Are Scaffolds Safe?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / October 22, 2013

Are scaffolds safe? That’s a reasonable question if the OSHA “Top Ten List” that ranks the ten most cited standards is considered. Scaffolds consistently rank on the OSHA top ten list for citations year after year. This high level of citation issuance would certainly imply that scaffolds are anything but safe. But is there a relationship between the number of citations or is it mere coincidence that results in scaffolds being a leader in citations? Is it true that after 43 years, the industry still doesn’t know what the OSHA regulations are? Is it possible that the industry just doesn’t know how to build or use a scaffold? Frankly, those questions, and others, not only deserve some thought but also deserve accurate answers.

The Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, compiles industry statistics based on the citations written and the data that is generated due to workplace injuries and fatalities. A scaffold can be hazardous, if not downright dangerous. After all, it is, by definition, a temporary elevated platform, thus exposing scaffold users to fall. But there must be more to the situation than just that a scaffold can be hazardous. The less than stellar compliance record suggests that there is more going on than either OSHA or the scaffold industry either recognizes or admits. Why, after 43 years of regulations and enforcement, hasn’t the number of scaffold citations decreased? Is it because scaffold violations are so obvious? Is it because compliance officers are well trained to recognize bad scaffolds? Or is it because workers don’t see the potential for disaster?

One obvious reason the number of citations haven’t decreased is that in 43 years the number ofscaffolds has increased. And it is true that certain scaffold violations really are obvious. Let’s face it; it’s really tough to ignore a scaffold built up the side of a building that has missing guardrails. (It’s so much more obvious than other scaffold violations that occur on a daily basis, such as the frequent violation of the regulation that requires that scaffolds must have a safety factor of at least four. Most scaffold people have no idea how much a scaffold can support.)

But I believe there is a lot more to the situation than simply violations and citations. Since falls are a primary reason for scaffold fatalities, let’s use falls as an example of safety gone awry. Most large construction projects, if not all, have a safety enforcement officer on site. This individual’s role is to seek out and correct safety hazards. The correction incorporates multiple strategies, including education (training), consultation, sympathy and threats (I’ll throw you off the job if you don’t behave). It’s a fascinating scenario—an employee going around telling fellow workers what they should already know. Interestingly, I don’t see anyone wandering around jobsites telling employees when its lunchtime or how to eat correctly. I have yet to see an employee specifically designated to tell employees how to walk or go to the bathroom correctly and yet we have designated employees pointing out real and perceived safety hazards. Safety is treated as a separate activity that while incorporated into other work activities, is still treated as a somewhat inconsequential add-on feature to other work activities.

Why is that? Do we really have to tell employees when they might fall off a scaffold platform? I guess so since they do it. But why do they do it? Anecdotal evidence suggests that employees just aren’t aware of the hazard. I have yet to meet the person who knew today was the day he would fall off a scaffold. If it were that easy, we would just tell that employee to stay home and lay low. No, the issue is more complicated and it starts long before the employee ever entered the workforce. While we are taught in first grade not to run with scissors, we are never taught the concept of safety or, for that matter, that falling from a scaffold platform could be hazardous to your health. (I knew Miss Dannegar left something out of the curriculum in first grade.) That topic is addressed only when we get our first job. By then it’s too late, especially if your first job is working from a scaffold suspended on the side of a cat cracker in the local refinery. Or worst yet, you never received any safety training because the country where you were born and raised has no safety standards. Is it any surprise that we continue to experience violations, citations, injuries and deaths? Not to me.

Here’s another topic to think about: why do we teach/train safety to be a separate activity, divorced from our primary work activity. Have you ever seen the sticker on the back of the company pick-up truck that states; “Safety is my Goal”? I suggest you stay behind this vehicle since the driver (or company) hasn’t yet reached the goal—he’s still looking for safety!
I wonder if anyone has fired the site safety employee and instead made everyone responsible for not only his or her own safety but also the safety of fellow employees and better yet, other workers at the worksite. How about enabling, empowering, and obligating each and every employee with the task of completing each and every task, each and every day, in a safe manner, a manner that eliminates hazards that are likely to cause serious injury or death. Unfortunately this goes counter to conventional wisdom and OSHA’s policy of enforcing the standards only against employers and not against employees.

Are scaffolds safe? Of course they are, if designed, constructed and used correctly. Regrettably, until everyone has a piece of the responsibility, scaffolds will always rank in the top ten most cited standards. OSHA needs to change, employers need to change, employees need to change and the scaffold industry needs to change. Unfortunately, OSHA citations have become a cost of doing business; an excuse for continuing to conduct business as we have for 43 years; an excuse for not determining the real causes of employee injuries and deaths. Will it still be the same in 2057, 43 years from now? What do you think?

Tags: Scaffolding Resources

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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