unknown knowns: How many falls were from scaffolds? And then there are the unknown unknowns: What were the dead workers doing before they decided to fall to their deaths? Was it a faulty scaffold? Was it an untrained worker? Was it suicide or murder? Was it work related? Was it the employer’s fault? Was it the employee’s fault? Was it a design error (scaffold designer’s fault)? Was it a scaffold supplier error? Or was it an unknown unknown because “things that you think you know that it turns out you did not”? And to think that we know! By the end of 2015, we will know the number of citations (the known known) but will we know the unknown? If history is any indicator, probably not; don’t let statistics be the sole criteria; as the saying goes: “It’s what you don’t know that will kill you.” According to Secretary Rumsfeld, it appears that would be the unknown unknown.

Statistics in this article came from OSHA and can be found at

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