Last week, I watched a work colleague of mine being driven off to the hospital in an ambulance. He had been working on a scaffold when the planking gave way. His harness saved him from falling forty feet to the ground, but because of the way the plank fell, he was hit on the head and the shoulder by some power tools. It could've been a lot worse if anyone had been working beneath him at the time.
Working Safely on Scaffolding
Working on scaffolding is always dangerous. Even though scaffolding is more convenient and safer than ladders, it is still a temporary structure that has to be assembled at each site. It is prone to wind and weather, and improperly securing or attaching it and its parts can lead to catastrophic failures.
Most scaffolding-related accidents come from falls, but some come from improperly positioned planking, or planking in poor condition. Secure planking is an important part of scaffold safety. The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics states that 72 percent of workers who were injured in a scaffolding-related accident in the past year can point directly to planking or its supports falling away. Some planking issues include:
- Scaffold planking is made of wood, and wood wears out after being constantly exposed to the elements
- Planks are sometimes not inspected closely enough
- Planks may not be cleated, which can cause them to move or slip from their position
- Planks can be placed with too much overhang, which creates a highly unstable work platform
- Too many people or too much equipment on the planking can overload the planks, which can cause them to bend or break under the weight
In addition to poor quality wood or insufficient bracing, falls can also result from insufficient training in scaffold erection, lack of safety equipment, or people working in defiance of regulations (see 6 Tips for Safer Walking-Working Surfaces for more relevant information).
Workers’ health and safety organizations like OSHA have clear rules and guidelines regarding the correct and safe use and maintenance of scaffolding. These include:
- Design and construction standards that identify the type of equipment used and its capacities.
- For example, “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.”
- Inspection and certification: scaffold should only be built, moved and dismantled under the guidance of an OSHA certified representative, and inspections should happen prior to every shift.
How to Prevent Problems
Scaffolding dangers can best be reduced or even eliminated through adherence to the posted standards along with regular inspection and immediate correction of weak spots, including the removal of broken or non-secure planking.
Employers should take charge of these procedures and make them part of their overall safety plan. They should make sure they are followed daily, at the start of each shift.
Workers have the right and the obligation to understand the safety guidelines around scaffolding and inspect their worksites diligently before committing to work. If a scaffold is unsafe, they have the right to stop work and inform management about the issue before continuing (find out How to Refuse Unsafe Work).