Do We Understand?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / November 3, 1997

There appears to be a certain amount of confusion concerning the application of the OSHA regulations that address fall protection for scaffold erectors. In fact, from the number of questions and inquiries, I wonder if anybody is understanding what the regulations really require.


The regulations addressing fall protection for erectors include three indisputable facts:


Fact # 1: The standards do not state that scaffold erectors must use personal fall arrest equipment all the time.


Fact # 2: The standards do not require, nor expect, OSHA compliance officers to evaluate whether erectors should be utilizing personal fall arrest equipment.


Fact # 3: The standards do require the users of personal fall arrest equipment to comply with the requirements of Subpart M, including anchor strengths and proper safety factors.


If you don’t think these statements are true, review the Standards.


Considering Fact # 1, a careful reading of Subpart L of the Standards clearly specifies the requirements for scaffold erectors when erecting scaffolding: Erectors are only required to use personal fall arrest equipment if the competent person on the job determines that it is feasible to do so. A competent person must evaluate each scaffold project to determine if the use of personal fall arrest equipment is feasible. This is quite logical since the competent person is trained to recognize the hazards of scaffold erection work, is familiar with scaffold assembly procedures, and consequently should be able to properly evaluate the job conditions. Nowhere does it state that erectors are to always wear fall arrest equipment, nowhere does it state that the compliance officer, or other safety official, should determine if the erector should wear fall arrest equipment, and nowhere does it state that feasibility should be discussed or argued. The regulations make it clear that the competent person determines feasibility and the regulations make it clear that the competent person decides if the erectors are to use personal fall arrest equipment.


This brings us to Fact # 2. The Standards imply that the compliance officer accepts the decision of the competent person. In other words, the compliance officer shouldn’t question whether the erectors should be using personal fall arrest equipment on a specific scaffold installation. On the other hand the compliance officer has the obligation to determine if the competent person is indeed competent! (Since competency is demonstrated and never just certificated, it stands to reason that the competent person should expect a careful inspection of the jobsite by the compliance officer.) Feasibility becomes an issue in many cases because the individuals involved with enforcement either don’t think the competent person is actually competent, or those same individuals believe that they are obligated to evaluate the competent person’s decision about fall protection for the erectors. There should be no confusion here. The competent person determines feasibility for personal fall protection; the compliance officer determines the competency of the person evaluating the feasibility. Seems fairly simple.


Fact # 3 should solve some of the outstanding issues surrounding the concept of erectors tying off to scaffolds. While it may be possible to safely tie off to a properly designed and constructed scaffold, in many cases the regulations that specify the strength of the anchor are ignored, particularly by those who do not appreciate the very high loads that can be generated by a falling erector. The casual requirement for 100 per cent tie off will result in a violation of Subpart M which requires either an engineered anchor or, as an alternative, an anchor that will restrain a force of 5000 pounds. (To put that load into perspective, that’s approximately equivalent to 100 scaffold frames.) Furthermore, 100 per cent tie off may be achievable but it doesn’t guarantee 100 per cent fall protection. There’s a big difference here between tying off and being protected. The competent person should know the difference. In fact, the competent person had best be prepared to demonstrate to the compliance officer that it is impossible, or possible if the opportunity exists, to provide an anchor of this strength. In response, the compliance officer had best be prepared to accept the decision of the competent person.


Do you have a competent person on your crew? Do you have a person who can identify existing and predictable hazards and who has authorization to take prompt corrective action on your crew? The Standards expect nothing less; neither should you.

Tags: Fall Protection OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources Safety Hazards scaffold erectors safety

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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