The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reported 54 fatalities occurred in the year 2009 from scaffold related events. In a Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) study, 72% of workers injured in scaffold accidents attributed the accident either to the planking or support giving way, or to the employee slipping or being struck by a falling object. Scaffolds are integral to the construction industry with approximately 65% of the workforce involved in work from scaffolds. Scaffolds save time and money when used properly. Though they are convenient and necessary, there are several concerns that everyone needs to be aware of when working on scaffolds.
There are four major hazards associated with worker injuries or deaths:
Falls are attributed to the lack of guardrails, improper installation of guardrails and failure to use personal fall arrest systems when required. The OSHA standard requires fall protection must be used when work heights reach 10’ or more. More and more general contractors are requiring 100% fall protection at 6’ or greater when working on scaffolds. These contractors are increasing safety margins by exceeding the minimum requirements as stated in the OSHA standards.
Lack of proper access to the scaffold work platform is an additional reason for falls from scaffolds. Access in the form of a secured ladder, stair tower, ramp, etc. is required whenever there is 24” vertical change to an upper or lower level. The means of access must be determined before erection of the scaffold and employees are never allowed to climb on cross braces for either vertical or horizontal movement.
2. Scaffold collapse
The proper erection of scaffold is key in preventing this particular hazard. The amount of weight the scaffold will be required to hold including the weight of the scaffold itself, materials, and workers must be considered. Foundation stability, placement of scaffold planks, distance from the scaffold to the work surface, and tie-in requirements are just a few of the other items that must be considered prior to building a scaffold.
A knowledgeable individual who can perform preplanning will reduce the chances of injury and save money for any task. However, when building, moving, or dismantling a scaffold, a knowledgeable person, also known as the scaffold competent person, must be present. A competent person must also inspect the scaffold daily to ensure the structure remains in a safe condition. Scaffold collapse often occurs due to improper construction. However, scaffold collapse does not necessarily mean the entire structure crashes to the ground. Collapse can be as simple as a falling plank that did not overlap at a support. The end result can be just as devastating. Therefore, it is important to remember that each scaffold component is an intricate part of an entire system and is only as strong as its weakest link.
3. Struck by falling materials
Injuries and deaths due to scaffolds are not only limited to the workers on the scaffold. Many individuals have been injured or killed due to being struck by materials or tools that have fallen from scaffold platforms. Toe boards or netting should be installed on work platforms to prevent these items from falling to the ground or lower level work areas. Housekeeping on and around scaffolds is also an issue that must be addressed on a daily basis.
It is also crucial that other individuals on the work site are aware of overhead work being performed. Barricades that physically prevent individuals from walking under work platforms must be erected and signs warning of the hazards need to be posted. Caution or Danger tape is often used in an attempt to keep people away from overhead hazards. But too often the tape is disregarded or taken down creating possible struck by hazards. A more robust system such as plastic mesh or wooden barricades is generally more effective and much easier to maintain. The requirement to warn individuals of the hazard does not relieve others of being aware of their surroundings. It is also vital that employees heed the warning signs and know that there will be consequences for ignoring them. These consequences can come in the form of disciplinary action if their lucky or a serious injury or worse if they are not.
Once again we look to preplanning and the competent person to assure there are no electrical hazards present during scaffold use. A minimum of 10’ must be maintained between the scaffold and electrical hazard. If this distance cannot be maintained then the hazard must be de-energized or properly insulated by the power company. Coordination between the power company and the company erecting / using the scaffold cannot be over stated.
Lastly, all employees who work on scaffolds must have documented training. The training topics must include identification of fall hazards and prevention, falling tools and materials hazards, and knowledge of electrical hazards.
Safe scaffold use starts from the ground up. Only safe work conditions and actions will prevent unnecessary injuries when working on these ever changing structures.