Industrial Scaffolds – Unique or Common?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / November 30, 2010

Scaffolds used in locations such as refineries, chemical plants and power stations are often referred to as industrial scaffolds, suggesting they are unique to that environment.  But are they?  Is there something mysterious going on in the refinery that transposes a common scaffold into a magical load bearing wonder that supports workers at heights?  Or is that scaffold just a regular common scaffold similar to a commercial or residential scaffold?

I believe the answer is somewhere in between.  Well, that stuff about a scaffold being transposed is a bit of a reach (no pun intended) but one significant difference between industrial and other scaffolds is that the industrial environment produces scaffold work habits not often seen in the commercial sector.  One conspicuous example is scaffold inspection.  US Federal OSHA requires that scaffolds used in construction be inspected before each workshift by a competent person [29 CFR 1926.451(f)(3)].  In the industrial environment this requirement is taken seriously.  Frequently the inspection task will be assigned to one company although multiple employers may be using the scaffold during that workshift.  More often than not, the scaffold company that erected the scaffold will have that duty.  Of course, this doesn’t mean the scaffold users don’t have to know anything about scaffolds nor does it relieve them of the obligation to use a safe scaffold.  After all, the OSHA standards involve all of us [29 CFR 1926.454].  Once the scaffold is inspected at the beginning of the workshift (notice that it isn’t each day; it’s before each workshift) [29 CFR 1926.451(f)(3)] a record may be made of the inspection.  This record may be a simple tag or it may be as complex as a written record that is retained for the duration of the project.  In conjunction with this method of inspection is the absolute rule that no one modifies, changes, dismantles or messes with the scaffold other than the workers assigned the task of scaffold assembly [29 CFR 1926.451(f)(7)].  Frankly, this is why the sole source inspection and tagging system works in the industrial environment; nobody messes with the scaffold.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the commercial or residential environment.  In fact, most workers on commercial job sites, based on my experience, consider themselves experts in the design and erection of scaffolding and therefore can do whatever they want with the scaffold.  Even when the general contractor attempts to implement the controls seen in a refinery, the controls are typically circumvented by those who have the least knowledge and are consequently most exposed to injuries and death due to unauthorized modification of the scaffold.

Another example of the unique environment found in industrial scaffolds can be seen in the complexity of the constructed scaffolds.  Because of piping, structural elements, electrical lines and other obstructions it takes considerable skill to erect a scaffold in a refinery or power plant.  (Now, before you professional commercial scaffold erectors get mad at me, I’m not suggesting that professional commercial scaffold erectors are not qualified.)  Those charged with industrial scaffold erections typically comply with the OSHA standard that specifies that scaffolds shall be erected by “trained and experienced” workers [29 CFR 1926.451(f)(7)].  Such may not be the case in commercial construction where the painter, who knows how to paint, may know very little about scaffolding but erects the scaffold anyway.  In that case, the scaffold is erected for the convenience of the painter and may not work for the glazer.  Industrial scaffolds, on the other hand, are often erected for all the trades to use or, if that is not possible, the scaffold is dismantled and re-erected.

Environmental controls appear to be more restrictive in industrial applications as well they should be.  However, lessons from the power plant could be learned in the commercial project where we still fight resistance to eye protection, hearing protection and other equipment meant to protect the worker.  As for the residential market, some days it seems hopeless to expect anything.

Fall protection is another aspect of the industrial market that is not as readily appreciated in the commercial or residential market.  It is not uncommon at a chemical plant to not only expect workers to work on fully guardrailed platforms but to utilize personal fall protection equipment and tie off when they get to their work station.  While this is a trend among large general contractors in the commercial construction market, the practice is considerably behind the industrial market in implementation.  And again, when it comes to the residential market, personal fall arrest equipment usage is rarely observed.  (Of course, I’m not endorsing the concept of both guardrailsand personal fall arrest equipment since it is really rather redundant; I’m just describing my observations.)

How about scaffold platforms?  This is interesting since industrial scaffold platforms typically have more obstructions and penetrations than a commercial scaffold will ever see.  While steel plank are more common in industrial scaffolds and plywood is commonly used to cover gaps since the gaps are less tolerated than in commercial installations, it is not uncommon to notch wood plank so it will fit around an obtrusive pipe or conduit.  Commercial scaffolds usually have a clear platform that is easier to erect and use.

Finally, access in the industrial environment is usually more difficult than in the commercial scaffold application.  Attachable/clamp-on ladders are the access of choice for small platforms and limited use in the refinery or power plant since they are easier to install around obstructions.  Of course, where access for a large number of workers is needed, a systems scaffold stairway is commonly used.  Commercial scaffolds will utilize stairs and ladders but also will utilize frame scaffolds and the access these frames provide.  In residential applications access is anybody’s guess and a ladder sighting at a house is a pleasant surprise.

The bottom line however, is that the industrial scaffold serves the same purpose as a commercial or residential scaffold in that it provides a safe temporary elevated platform to support workers or materials or both.  Where the scaffold is erected and used matters not—it still has to be erected and used correctly.

Tags: Fall Protection Scaffolding Scaffolding Platforms Guardrail industrial scaffold residential scaffold Resources

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