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Strategic Scaffolding: Challenges and Solutions

According to the Bureau of Labor, the statistics on scaffold accidents are not particularly encouraging. The CFOI reports that 72 percent of workers injured in scaffold accidents attributed the incident either to the planking or support giving way, the employee slipping, or being struck by a falling object.

And depending on who you talk to in the scaffolding industry, some will tell you that these statistics are not accurate and could be even worse.

For example, Tim Peterson is manager and co-owner with Northwest Scaffold Services Inc. located in the Portland, Oregon area. The company was established in 2007 by two owners, who have a combined 50 years experience in the industry. Peterson says, too often, companies will respond to accidents and incidents with punishments.

“This has bred a culture of hiding problems — both on the employee and the company level. The employee does not want to get fired, and the company does not want their insurance costs or recordable incidents to go up. Also, everyone is afraid of getting fines from OSHA. Every incident I’ve seen in the last 20 years could have been avoided by proper training from general construction to the erection process.”

There is good news, however. Since 1970, the number of fatalities has dropped dramatically in the construction industry overall from 14,000 a year to 937 (2015 figures).

“This is better,” says Ted Beville, executive director of the Scaffold & Access Industry Association (SAIA), which is based in Kansas City, Missouri. “But we still have much more work to do. A major area of emphasis in the construction and scaffold industry deals with increased worker safety. When I started in the industry, safety was given very little thought. Workers were almost expendable back then. If you got hurt and couldn’t work, there were 10 guys at the gate who could replace you.”

Fortunately, times have changed. Workers today are much more actively engaged in safety activities and awareness including safety committees, inspections, incident investigation and near-miss reporting. And employers have learned that investing in safety makes sound business sense.

Additionally, as the current workforce continues to age, there are not enough trained workers of the younger generation to adequately fill the need for skilled labor. To help remedy this, SAIA trained over 6,000 students last year and is on track to train between 7,000 and 8,000 this year.

“SAIA is currently rewriting all the training manuals to appeal to a younger audience,” says Beville. “We are also leveraging technology to do a better job of reaching the worker on the job. Hazard awareness training is now available online and more programs are on the way.”

Industry Challenges

The construction market has never been more competitive. As a result, shrinking profits and productivity are squeezing the life out of the market. The lack of productivity often shows up on the bottom line and stifles technology development.

“One way to increase production and profitability in the scaffold industry is to turn to labor-saving technology such as construction hoists, transport platforms, mast climbing work platforms and material hoists,” explains Beville. “This equipment has proven to enhance worker productivity and industry profitability by enabling companies to position materials and workers at the optimum and most productive level. Worker fatigue is reduced, materials are moved efficiently, and safety is even improved by reducing the risk of accident exposure to workers.”

Peterson adds that some of the largest issues he has seen involves congestion and providing a safe area under where the scaffold is being built and material movement.

“We coordinate with site superintendents to tape off areas under where we are building and dismantling. If that is not an option, we try to work outside the normal scheduled shift. As a last resort, we secure every piece of equipment with a lanyard to prevent anything from dropping. This is very inefficient and increases costs.”

When it comes to material movement, Peterson says he will schedule elevator or crane picks if available. “In order to eliminate as much human error as possible, every Monday we have a meeting to discuss issues from the week prior. Every day before the crews start work on the jobsite, we have a tailgate safety meeting to address the job hazards and what needs to be accomplished that day.”

Peterson cannot stress enough the importance of workers paying attention to their surroundings at all times. “When in a passing bay, keep all of your body parts under the plank above your head. Never stick your head out to see what is coming up or down. That is the most likely place for a piece of gear to get dropped. Work within your capabilities and be honest with yourself and speak up. I’ve seen way too many people get injured being a tough guy. That includes myself.”

Beville adds that improving worker safety remains of the utmost importance, with the top five scaffold hazards as follows: falls, unsafe access, struck by falling objects, electrocution and scaffold collapse.

“Fall prevention continues to be of paramount importance to OSHA and the construction industry,” says Beville.

“SAIA is proud to partner with OSHA’s Fall Prevention Campaign, which is developed to raise awareness among workers and employers about common fall hazards in construction, and how falls from ladders, scaffolds and roofs can be prevented.”

Highlights of the program include:

Plan ahead to get the job done safely;

Provide the right equipment;

Train everyone to use the equipment safely.

“There is also an extensive list of ‘do’s and don’ts for the scaffold industry’ that the SAIA is happy to make available,” says Beville.

Innovative Structures

Over the past years, the scaffold industry has utilized numerous ways to solve access challenges such as straight or curved walls, inside and outside of industrial spheres, tanks, vessels and boilers. The Statue of Liberty, One World Trade Center, the U.S. Capitol and the Brandenburg Gate are all examples of access challenges that were solved by innovative scaffold companies.

The way these challenges are overcome is the application of the right product for the right challenge. Virtually all of these solutions are highly engineered and erected by highly trained and experienced crews who overcome logistical and material handling nightmares.

“Not too long ago, a major new convention center was under construction and the general contractors needed access to the ceiling area for the building trades to complete their work,” recalls
Beville.

“The solution provided consisted of a very large suspended platform to provide the required access, but as a side benefit, also left the floor area clear so that the schedule could be accelerated because there was no scaffold on the ground in the way. This is a good win-win example of solving an overhead access challenge and a good opportunity to move the construction schedule ahead.”

Beville adds, “At the end of the day, the materials used don’t change much from the everyday scaffold that you may see in an industrial or commercial setting. “The difference is using the right product along with the planning, supervision, caliber of workers, and execution required for the more difficult jobs.”

By Lisa Kopochinski