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December 2015

Scaffolds Falling Down

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Recently there has been a rash of supported scaffold collapses. That’s not good for either the scaffold user or the industry’s reputation. What possibly could be going on? Is it an act of terrorism? Is it due to the fickle finger of fate? Or perhaps, is it just one of those things that cannot be avoided? After all, it is a scaffold.

And therein lies the issue—too few people take scaffolding seriously. Oh sure, OSHA diligently scrutinizes scaffolding on a regular basis, reminding errant erectors and users of their indiscretions and awarding them with citations. Organizations promulgate standards while manufacturers write recommendations and trainers train trainees. And scaffolds still fall down. Something is amiss; there is a piece (or pieces) of the jigsaw puzzle missing. What is the missing link, that missing magic pill that will make the world right? Unfortunately, there is a no magic pill, no easy solution to a correctly designed, constructed and used scaffold. A scaffold requires work, and oftentimes hard work.

It requires an employer to provide training for his or her employees. It requires manufacturers to design and manufacture a safe product. It requires suppliers to provide a safe product. It requires designers to design a scaffold that has the strength to support the anticipated loads and it requires the erectors to build it according to that design. Finally, it requires the user to use the scaffold correctly. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is if the recent disasters are any indicator.

Correctly designed and erected scaffolds are incredibly strong, much stronger than a typical structure. And still, the scaffolds collapse. Adequately trained employees won’t abuse, misuse or alter a scaffold, but the scaffolds still collapse. What’s the secret to stopping this epidemic of failed scaffolds? It’s easy: Do your job. Here are a few factors that will influence a scaffold’s decision to collapse or not to collapse:

  1. Make sure you are using a legitimate product, one that has accurate load charts based on testing performed in compliance with the SSFI recommended testing procedure.
  2. Manufacturers, see #1. Just because your stuff looks like someone else’s stuff doesn’t mean you can use their test data.
  3. Purchasers, see #1 and #2. There is a reason prices vary; find out why before you buy that really cheap container load of frames.
  4. There is a limit on what a scaffold can hold and that limit is based on the scaffold being correctly designed and erected. Mess with the design or the erected scaffold and you’re courting disaster.
  5. Bad or no design: Supposed scaffold designer, just because you can put parts and pieces together doesn’t mean you are a designer. After all, a five year old can assemble tinker toys. Learn how to do it correctly, not just do it.
  6. Lack of adequate bracing: Do you know what the correct bracing pattern is? Do you know what the bracing does?
  7. Poor foundation: Just because there is a piece of wood under the leg doesn’t mean you have a good foundation. You have to know what’s holding up your scaffold. You can’t do that by guessing.
  8. A bad platform: Do you have any idea why a wood plank can support a load?
  9. Lack of adequate fall protection. This is a good one—talk about misinformation!
  10. Inadequate strength: You must know how much the scaffold can support so you don’t overload it.
  11. OSHA, see # 10 so you can correctly cite # 1926.451(a)(1).
  12. Inadequate or no training: Employer, do you know that you are to provide training for your employees? Keep in mind that the training requirement has been in existence since at least 1971.
  13. Lack of knowledge: Both employers and employees have to comply with the OSHA standards. How can you do that if you never read them?
  14. Not knowing what you are doing: Erectors are supposed to know how strong scaffolds are and what the scaffold will be used for after it is erected. I cannot remember one who could tell me when asked.
  15. More not knowing what you are doing: A person known as the “Competent Person” has to be able to identify the hazard and have the authority to eliminate it. How can you eliminate the hazard if you cannot identify it?
  16. Still more of not knowing: How do you know there is a hazard if you do not know what a properly designed and erected scaffold is?

The fact of the matter is that many supported scaffolds erected and used in North America do not comply with the critical obligatory safety standards. Sure, everybody knows that platforms are to have guardrails but that is but one aspect of a scaffold. Very few know the capacity of the scaffold, very few know which bracing is permissible and which isn’t; the list goes on. My experience shows me that the industry has too many unqualified people guided by other equally unqualified people.

OSHA compliance officers do not get sufficient training to do their jobs anywhere near the level of competency that they need. While we can, and should, blame an administration that does not provide high quality training at the necessary levels, it cannot be an excuse for a lack of knowledge. Frankly, knowing the regulations is a lot of work but if you are going to assume the authority you had better also take the responsibility and learn the subject matter at hand.

Too many people think that merely fitting the parts together is good design. Fit has nothing to do with proper design. If you are a designer, it is expected that you have learned how to design. Just because you are an engineer, or an erector, or a scaffold company owner, or a safety manager does not make you a designer. You must have the training, experience, knowledge and education to do the job. This includes knowing the principles of physics, the regulations, and the limits of the equipment. Remember, just because it fits together doesn’t mean a darn thing.

Simply stated, scaffolds do not collapse. A stack of metal, wood and plastic parts and pieces incorrectly called scaffolds collapses. Which one do you want? More importantly, what are you going to do now to make sure the next temporary structure you are involved with is a scaffold and not a stack of stuff?

Cops or Teachers

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Comes now the sheriff announcing increased fines for misbehaving! And this isn’t a time out or sit in the corner. This is money—real money for misbehaving. The United States federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, has raised the fines for violations of it’s standards for the first time since 1990. This is due to the fact that the fines were not allowed to be adjusted for inflation. However, that was remedied in the latest budget bill that was recently signed into law.

The fines have been increased by the amount of inflation that has occurred since 1990, resulting in a $12,500.00 fine instead of the previous $7,000.00 for a serious violation. Willful violations will come with a $125,000 ticket instead of the existing $70,000.00 tab. It is assumed that the OSHA policy of adjustment of the dollar amount for history, company size, good faith and other factors will remain in place so you may get lucky if you choose to disobey.

According to OSHA, heavy fines are necessary in that they encourage employers to provide a safe workplace for their employees. In testimony on October 7, 2015 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Dr. Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, stated that “there are still far too many employers that cut corners on safety and neglect well recognized OSHA standards and basic safety measures.” Dr. Michaels also testified that “enforcement remains an effective deterrent” (for these employers).

In the November 2, 2015 OSHA QuickTakes Newsletter, Dr. Michaels cited a study from the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) that found “there’s strong evidence that regulatory health and safety inspections that result in a citation or penalty are effective in reducing work- related injuries.” The same study found that general deterrence is not as effective. According to the same Institute for Work & Health report, Dr. Emile Tompa, an IWH senior scientist and the lead author on the systematic review states that “What this shows is employers do take steps to prevent work-related injuries for employees when there are direct consequences to them.”

While it is true that there are employers who do not take their obligations seriously (yes there are evil employers out there), the truth is that most employers are concerned about safety. Even Dr. Michaels acknowledged that when he testified that “most employers want to keep their employees safe and make great efforts to protect them from workplace hazards.”

Therefore, to be effective, enforcement must be accurate and fair. To accomplish accuracy, it is reasonable to assume that the enforcement officers (police) are knowledgeable about the laws that they are enforcing. The IWH study, and Dr. Michael’s testimony before Congress, do not address this significant aspect of enforcement. The task before compliance officers is daunting: They are to know the hazards addressed in the thousands of regulations found in the various OSHA codes. Obviously it is an impossible task for any one individual to accomplish, yet we expect them to. Of course, we should also expect employers to know the myriad standards that affect their workplaces. For scaffold companies, this means not only knowing and applying the General Industry standards for their place of business, but also the Construction Industry standards for any construction site where they have employees. It shouldn’t be surprising that it is impossible to meet all the standards.

Besides accuracy, enforcement may be an effective tool but only when it is applied fairly. But how is that accomplished? Does OSHA only go after bad actors such as those in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program that targets “recalcitrant employers,” basically employers who just don’t get it? Does this mean that OSHA should ignore “good” employers? According to the IWH study, that doesn’t work as well as citing an employer occasionally even if the offense is marginal.

Does enforcement work? Does education/training work? The “Most Frequently Cited Serious Violations in Construction – Fiscal Year 2003” include Scaffold Fall Protection as #2 and Scaffold Access as #5. (Fall Protection for other than scaffolds was #1 that year.) For this past fiscal year, the top 10 include Fall Protection at #1 and Scaffolding at #3. What should one make of this? It doesn’t look like we have made much progress, based on these statistics. In fact, it appears that enforcement is not the effective tool some would like to think it is. I can tell you this, based on my experience in the scaffold and construction industries: Training is woefully inadequate for scaffold users and OSHA compliance officers. After 45 years of mandatory regulations, scaffolds are still constructed lacking fall protection. How can this be? After 45 years, most scaffold users cannot state the capacity of a scaffold. After 45 years, most compliance officers cannot determine the load that is on a scaffold. After 45 years, most employers do not know their obligations to their employees. And most disturbingly, after 45 years most employees in the United States do not know they have a right, that is correct—a right, to a safe workplace.

Maybe OSHA is correct—enforcement works. I think not. Training is the secret and most employers, at least the good ones, know it. And the training isn’t only for the employees. Employers need training, employees need training and compliance officers need training. Frankly, enforcement of the training requirements would make OSHA’s job a whole lot easier.