The Standard Standard

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / September 1, 2009

I can answer the one question easily: no, safety standards are not there to make your life more difficult.  The fact is, they are there to make your life safer.  Depending on your age, you may think that they come from ancient history but in reality they are a relatively recent development in workplace safety, going back about 100 years.  The federal OSHA standards have their beginning December 29, 1970 when the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 91-596.  This law required that employers “furnish to each of his/her employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his/her employees.”  That’s fine that Congress says we have to have a safe workplace but what exactly is a safe workplace?  Well, that is where the standards (regulations) come in.  Basically, the standards define what a safe workplace is; the scaffold standards define what a safe scaffold is.  Rather straightforward I must say.  But is it?  Who gets to say what the actual standards are?  Some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.?  Or, maybe a scaffold association?  How about the scaffold manufacturers?  Just a concerned citizen?  Believe it or not, the answer is:  All the Above!

When the original OSHA standards were developed, they were based on existing codes and standards, primarily the standards developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  For scaffolding, the ANSI standard that was used was A10.8.  This standard, known as a consensus standard, was developed by devoted manufacturers, users, engineers, safety specialists, and academia.  (This consensus standard still exists today and is updated periodically—the most recent edition is A10.8-2001.)   Basically, the standards are developed by people with diverse backgrounds, expertise, experience, and interests who come together to determine the most effective guidelines for you to use so you are safe while working with and on scaffolds.

For example, last month 40 individuals met to discuss changes to the scaffold standards that are used in California.  The group included scaffold users, manufacturers, suppliers, safety consultants, CalOSHA personnel and designers.  I attended as your representative from the Scaffold Industry Association.   Two intense days were spent debating the plank standards in the California OSHA standards.  Healthy dialogue, a disagreement or two, and finally agreement for changes resulted in updated standards that defined plank used for scaffold platforms.  This is how it works.  While this activity involved only California, the process is similar for other states and the federal OSHA standards.  Basically, no standard can be changed without due process.  While this may seem cumbersome, it is the only reasonable method for developing fair requirements.  Imagine if we didn’t have it.  The standards would very quickly develop into self-serving, non-effective worthless trash.

The process is taken seriously as well it should be.  The government is required to notify us, the citizens, for any changes that are being suggested.  We are invited to comment on any proposed standards that will affect us.  We can do this by writing to the government and/or attending “hearings.”  How long can this process take?  Quite a while.  For example, the federal scaffold standards became effective in November, 1996.  The initial decision that revisions to the existing standards were necessary was made in the mid 1970’s.  That’s right, it took approximately twenty years to revise the standards.  Therefore, the next time you think the standards stink, think about how many hours of work went into what you use every day.

Think about what went into writing these standards.  Dedicated individuals labored over the language and ramifications of their decisions.  Writing standards is not easy; the wrong use of a word, the wrong reference and incorrect grammar have far reaching effects, not only in relation to other standards, but also to you and I who have to apply these standards every day.  The next time you criticize the standards, you may want to pause and consider what you are doing.  Instead, you may want to thank those talented individuals who were watching out for your safety, even if it was back in ancient history!

Tags: Scaffolding American National Standards Institute CalOSHA OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources Scaffold Industry Association

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