The Challenge

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / December 31, 1999

I believe that it’s safe to assume that if you are reading this article, you survived Y2K.  In fact it’s nice to know that we are starting a new year having survived the previous year, especially if you look at the odds of not surviving.  More than 41,000 people died in auto accidents in 1998.  And more than 700 workers died in construction related accidents last year if previous statistics are an indicator.  This suggests that 700 workers will die this year on construction sites.  I pray this won’t include you or me.  Based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) statistics, some of those workers will be scaffold erectors.  Some of those workers will be scaffold users. Do you think this is acceptable? Are we going to change anything in this new millennium to lower that number? Would your answer change if one of those fatalities was your spouse, daughter, or son?  Or your father or mother?

As we move into the year 2000, I have not seen any serious move to scientifically determine what is causing these deaths, particularly among erectors.  Sure, we rely on the “competent person” to determine safe erection practices and we develop standards that specify minimum expectations.  But are these efforts effective?  Have we gained anything by rewriting the scaffold standards?  How have the new scaffold standards affected the fatality rate for scaffold users and erectors?  I’ll bet we don’t know.  Are we repeating the same mistake over and over, resulting in needless fatalities (as if some fatalities are needed)?

 I doubt if there is anyone who does not declare that he or she is pro-safety. Therein lies potential disaster.  In our efforts to promote safety, and ensure safety on the jobsite, we interfere where we have no business interfering.  Personal observations and phone calls from concerned clients indicate to me that there are numerous “experts” who believe they know more about enhancing fall protection for scaffold and shoring erectors than the competent erectors.  For example, one client, who was erecting shoring towers, was asked to fully plank out the shoring towers before installing the formwork deck.  The suspected intent here was that a full deck, whatever that might mean, would provide a measure of safety in the event of a mishap.  Unfortunately, I don’t understand the advantage when the erector is standing at the edge of the deck.  Furthermore, isn’t the exposure to falls equally as severe during the installation of a fully planked platform as it is during the installation of a formwork deck?   While I am sure the safety officer was sincere in his efforts to enhance the erectors’ safety, it is very unclear that he had more experience, or competency, to determine the best method to minimize falls for the erectors.  Rather, in this particular instance, the safety officer was acting according to a  perceived hazard rather than an actual hazard.

There is no doubt that scaffold and shoring erectors are exposed to fall hazards that the rest of us should never be exposed to.  The OSHA standards clearly address this in the standards.  In fact, the standards very specifically require that scaffolds are to be erected “under the supervision of a competent person, qualified in scaffold erection.”  This is how we maximize safety for the erectors.  We do not enhance safety by interfering with the competent person!  The fall protection article that appeared in the December, 1999 edition of Scaffold Industry described the seemingly conflicting requirements of tying off all the time and having a sufficient anchor.  On the one hand it was suggested that tying off is good, even when the anchor does not comply with the strength standards of the regulations.  On the other hand, should we not comply with all the standards, including the anchor strength requirements?  What should a competent person do to comply with potentially conflicting requirements?  How will OSHA respond if we choose to ignore a standard.  What will be the competent person’s defense?  How will the legal profession respond to apparent conflicting expectations?  What is a competent person to do without adequate information, including historical data on erector falls, injuries and fatalities?

Obviously, it is important the competent person has the correct information to make an educated decision on the best methods for maximizing safety for the scaffold erectors.  This leads to the question of what are we doing to assist the competent person?  What is the SIA doing to assist the competent person?  What is OSHA doing to assist the competent person?  What are YOU doing to assist the competent person?  I believe that we, that is, you, me, the SIA, OSHA, and the competent person, need good factual information to determine the best methods, equipment, training, and practices, to minimize the risk of falls for erectors.  I believe the first step is to develop a database to determine why scaffold erectors fall.  What exactly are erectors doing at the time of the fall?  What kind of scaffold is being erected?  Is fall protection equipment being used?  Is the fall protection equipment the reason for the fall?   What is the level of training?  What is the content of the training?  Did the training address the hazard that caused the fall?  How old was the erector?  What were the weather conditions?  What type of scaffold equipment was being erected?  What type of project was it?  How high was the erector at the time of the fall?  Was the erector indoors or outdoors?  What was the erector’s physical condition?  These are questions that require answers so educated decisions can be made.  Determining safety by perception is ineffective; it only satisfies the imagined concern of the individual with the perception.  I would prefer to provide safety based on fact.

Developing the database will require input from everybody involved in the industry.  This database should be established by the Scaffold Industry Association and participation in supplying the data should be a condition of membership.  The advantages are many.  Precise information will provide all of us with the facts to justify the request.  The facts will allow us to defend our decisions as competent persons.  The association will be able to develop methods and procedures that will be a standard for the industry.  What are the disadvantages of developing a database of erector falls?  I can’t think of any.

2000,01,Jan, The Challenge, © 2000,WFE, Inc. Arvada, CO, 80003, USA

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