Working from a scaffold is an effective way to perform elevated construction tasks but it can also be extremely dangerous. Scaffold citations consistently rank among OSHA’s most frequently cited safety violations and worker falls are the number one scaffold hazard.

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

OSHA requires that fall protection must be provided on any scaffold 10 feet or more above a lower level, but some employers often don’t. Fall protection consists of either personal fall-arrest systems or guardrail systems.

“Tragedies occur when scaffolds are not erected or used properly. This includes poor planning for assembly and disassembly, missing tie-ins or bracing, loads that are too heavy and being too close to power lines,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Every year, close to 50 workers are killed in falls from scaffolds. Hundreds more suffer serious injuries. Workers and passersby on the ground are also injured and killed when they are struck by building materials and debris falling from scaffolds. These situations are all the more heartbreaking because in most cases, they are preventable.”

Tragedies like these could have been avoided

If planks had not been removed from a portion of scaffolding erected alongside a New York City hotel, a construction worker would not have plummeted eight stories to his death this past spring. Planking should extend all the way across the scaffold and OSHA’s maximum allowable gap between planks is one inch. Workers should not climb on the scaffold components. A proper ladder placed next to the scaffold or one built into the scaffold’s frame must be used.

If weather had been taken into account and a competent person had been utilized, a scaffold in Charlotte, North Carolina, might not have had three construction workers working from it when 40-mile-per-hour winds toppled it. The workers sustained serious injuries. The OSHA standard for scaffolds stipulates that during storms or high winds, work on or from a scaffold is prohibited unless a competent worker has determined it is safe.

Easy-to-implement safety measures can make a difference

In June in Bethesda, Maryland, on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, a scaffolding platform partially collapsed when a metal support arm snapped, leaving two workers dangling from suspended ropes 80 feet in the air. This incident did not end in tragedy because the workers on this scaffold were in compliance with OSHA: They were wearing backup harnesses. Instead of falling to their deaths, they were pulled to safety by emergency responders.

Scaffold and Fall Protection Basics

  • Designate a competent person to determine if the scaffold is safe to use
  • Inspect the scaffold and the worksite regularly
  • Make sure all scaffolds are fully planked and placed on a solid, level base
  • Check equipment
  • Erect guardrails and cover holes
  • Do not overload the scaffold or any component parts beyond their maximum capacity
    (their own weight and 4:1 the maximum intended load)
  • Tie off
  • Follow manufacturers’ specifications
  • Maintain housekeeping
  • Report problems
  • Do not work until problems are corrected

The physical demands and the constantly changing nature of construction make ensuring the safety of workers on scaffolds and worker safety in general an ongoing challenge. The LHSFNA can assist. Health Alerts and other materials pertaining to scaffolds, falls and other worksite hazards can be ordered through the online Publications Catalogue. In addition, the Fund’s Occupational Safety and Health Division has a web page devoted to fall protection. Its expert staff can also provide a site-specific audit of your jobsite. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

Additional resources about scaffold safety and fall prevention can be found at the CPWR’s Stop Construction Falls website, OSHA’s page on fall prevention and by reading the Scaffold Safety for Residential Construction Contractors guide by the Massachusetts’ Department of Health and Human Resources.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]