When construction workers need temporary access to tall structures, whether to hold workers, tools, or materials, scaffolding goes up. Bricks, concrete, paint, and construction tools are just some items that are elevated to greater heights to complete projects. The key to erecting these structures is matching the scaffolding design to the type of construction work performed. Unfortunately, regardless of the structure type, safety hazards lurk during the scaffolding process, from the design stage to its actual use to the dismantling stages.
Workers across the construction industry rely on scaffolding to perform their duties.
Improper or unsafe scaffolding procedures are among the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) top ten most frequently cited infractions, ranking 5th overall. And these infractions are not just numbers; they represent one of the most frequent reasons for fatalities across the construction industry, as 52 individuals fell to their death from scaffolding in 2020. The violations cited are based on an incorrect understanding or application of OSHA Standard 1926.451, which addresses all facets of scaffolding, including access, design, dismantling, training, users involved, and more. This article will discuss scaffolding, its hazards and safety concerns, OSHA requirements, and the most common personal protective equipment (PPE) used when working on scaffolding.
What Is Scaffolding? Someone born in the last decade might answer this question by referring to Minecraft scaffolding, a block used in the video game to help players reach higher building structures. And technically, they are correct. In the real world, a scaffold is an elevated platform used to raise workers to a certain height as they work on a building or other manufactured structure. Scaffolds go up from wooden boards, couplers, and steel tubes brought together with base plates, braces, ropes, and ties.
The main benefit of scaffolding is that it helps work crews reach heights and access places they could not quickly access on their own. Scaffolding allows a worker to reach just about any part of a structure under construction. It also provides a space for essential tools, and other equipment workers might need. You'll find scaffolding erected when repairing buildings and bridges, but other scaffolding applications exist. Some other everyday scaffold-use activities include:
- Setting up special events
- Electrical wiring
- Steam cleaning and sandblasting
Examples and Techniques
Not all scaffolds are the same. Several types of scaffolds are used for various building structures and jobs, depending on the work performed. According to OSHA, most scaffolds lump into one of two main categories, with a third category encompassing all other scaffolding types. Let's break down each category:
- Supported scaffolding involves one or more platforms supported with load-bearing poles, legs, frames, or outriggers. Often, the base sits directly on the ground or is fastened to the side of the building. This scaffold allows workers to ascend and descend the structure with ladders. Supported scaffolding is typically more robust and can hold more workers. However, one concern with this type of scaffold is ladder safety, the hazards addressed here. Supported scaffolding types include fabricated frames, ladder jacks, mast climbers, mobile, pole, pump jack, and tube and coupler. The image below shows the differences between different types of supported scaffolding.
- Suspended scaffolding involves one or more platforms that hang from ropes, wires, or chains affixed to the roof of a building. The platform is suspended in the air and uses levers and pulleys to move up and down. A suspended scaffold is easier to build but doesn't hold as many people as supported scaffolding and is often reserved for extremely tall buildings. Examples of suspended scaffolding include catenary, float, interior hung, multi-level, multi-point, needle beam, single-point, and two-point.
- Portable scaffolding involves scissor lifts, boom lifts, and aerial lifts. They are similar to supported scaffolds in that they have a heavy base on the ground that supports them. And, like a suspended scaffold, they can move quickly up and down the side of a building. One benefit is that no heavy construction takes place for a lift, as it quickly moves to a new area without needing construction or tear-down.
Who Should Design a Scaffold?
Scaffolding isn't like building with tinker toys. Only trained professionals should design and construct scaffolding. OSHA's eTool and the OSHA 3150 Guidebook for Scaffold Use in Construction are excellent resources. As page two of the guidebook identifies, OSHA requires a professional engineer in situations where a greater level of risk is involved or the scaffold structure is more complex. Below are some examples of these situations, along with the specific standard number to review:
- Suspension scaffolds, 1926.451(d)(3)(i)
- Moving scaffolds, 1926.451(f)(5)
- Pole scaffolds over 60 feet, 1926.452(a)(10)
- Tube and coupler scaffolds over 125 feet, 1926.452(b)(10)
- Fabricated frame scaffolds over 125 feet above their base plates, 1926.452(c)(6)
- Fabricated frames supporting cantilevered loads in addition to workers, 1926.452(c)(5)
- Outrigger scaffolds, 1926.452(i)(8)
It can be expensive to purchase and store the necessary scaffolding materials for every job and to have a qualified scaffolding engineer design and construct it. Fortunately, many scaffolding rental companies provide scaffolding equipment and setup by engineers knowledgeable about scaffolding design and safety. Below are two of the largest companies offering services in this area:
- Sunbelt Rentals – provides extensive design, engineering, erection, and dismantling services for commercial, industrial, and special-event scaffolding.
- United Rentals – offers various aerial platforms.
- Home Depot - rents out portable scaffolds.
Because scaffolds are so widely used and pose a serious threat to workers, OSHA has an entire website dedicated to scaffolding safety. Key resources on the site include OSHA scaffolding requirements, safety checklists, potential safety hazards, and controls practiced to keep workers safe. When in doubt, revert to OSHA's eTool for guidance.
As mentioned above, scaffolding rolls up under Standard 1926 as Subpart L. Below are all the specific parts under Subpart L:
- 1926.450 – Overall scope
- 1926.451 – Overall requirements
- 1926.452 – Specific scaffolds
- 1926.453 – Aerial lifts
- 1926.454 – Training requirements surrounding hazards of work on scaffolds
- Appendix A – Guidelines that assist employers
- Appendix B – Criteria for determining the feasibility of providing safe access and fall protection for scaffold erectors and dismantlers
- Appendix C – National Standards
- Appendix D – Erector- and dismantler-specific training
- Appendix E – Illustrations
Teaching and Training
OSHA requires employers to train all employees working on scaffolds about the hazards faced by the specific scaffold used and the necessary procedures for controlling those hazards. This requirement applies to all erectors, disassemblers, operators, repairers, and maintenance personnel. Training is a requirement and must be taught by a person qualified to recognize the hazards associated with the specific scaffold used. The trainer must possess a recognized degree or certificate or have extensive knowledge based on experience in order teach. Standard 1926.54 covers the following topics, intended to ensure proper use:
- Handling materials
- Electrical hazards
- Fall hazards
- Maintaining and repairing the structure
- Maximum loads and load-carrying capacities
- Procedures for handling tools
- Procedures for erecting, disassembling, and moving
- Proper overall use
Specific areas of Standard 1926.54:
Additional online OSHA and government resources to aid in training:
Hazards and PPE
Every scaffold constructed will involve similar hazards, regardless of its design. There is always the concern that the scaffold may collapse at any time, impacting all workers anywhere nearby. Those who move up and down the structure should be concerned about falling, as the consequences often result in death. In addition, being struck by objects falling from elevated platforms to lower platforms and causing potential injuries to all areas of one's body is a significant concern. The risk of electrical shock from nearby electrical lines may be an issue if the scaffolding is erected near live electrical wires. Some hazards are pertinent to the specific role being performed, as outlined below.
Erectors and dismantlers are the workers who assemble and disassemble scaffolding before work begins or once it has been completed. In addition to the above hazards, the structure's instability as it goes up or down is a significant concern.
Users are individuals who engage with an erected scaffold. They use the scaffold to access their work area, and the structure must be able to support them and their materials. For these workers, falls and being struck by objects are the most concerning potential hazards.
Scaffolding PPE Solutions
Within the hierarchy of controls, elimination, substitution, engineering, and administrative controls should always be practiced first, including proper training. For example, screens and debris nets are set up to prevent objects from falling onto workers. OSHA also requires companies to supply appropriate PPE to employees at no charge. Below is some standard equipment we know construction workers need, especially when erecting, using, or dismantling a scaffold.
Objects falling from higher levels onto one's foot are always a concern. Construction workers should protect their feet with steel-toe boots, whether work shoes or PVC options like the ones pictured above.
Handling materials occurs at all stages of a construction project. Gloves equipped with crinkle latex are ideal for scaffold use, providing increased gripping power. Our N9680 is often worn because of its comfortable, ultra-lightweight shell.
Safety glasses are always required on any construction site, as flying dust and debris is everywhere. Polarized options are the most stylish and provide increased glare performance.
A worker must stay seen on a job site. Class 2 safety vests are top sellers because they fall directly between general-purpose hi-vis vests and Class 3 hi-vis safety vests. They balance cost with increased visibility.
Extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold, are always a concern for construction workers. We supply insulated gaiters and balaclavas for the winter months and cooling gear for the summer months.
We do want to stress that even though MCR Safety doesn't stock specific fall protection items, they are one of the most critical forms of PPE required while working on a scaffold. Leave us a comment below, and we can have one of our distribution partners reach out with solutions in this area.
What are the main causes of deaths and injuries on scaffolds?
- The main risks associated with scaffolds are worker falls, electrocution, or injuries from falling objects or scaffold collapse.
What is the function of the scaffold platform?
- The platform elevates workers and the necessary tools and materials to conduct work on the worksite.
What are the three types of scaffolds?
- Supported scaffolds, suspended scaffolds, and aerial lifts are three of the most common types of scaffolds used on job sites.
Protecting Construction Workers
Scaffolds are used at some point in the construction process on almost every construction site, impacting millions of laborers. If you're one of those laborers who work on or around scaffolding, you know how hazardous it is and how important it is to protect yourself from this workplace hazard. We hope that by reading this article, you now have all the resources you need to help you operate and work around scaffolding safely. Our goal is to keep workers safe at every job site, regardless of whether or not they're wearing our PPE. With that said, we hope we've earned your trust by telling you about scaffolding hazards, and we encourage you to consider wearing some of the gear mentioned above to help keep you safe around scaffolding. MCR Safety, We Protect People!
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