Do You Have Information?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / June 30, 2003

While reviewing past magazine articles to determine a topic that would be appropriate, I came across an article from July, 1998, five years ago.  At that time, the issue of scaffold erector safety was on everybody’s mind, as it should have been in light of the “new” OSHA standards that went into effect a year and a half prior to the article.  I suggested that the government and the Scaffold and Access Industry Association (SAIA) work together to establish data that would help determine the best way to protect scaffold erectors from falls.  I also expressed the opinion that SAIA members cooperate in the effort and show initiative.


Since that time, little has happened to change my opinion about the best way to improve erector safety.  Unfortunately little research or data gathering has happened either.  What do you think?  Is the status quo satisfactory?  Better yet, get involved in the SIA and give us your input.  It is sorely needed.  With that in mind, here’s what I said five years ago:


The federal government’s approach to scaffold erector safety won’t work.  The scaffold industry’s present approach to safety won’t work either.  Why?  Simply stated, it’s the lack of information that will make the present approaches ineffective.  It is true that the government has sufficient potential legislative and enforcement muscle to force scaffold erectors to conform to regulations and standards, no matter how ineffective or ridiculous they may be.  On the other hand, the scaffold industry has the capacity to delay the implementation of regulations, even though the regulations may be effective and sensible.


The present standards are a case in point.  The regulations require that a competent person review each scaffold situation to determine if it is feasible for erectors to safely use personal fall protection equipment.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has chosen to enforce this regulation by requiring that employers have erectors use personal fall arrest equipment unless the employer can prove that it would be infeasible or create a greater hazard.  (See the enforcement directive for more details.)  On the other hand, the scaffold industry often responds to these regulations by simply stating, without any evaluation, that it is infeasible to tie off.  On what basis is feasibility evaluated?  Economics?  Safety?  Convenience?  Experience?  Expertise?  Perception?  Statistics?  Ignorance?  Politics?  The basis is usually determined by the individual doing the evaluation.  Past discussions and meetings have illustrated the complexity of the issue and yet little has been done to isolate the factors that affect the scaffold erector.


The scaffold industry, and OSHA, would do well to learn a few lessons from other industries that experience safety issues comparable to scaffolding.  The auto industry bears striking similarities in that poorly trained individuals use their products in ways not anticipated by the manufacturer and supplier.  The June 8, 1998 issue of Business Week describes a program that would work well for us in the scaffold business.  The program is a joint effort by the auto industry, the government, and seven U.S. trauma centers.  Funded in part by General Motors as a result of a 1994 settlement, the program links studies developed by the trauma centers that handle auto accidents with auto industry engineers.  Through this cooperative approach automotive engineers are able to design safer vehicles while medical and emergency personnel can better diagnose hidden injuries that result from vehicle accidents.


A similar program can improve the safety record of the scaffold industry.  A cooperative program between the SIA, OSHA and other agencies can compile the information regarding erector injuries and fatalities that is necessary to develop sensible standards and regulations. I suspect a pattern will develop that will show what the causes of erector injuries are.  We already know that one of these causes is the lack of training.  The solution for this cause is already being addressed by OSHA (training requirements) and the SIA (training programs).  We need to go further.  We need to develop the facts that are required to make an educated determination of thebest solutions.


The approach now being used will continue to be ineffective and inefficient as long as the facts are not determined.  Yes, the “big hammer” approach of enforcement will result in short term positive results.  But this is the easy way out of doing work and will be ineffective in the long term.  (Prohibition is a good example of negative long term results.)  OSHA cannot legislate solutions that are not economically effective.  They must do their homework if improved safety is to be expected.  The scaffold industry can’t avoid the issue either.   Arbitrarily stating that scaffolds don’t make good anchors shows a lack of desire to determine the best solutions.  It’s no wonder the issue is so volatile; it appears that nobody wants to do the work.  Are we all waiting for the other guy to do it?  It won’t happen.


We must work together if we expect to have reasonable solutions.  It is time the government fund the studies to obtain results.  It is time the SIA members assist in obtaining the information.  It is time OSHA funds additional training for compliance officers so they can properly evaluate the various situations that arise during the construction of scaffolds.  It is time for employers to show the initiative.  It is time for erectors to learn new methods and techniques.  It is time the construction industry recognizes that better expertise demands higher salaries.  It is time to stop the reflex actions of perceived hazards and get the information to produce scientific, objective, justifiable standards and procedures.

Tags: Scaffolding erector safety OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources SAIA

Previous Post How Firm Is It?
Next Post Must We Inspect?

David H. Glabe, P.E.

See what David H. Glabe has to say about construction engineering and the scaffolding industry.