Rules, Rules

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / October 3, 1998

Rules, rules, and more rules. Rules are made to be broken. What good are the rules if nobody follows them? Why do I have to follow the rules when my competition doesn’t? The other guy doesn’t follow the rules and he doesn’t get caught; it’s not a level playing field! I’ll follow the rules as soon as everybody else does. The rules don’t make sense. The rules are for somebody else, the guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Nobody is happy with rules and it might appear that rules are more of an impediment to safety than an asset.


However, recent accidents would indicate that something isn’t quite right. Maybe the rules aren’t being followed. Maybe somebody doesn’t know what he/she is doing. Maybe it’s just plain old bad luck. I’ll agree with the first two possibilities but most certainly not the third. Scaffold construction is not a game of chance although some might think otherwise, especially considering recent disasters.


Each time a scaffold failure occurs, there’s a strong possibility that somebody broke a rule. But it’s not the rule or following the rule that guarantees success. It is following the principle or action described by the rule that guarantees success. For example, bracing is required on all scaffolds. The bracing stabilizes the scaffold and ensures significant strength. Removing one brace component may or may not adversely affect the scaffold. If the construction of the scaffold is not understood, that brace may cause a disaster. Consequently there is a rule that requires that scaffold modification be done only under the supervision of a competent person. Could the lack of supervision been the cause of the accident in New York?


Not following the rules is a result of either not understanding the rules or choosing not to follow them. Focusing on the first possibility, not understanding the rules, might be excusable were it not for a rule established in 1970 that every employer and employee must follow the rules, in this particular case, the Occupational Health and Safety (OASHA) Standards. You, as a user, erector, supplier, manufacturer, or designer, must know the rules before you get on a scaffold. No exceptions allowed. Choosing not to follow the rules, on the other hand, appears to be a sure fire route to disaster. But is it? What’s more important, following the letter of the rule, or the intent of the rule. No doubt the intent of the rule is the better route. Unfortunately, to make that determination, you have to understand the purpose of the rule. To arbitrarily not follow the rule, the minimum standard if you will, makes you directly responsible for your actions. Are you ready to accept that responsibility?


Unfortunately, many workers view the OSHA Standards as a set of instructions, which they are not; they’re minimum standards, or simply put, rules! Many workers also think that these rules are optional. Consequently the unlevel playing field results, the complaints about unfair competition arises, and unequal enforcement of the rules occurs. But think about it for a minute. What would happen if their were no rules, no minimum standards for the scaffold industry? Would you climb a scaffold constructed under those conditions? Would you still complain about the rules? I think not.


As an experiment, take a look at the rules for scaffolding. Pick one, any one, and think about the basis for the rule, in other words the intent of that rule. Does it make sense? Do you apply the intent of that rule on your scaffolds? If not, why not? If so, why? As an alternative, take a look at the scaffold you are about to use, or erect. How many rules apply to this specific scaffold? Could you construct or use this scaffold if it were not complying with any of the rules? Would you want to use this scaffold if it were not in compliance? The results of such an inspection might surprise you. Perhaps the playing field is level after all.

Tags: OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources Safety Hazards scaffold failure

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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