There is a top safety hazard lurking on your construction site, and you might not even realize just how deadly it can be. Scaffold-related accidents and fatalities are some of the most significant in the industry. According to OSHA, every year there are 4,500 injuries and more than 60 deaths due to scaffold hazards like falls and collapse. Since there is no escaping their use: An estimated 2.3 million construction workers, or 65% of the industry, work on scaffolds. Hence scaffold safety is more than just a priority, it is a requirement. OSHA has set safety requirements and standards for properly using scaffolds and reducing its hazards.

4 Most Common Scaffolding Hazards

Common accidents involving scaffolds include falls but also injury from scaffold collapse, being struck by falling tools, and electrocution due to the proximity of overhead power lines.

  1. Falls. Falls happen as a result of defective scaffold equipment, improper installation or operation, improper training of workers, or a failure to use appropriate personal fall protection equipment. Not being able to safely access the scaffold is another reason for falls. Use a ladder, stair tower or ramp to get to each level of a scaffold.
  2. Scaffold collapse. Improperly erected scaffolds lead to collapse. Scaffolds must be erected on secure ground and must be able to hold the weight of both workers and equipment. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, each scaffold and scaffold component must be capable of supporting its own weight plus at least four times the maximum intended load without failure. Each suspension rope must be capable of supporting at least six times the maximum intended load.
  3. Struck by falling tools. Those below scaffolds are just as susceptible to injury as those working on them. Falling tools and equipment account for many workplace injuries and deaths. OSHA requires all workers to wear hardhats. It also mandates the installation of toe boards, screens and guardrail systems as well as the safe containment of debris with nets, catch platforms or canopy structures.
  4. Electrocution. Scaffolds built too close to power lines are an electrocution hazard on job sites. When scaffolds, conductive tools, or other materials contact overhead power lines, workers receive serious and often fatal injuries. Ten feet must be maintained between scaffolds and power lines.

OSHA Scaffold Safety Summary

To reduce accidents and deaths, OSHA sets standards to protect workers. OSHA’s “Safety Standards for Scaffolds Use in the Construction Industry” has several key provisions.

  • Fall protection or fall arrest systems. Either guard rails or a fall arrest system must be in place for each employee more than 10 feet above a lower level, except those on single-point and two-point adjustable suspension scaffolds. “Suspension scaffold” means one or more working platforms is suspended by ropes or other means from an overhead structure. Employees on a single-point and two-point adjustable suspended scaffold need to be be protected by a guardrail as well as a personal fall arrest system.
  • Guardrail height. Any scaffold made after Jan. 1, 2000 must have a toprail between 38 and 45 inches high. For those made before Jan. 1, 2000, the height can be between 36 and 45 inches.
  • Crossbracing. When used as a toprail, the crosspoints of a scaffold’s crossbracing must be between 38 and 48 inches above the work platform.
  • Midrails. Midrails have to be installed approximately halfway between the toprail and platform. Crosspoints used as a midrail must be between 20 and 30 inches high.
  • Footings. Footings that support scaffolds must be level but also support the scaffold’s load. The legs, poles, frames, and uprights have to bear on base plates and mud sills.
  • Platforms. Supported scaffold platforms must be fully planked or decked.
  • Guying ties and braces. Supported scaffolds with a height-to-base ratio of 4:1 must be tied off or restrained by guying or bracing to eliminate any tipping.
  • Capacity. Scaffolds and scaffold components must support at least four times the maximum intended load. Suspension scaffold rigging must support at least six times the intended load.
  • Training. Each employee who works on a scaffold must be trained on the hazards and procedures to control those hazards.
  • Inspections. A competent person must inspect the scaffold and scaffold components before each work shift and after something happens that could affect its structural integrity. This person should look for visible defects.
  • Erecting and Dismantling. Each time supported scaffolds are erected a dismantled, a competent person must make sure they can be accessed safely and that fall protection is in place.

What is a Competent Person?

So, who exactly is a competent person in the context of scaffolding? 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 the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them”.

A competent person becomes knowledgeable about standards through training and/or experience. Training provides a competent person with the skills to identify workplace hazards as well as the authority to correct them.

A competent person has many responsibilities and must be able to perform several duties around the job site. These duties include:

  • Choose and direct the employees who will erect, dismantle, move or alter scaffolds.
  • Determine if it is safe for employees to work on or from a scaffold during storms or high winds, and make sure there is a personal fall arrest system or wind screens in place.
  • Train employees who erect, disassemble, move, operate, repair, maintain or inspect scaffolds to recognize any work hazards.
  • Inspect scaffolds, components, ropes and materials used for toprails or midrails for visible defects before each shift and after any situation where the integrity of the scaffold could be compromised, and correct any defects found.
  • Evaluate the direct connections of suspension scaffolds to be sure they will support the load. Secure two-point and multi-point scaffolds to prevent swaying.
  • Determine the feasibility and safety of providing fall protection and access for erectors and dismantlers. Train erectors and dismantlers to recognize work hazards.
  • Ensure a scaffold will be structurally sound if components from different manufacturers are used. Determine if galvanic action has affected the capacity when using components of dissimilar metals.

What is a Qualified Person?

OSHA also designates that a “qualified person” can ensure the safety of scaffolding on construction sites. A qualified person is “one who — by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training, and experience — has successfully demonstrated his/her ability to solve or resolve problems related to the subject matter, the work, or the project.”

While a qualified person doesn’t have as many responsibilities as a competent person, he or she must still be able to perform these duties:

  • Generally design and load scaffolds and their components in accordance with that design.
  • Train employees that work on scaffolds to recognize the associated hazards and understand the procedures to control or minimize those hazards.
  • For suspension scaffolds, a qualified person must be able to design the rigging for single-point adjustable suspension scaffolds. A qualified person must also be able to design stable platforms on two-point adjustable suspension types that are less than 36 inches wide.

When is an Engineer Needed on Site?

There are times when a registered professional engineer is required on site to ensure scaffolds are safe. Engineers are needed to design the direct connections of masons’ multi-point suspension scaffolds. An engineer is also required to design scaffolds particularly when scaffolds must be moved when workers are on them, when pole scaffolds are more than 60 feet high, tube and coupler scaffolds more than 125 feet high and fabricated frame scaffolds more than 125 feet high above their base plates. Registered engineers must design the brackets used on fabricated frame scaffolds that support cantilevered loads. And lastly, engineers must design outrigger scaffold and scaffolds components.

Scaffold Safety Do’s and Don’ts

Scaffolds present a number of potential safety hazards, which is why competent and qualified persons must be on site to inspect them and why in some cases engineers must design them. But using scaffolds safely also requires some common sense, like following this list of “Don’ts.”

  • Don’t stand on barrels, boxes, blocks or anything else to increase your height while on a scaffold.
  • Don’t overload the scaffold.
  • Don’t walk on a scaffold that’s covered in snow, ice or mud.
  • Don’t use a scaffold that’s damaged.
  • Don’t climb on parts of the scaffold not intended for climbing.
  • Don’t jump between scaffold platforms.
  • Don’t rock or move the scaffold.
  • Don’t use a scaffold without flooring or guardrails in place.
  • Don’t use a scaffold during inclement weather like a snowstorm, high winds or heavy rain.

There are also many proactive actions workers can take to remain safe.

  • Do wear appropriate PPE.
  • Do check the inspection tags before using a scaffold.
  • Do level the scaffold after each move.
  • Do use safety belts when working on any scaffold more than 10 feet high.
  • Do keep both feet on the decking.
  • Do be mindful of your fellow workers’ locations.
  • Do follow the manufacturers instructions when erecting a scaffold.
  • Do lock the wheels before using a scaffold.
  • Do have a toolbox talk before work begins.

A toolbox talk is a group discussion that focuses on a specific safety issue. Toolbox talks are informal, without a broad agenda, and are more for safety maintenance and specifics. There are myriad topics for scaffolding-focused toolbox talks. Before you’ve introduced scaffolds on your site you can start by talking about different types of scaffolding, then move to how to safely access scaffolds, or proper scaffold construction. A toolbox talk on scaffolding should be held before workers start a project using scaffolds and any time after a scaffold needs to be re-evaluated for safety, like if inclement weather damages the scaffold overnight and it has to be repaired.

ExakTime can help you monitor the safety of your workers by knowing which workers are on site, allowing workers to communicate dangerous conditions through field notes and allowing you to schedule recurring toolbox talks so that no one misses them.