Scaffolding is consistently placed on OSHA’s list of top ten most-cited violations. Each year, safety violations include issues with scaffold construction, employee access and lack of guardrails among others.
Every worksite should follow some basic scaffolding rules and best practices to avoid mistakes in construction, accessibility and use that might cost someone their life. Below is a discussion of the major safety issues for supported scaffolding use in construction. However, the list is not exhaustive and should not be treated as a replacement for OSHA’s requirements and ANSI standards.
Scaffolding construction and inspection
Proper construction and regular inspections are the first and most crucial step in preventing injuries when working on scaffolding. Scaffolds must be constructed according to the manufacturer’s instructions, erected by trained personnel and inspected by a scaffold-competent person before each workday or shift.
OSHA’s scaffolding standard defines a competent person as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions, which are unsanitary, hazardous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.” Be aware that competent doesn’t equal infallible, so strive for a culture that understands error and looks out for each other when they see competency being compromised by human factors.
Other things to remember about scaffold safety include the following:
- Check the condition of the frames. They can’t be used if they are cracked, twisted, dented, bent or damaged in any way.
- Ensure that the scaffold is assembled properly. Once the scaffold is erected, no components of the scaffold should be removed or altered because any modifications can weaken it and lead to a collapse.
- The pins need to be connected to the legs in order to hold the frames and tubes in place.
- Bracings must be properly attached to the pins in the frame and not simply wired to the scaffold frame.
- The scaffold should be plumb, level and square. When higher than the 4:1 ratio, the scaffold must be restrained from tipping.
- A guardrail system (vertical barrier of toprails, midrails and posts) must be installed along all open sides and at ends on scaffolds that are more than 10 feet above the lower level.
- The top guardrail must be installed 38 to 45 inches above the work platform and a mid-rail must be halfway between the two.
- Toeboards must be installed to stop debris, tools and other materials from falling over the edge of the work platform.
- Toeboards must be at least 4 inches in height and no more than a quarter inch above the plank they’re resting on. They must also be capable of withstanding a force of at least 50 pounds applied in any downward or outward direction at any point.
- Walkways within the scaffold must have a guardrail system with a minimum 200-pound top rail capacity.
- All scaffolds must be fully planked or decked with no more than one-inch space between the platform and uprights.
- All platforms must be at least 18 inches in width.
- Ensure that planks are in good condition and that no broken, cracked, split or damaged planks are used.
- Scaffold planking must be able to support at least four times the intended load.
- Ensure that the work platforms are level.
- Use tags to let workers know if the scaffold is ready to use, unsafe or if it requires additional precautions. You can customize your tagging system but typically red, yellow and green tags are used.
- Nobody should remove tags without discussing it with safety personnel and communicate to everyone that the scaffold’s status has changed. The use of each tag must be decided by a competent person after they’ve inspected the scaffold.
Once the scaffold is up, workers need to use it safely and in accordance with best practices for working at heights and OSHA regulations.
- Do not use the scaffold frame to climb up to the work platforms.
- When accessing a scaffold, maintain three points of contact at all times when using a ladder. If you have tools that are heavy or cumbersome, use a pulley system.
- Don’t try to save time by only making one trip when it would be safer to make two.
- Use secured bags or other containment methods to transport or lift tools.
- When using a pulley system to transport tools and materials, the worker in charge of unloading the container should empty it on the platform and never do it while the container is still hanging over people below.
- Plan ahead to avoid overloading the scaffold. Make sure your planning accounts for the manner in which the scaffold is attached to the structure and the weather.
- Inspect the planks each day. A joint inspection performed by the contractor, erector and end user is highly recommended.
- Use nets, mesh screens, a chute or another solution that helps prevent struck-by falling object incidents.
- Workers mustn’t use boxes, barrels and other objects as steps.
- Workers must never ride a rolling scaffold. It’s important to always dismount and secure tools and working materials on the platform before moving it. Remember to lock the wheels of the scaffold before resuming work.
- Be sure to look where you are moving the rolling scaffold to avoid holes, trenches, bumps and anything else that can cause the scaffold to become unbalanced. Also pay attention to overhead hazards such as electrical lines and lighting.
- Don’t perform work on or from scaffolds during storms or high winds unless a competent person has determined that it’s safe to do so and employees are protected by a personal fall arrest system or wind screens.
- Don’t use wind screens unless the scaffold is secured against the anticipated wind forces imposed.
- Maintain good housekeeping standards and keep all walkways free of obstructions, debris, tools and any other materials that might pose a slipping, tripping or falling hazard.
- Always use the required PPE. In addition to the required hard hat, fall protection may be required in some instances. Safety boots, gloves and glasses are also a good idea when it comes to working with scaffolding.
- Workers must only use the designated access to scaffold—a fixed ladder, an access panel, a stairway tower or a man lift—and must not climb on the diagonal bracing or any support elements of the scaffold.
Many scaffold-use violations pertain to incorrect access/egress. Ladders are an important part to access scaffolding but proper ladder safety is often overlooked by workers due to complacency or its perceived simplicity. Here are a few rules to keep in mind:
- Select the right ladder for the job.
- A quick and easy way to get the proper angle for a ladder is by using the four-to-one rule: for every four feet up, move the base one foot away from the wall.
- Make sure the ladder is on a firm, level surface. If the ground is not level, consider investing in ladders with approved leveling legs.
- The ladder needs to extend three feet above the access and egress point.
- When the access point is identified and finalized, tie the ladder off to avoid it moving.
- Consider using ladder extensions. These allow people to get off the ladder through the middle rather than around the outside.
Finally, remember to perform regular maintenance on ladders and consider using scaffold labels. You shouldn’t leave important things like maintenance to memory—put a simple process in place to stay up-to-date with ladder inspections and maintenance.
Falls are the most frequent cause of safety incidents on scaffolds. They also lead to the most serious injuries and fatalities. This is why workers must be provided with the right tools for the job, a safe environment and training on basic safety precautions to prevent slips, trips and falls on scaffolding.
- Make sure the scaffold is in good working condition.
- Don’t use a scaffold if it’s wet or slippery.
- Don’t jump or run.
- Make sure all areas are clear of tripping hazards and other obstructions.
- Use approved access and egress points only.
- When using access points and ladders, maintain three points of contact.
- If a personal fall arrest system is required, it has to fit the workers, be in good condition and its use must be accompanied by in-depth training.
- Just like the ladder safety rules, recognize the importance of building strong habits around following rules and best practices all of the time; habits can help if someone has a moment of inattention.
Workers should also be trained in hazard recognition, the normalization of risk and human factors. They need to understand that states like rushing or fatigue may affect their actions, making them more likely to forget something vital or causing them to make an unintended mistake. When employees are more aware of their and their colleagues’ states of mind, they become more mindful of their surroundings and potential hazards and they have a lower risk of injury.