Idiot Proof?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / May 31, 2001

Is it possible to make a scaffold idiot proof?  For that matter, is it necessary?  At the recent Scaffold Industry Association (SIA) convention, safety and training were major topics at the various council meetings.  This would suggest that it is not possible to make scaffolds idiot proof, but rather it is possible to train workers so they understand that there are minimum expectations (standards) when using a scaffold.  Is it reasonable to assume that workers can be trained?


To answer the third question first, of course workers can be trained.  Otherwise the SIA would not have invested the money in its’ training program.  Besides, the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires that workers who use and work with scaffolding be trained.  The training requirements are straight forward and don’t expect too much of the worker.  But these same requirements do expect that workers learn enough about scaffolds so that hazards are minimized and/or eliminated.  Can all hazards be eliminated?  I would like to think that on a properly constructed scaffold, the hazards are eliminated.  After all, that’s what safety is all about.


But does a properly erected scaffold make it idiot proof?  Frankly, no.  That’s because the idiot makes a proper scaffold improper and defeats the safety aspects of the scaffold, consequently making it hazardous and therefore out of compliance with the regulations.   To counteract this type of activity, there are regulations that address this issue; one applicable regulation specifically states that, “Scaffolds shall be erected, moved, dismantled, or altered only under the supervision of a competent person, qualified in scaffold erection, moving, dismantling or alteration.” (If you aren’t familiar with this regulation, you’ll find it under the Use of Scaffolds, 29CFR1926.451(f)(7)).  As with all other regulations, for those who choose to ignore the wisdom of the standards, enforcement is the key to compliance.  Unfortunately, the enforcement is often focused incorrectly and the violator is not punished for his actions.  In the case of scaffolding, it’s the employer who gets nailed, even though he/she has furnished training, retraining, and re-retraining for the errant employee.


Here’s one example of many where the employee, not the employer, was the idiot..  An employer provided training for employees installing equipment on the edge of a roof.  They were trained to use personal fall protection when working at the edge of the roof where they could have fallen from a considerable height.  The employees chose to leave their fall protection equipment down in the pick-up truck, electing instead to ignore their training, the regulations, and company policy.  In fact, not only did these employees choose to ignore safe practice, they now reclassified themselves from trained employees to idiots.  Fortunately, nobody was injured, but OSHA chose to fine the employer in spite of the fact that the employer had training records.  Even the employees said that they knew better!


As you can see, its not the equipment, nor the training, it’s the individual who determines if he or she is the idiot.  Yet we continue to reward the idiots.  In this case, the employees didn’t get the message because OSHA fined the employer, not the employee.  At some point, the employee must take responsibility for his or her own actions.  Too bad the system doesn’t work that way.


As correctly stated in a recent Engineering News Record editorial:  “One of the problems is that there seems to be a growing disconnect in workers’ minds that they are not responsible for their own safety.” (ENR/May 28, 2001)  Besides the present OSHA policy of not citing the employee, civil lawsuits also encourage a lackadaisical attitude by workers.  For example, take the worker who was injured when he fell (actually he jumped because he was about to fall) from an incomplete scaffold. At the time of the accident, the scaffold was under construction by another contractor.  The erectors where on the other side of the building and consequently did not see the employee on their incomplete scaffold.  The injured party (plaintiff) accused the erectors of negligence because the erectors did not assume the injured worker would attempt to use the incomplete scaffold and therefore did not tell him to stay off the incomplete scaffold!  Is this idiotic or what?


In spite of clearly written training requirements, it is unfortunate that unequal enforcement of the standards, coupled with misguided lawsuits, encourage continued idiotic practices.  Scaffolds cannot be made idiot proof until the idiots stop modifying scaffolds in hazardous ways.  While we must continue to provide training for all workers, it is time to stop the idiotic practice of not punishing the idiot.

Tags: Scaffolding OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources SIA Uncategorized

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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