Scaffolding Safety – Addressing Slips and Fall Hazards

Scaffolding has been aiding in the construction of both home and commercial buildings, in various forms, for hundreds of years now. In the 1600s, wood planks were inserted into vacant spaces purposefully created in bricks walls, then boards would be laid between them to create a platform which workers could stand on to reach higher building areas. Luckily, our structures today are more advanced and have made leaps and bounds in terms of safety, but the principle remains the same: Workers are placed at heights from which a fall could cause serious injury. Especially in businesses where seasonal improvements or operations might make the usage of scaffolding a semi-rare occurrence, you and your employees might not be properly trained or refreshed on associated safety. Many business owners and safety managers ask questions like:

  • What training am I required to do for my employees?
  • Are there any special qualifications needed to teach scaffolding training?
  • Do I need my workers to use special equipment in addition to their training?
  • Are there certain assembly and disassembling requirements I need to know about?
  • How can I ensure employees comply with my scaffolding rules and training?

Of course, like most any industrial safety issue, OSHA, ANSI, and other governing work safety bodies have gone through a lot of trouble to answer these questions for employers long before they even need to ask them. Unfortunately, finding all of the answers you want in one place can be a bit of a chore, and the language used in certain references isn’t always easy to use or understand. In this blog post, I’ve attempted to go through and answer as many queries as possible all in one place. Hope you find it useful.

OSHA Requirements

First of all, you should know what’s required of you by OSHA, the primary governing work safety body. Most importantly, OSHA requires that you provide adequate training to all employees who will be working on or around scaffolding. So just what is “adequate” training you might wonder? I thought you’d never ask. Basically, you need to make sure that four main requirements are met, and they go as such:

  1. All work area-specific hazards need to be disclosed, and these should be specific to each job. For example, you’ll need to account for working near or around power lines or other possible electrical hazards. Also, if other projects are going on in the area, or if a building is old or deteriorating, workers need to be aware of objects in the area that might potentially fall and injure them.
  2. Awareness is only the first step, of course, and workers also need to know what they can do to deal with the hazards that are present. We’ll get to what you as an employer can do in a minute, but since this section is on employee training, let’s think about what might be relevant for workers. If you’re using fall prevention or arrest systems, like harnesses, employees need to know how to safely use their equipment. This means training on contact points, locking in place, what to do in the event of a fall, etc. For other hazards, they should know what type of PPE (hard hats for falling objects, etc.) and behaviors will help to keep them safe.
  3. How to carry materials safely around on scaffolds. From tools to building materials, moving around a load on a scaffolding setup can be trickier than down on the ground. In addition to training on the specifics of carrying around items in a raised, tight space – possibly shared with other workers – you should review proper lifting and movement techniques for moving loads in general. A back injury on the ground can be devastating enough, a back injury twenty feet in the air with only a ladder exit can be a complicated situation indeed.
  4. Last but not least, specifics for the brand/type of scaffolding material must be trained on. The most important item here is the maximum weight load allowance, followed by things like proper entrance and exit procedures and how to inspect for defects.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also notes:

In addition to these topics, employees who are involved in erecting, disassembling, moving, operating, repairing, maintaining, or inspecting scaffolds must be trained in:

  • Correct procedures for erecting, disassembling, moving, etc., the type of scaffold in question
  • Design criteria, maximum intended load-carrying capacity, and intended use of the scaffold

Employer Responsibilities

It is your responsibility to not only ensure that all of the above training requirements are met, but also that the individuals conducting them are qualified and knowledgeable. Finding experienced workers to undergo some additional training can be a great way to put together an internal team for inspections and safety. Many employers also use training DVD’s to help assist in their training efforts.

Keeping a general pulse on what’s going on at your work site is also really, really important because you need to keep abreast of changes in scaffolding or workplace setup. This is because OSHA basically requires retraining any time the setup or purpose of your scaffolds change. If you’re changing just about anything related to your setup, or if close calls or incidents are demonstrating that initial training may not have been absorbed as you’d hoped, you’ll need to retrain your workers. It’s tedious, and can cost you work hours, but safety has to come first. In order to avoid these hangups, you should try to plan far in advance your various phases of construction so that you can conduct them with very few surprises and perhaps even front load all of your training at the beginning of the project to avoid interruptions (as long as workers will remember changes as they go along).

Other Tips

While it’s important to follow OSHA guidelines exactly as they’re written, both for you and your employees’ sake, most safety comes down to common sense and experience. Here, then, are 7 additional quick tips for ensuring scaffolding safety.

  1. Always attempt to cover scaffolding when not in use to prevent rain from rusting metal or making surfaces slippery for your workers.
  2. Never leave tools or materials out on scaffolding overnight; not only might they be stolen, but workers might trip and injure themselves on an unexpected item while walking onto the scaffolding for the first time the following day.
  3. Ladders used to access scaffolding should be secured near the top, usually by being tied, so that they cannot tip or become detached.
  4. Speaking of tipping, ladders should be at an angel instead of straight up and down. As a rule of thumb, try to have your ladder angled outward at least one foot for every four feet of height.
  5. Make sure that falling objects can’t drop from scaffolding and injure pedestrians or other workers below; consider using nets to prevent this.
  6. To further prevent falling object injuries and paint/other material spillages to the ground below, always make sure that your scaffolding platform is solid, rather than a series of planks with gaps in between them.
  7. Have your inspector conduct a quick look each morning for any tampering or wear before workers or materials are to occupy any scaffold.

Closing Words

In general, working on scaffolding presents the same risks as any other type of work at height, with a few caveats. Specifically, the temporary nature of scaffolding, and their ability to be taken down and setup easily, gives you a reason ensure all “moving parts” so to speak are inspected regularly. Additional precautions you take will largely depend on the environment and the actual height at which employees will be working. That said, even a short fall gone wrong can be deadly or present serious injuries, so always err on the side of caution!

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