Construction Safety: Preventing Accidents from Scaffolding Hazards

Construction Safety: Preventing Accidents from Scaffolding Hazards

Scaffolding work is a staple of the construction industry. In fact, 65% of all construction workers in the U.S. work on scaffolds at some point every year. And every year, scaffolding hazards in the construction industry result in 4500 injuries and 25% of all fatal falls.

When you consider both the injury rates and the extremely common nature of scaffold work, it's important for everyone in construction to be educated in scaffolding hazards and the precautions that must be taken. In this article, we’ll go over the most common scaffolding hazards and how to prevent them so you, and your coworkers, can stay safe at work.

What is Scaffolding?

According to OSHA's definition, a scaffold is "any temporary elevated platform (supported or suspended) and its supporting structure (including points of anchorage), used for supporting employees or materials or both."

Scaffolding is used across many industries to support workers operating at height, but they're commonly used in construction, repair, and maintenance activities.

OSHA considers aerial lifts to be a type of scaffold, but since we've covered those in other articles, we'll leave them out of this one.

Scaffolding Hazards In Construction

According to the BLS, 72% of scaffold accidents are attributed to either:

  • Platforms or planking giving way because of defective equipment or improper assembly
  • Slips, trips, and falls, OR
  • Falling objects

Many specific scaffolding hazards and risks fall under these three categories, as well as a few other safety hazards that cause problems more rarely.

Improper Construction of Scaffolding

Some of the most common causes of scaffolding injury are due to either flooring/plank collapse or some other type of setup problem.

Specifically, hazards arise from scaffold construction flaws like:

  • Inadequate support for scaffold boards
  • Use of faulty, damaged, or unsuitable materials
  • Erecting the scaffold on uneven or insecure ground
  • Removing or building the scaffolding without guard rails
  • Placing scaffolding near energized powerlines
  • Taking construction shortcuts or modifying the original scaffold design
  • Inadequate tie-in and bracing of the scaffolding, allowing for tip over
  • Ladders that aren't properly secured to the structure

Fall Hazards

One of the most common scaffolding hazards in construction is the risk of a fall, particularly an elevated fall, as well as any slipping or tripping hazards that can precipitate one.

Common fall hazards associated with scaffolding include:

  • A lack of guardrails
  • Underuse of non-slip surfaces and footgear
  • Lack of or improper use of fall protection and restraint
  • Inadequate or unsafe access to scaffold platforms
  • Using shortcuts when climbing the scaffold
  • Trying to carry tools or materials while climbing
  • Clutter or spills that present a tripping or slipping hazard
  • Running cables or cords on the platform walkways
  • Violation of ladder safety principles
  • Engaging in horseplay on the scaffolding
  • Jumping from elevated surfaces
  • Leaving floor openings uncovered and unbarricaded
  • Tipover hazards like overloading, improper tie-ins, or the operation of heavy equipment nearby

Struck-By Hazards

Multiple people working at height on a scaffold introduces another category of hazards: being struck by a falling object.

Struck-by hazards associated with scaffolding include:

  • Failing to secure tools and equipment to your body
  • Placing tools or materials on the platform that might be kicked or tipped off
  • Leaving tools or materials unattended on the scaffold
  • Intentionally dropping materials or clamps from height
  • Improperly secured ladders (or other loose components)
  • Failing to protect yourself with a hardhat
  • Failing to add barricades and warning signs around a scaffolded area

Overloaded Scaffolding

OSHA requires scaffolds to be capable of carrying their own weight plus four times the maximum intended load without settling or displacement.

Even with this extra padding, it's important to know the intended maximum capacity and avoid going over. Exceeding it can lead to weakening of the structure, cracking or breaking of the platforms, and potential collapse.

External Circumstances

The circumstances surrounding a scaffold can introduce its own hazards and risks.

For example:

  • Energized power lines can electrify the metal structure itself, but even if there's no contact with the scaffolding, it can place people or equipment at risk of contact. 
  • Vehicles or heavy equipment operating near the scaffold base can put the structure at risk of damage or toppling.
  • Inclement weather can make working at height, particularly on scaffolding, more dangerous. Wind, rain, snow, and ice can increase fall risk. Storms can also bring lightning and downed power lines, which brings electrification into play.

What is OSHA's Scaffolding Standard?

OSHA has a few different standards that regulate scaffolding safety, including those that apply to General Industry and Maritime. For Construction, the primary standard is found under §1926 Subpart L.

But when it comes to scaffolding hazards, OSHA has provided many resources for keeping everyone safe on their website.

How Can We Prevent Scaffolding Hazards?

In addition to complying with all relevant OSHA standards, you can find helpful tipsheets on scaffolding hazards and precautions from the Scaffold & Access Industry Association (SAIA).

Below, we'll break down scaffolding hazards' control measures. Please note this is a general starting point and not a comprehensive list.

Mitigate Scaffolding Hazards and Risks with Proper Design & Setup

OSHA has extensive requirements for the design, assembly, and inspection of construction scaffolding, because these steps can all introduce serious hazards during use.

There are all kinds of specs and requirements for scaffold design that OSHA sets that we won't get into because it varies by scaffolding type and gets quite complex. In some cases, the agency requires scaffolding to be designed by registered professional engineers, especially scaffolding that exceeds a specific height. Other types of scaffolding just need to be designed by a "qualified person."

When scaffolding work arises, a qualified person is required to pick the right type of scaffold for the job, determine the maximum load, choose and inspect adequate materials, assure a good foundation, and plan ahead to avoid electrical hazards – either by placing the scaffold at least 10 feet away from any energized power lines or by shutting down the lines for the duration of the work.

OSHA requires everyone involved in erecting and dismantling a scaffold to be trained by a competent person at the employer’s expense. All scaffolding must be assembled to the design specs. During assembly, the scaffold should be red-tagged at eye level so that all personnel know it's not to be used.

You should choose a scaffolding site with stability in mind. It's important to assemble scaffolding on a solid base and never use unstable objects to support scaffolds (like bricks, boxes, or barrels). Scaffolds must be secured or braced to prevent swaying or displacement. To ensure stability, extra tie-ins should be installed if you're exceeding the height ratio for that type of scaffolding.

Safety features of the original design should receive special attention. Steps, ladders, and landings should have non-slip treads. Any guardrails in the original design should be installed.

The scaffolding area should be blocked off with barricades and signage to warn pedestrians and keep heavy equipment away from the structure. Consider the use of canopies and safety netting to protect workers or passersby from falling objects.

When it's time to dismantle the scaffold, it should be done from top to bottom.

Scaffolding Hazards' Control Measures Before Use

Anyone who works on a scaffold needs to be trained in scaffolding hazards and risks in order to comply with OSHA regulations. Memory aids like a scaffolding safety checklist can be a huge help in ensuring compliance.

You should be paying attention to weather forecasts and changing conditions when a scaffold is in use. Scaffold work should be suspended when there is thunder, precipitation, or high wind. Opinions differ on what counts as "high wind," but OSHA considers 40mph (around 65kmph) as high wind for scaffolding work, with 30mph (around 50kmph) for materials handling on a scaffold because the wind can cause you to lose control of what you're carrying. At the very least, a risk assessment should be performed when wind speed reaches 30mph.

To enter the scaffolding area, all personnel should also use proper personal protective equipment (PPE). A hard hat is necessary, at the least, to protect from falling objects. However, anyone who will be mounting the scaffold also needs non-slip footwear and fall arrest equipment.

OSHA requires workers to perform a visual inspection of the scaffold daily, before and after each shift, as well as after any accident that could've caused damage. Workers should also inspect their personal fall protection before use. Damaged equipment should be replaced and discarded.

Best Practices While Working on Scaffolding

To prevent falls, everyone that scales the scaffolding should climb responsibly, facing the structure and using three points of contact at all times. Use the designated points of access only. Avoid shortcuts. Cross-braces, in particular, should never be used in place of a ladder – they're not designed to support weight on their own.

Tools and materials should be hoisted to height in a safe and appropriate manner. Personal tools should be secured to the body, never carried by hand as a worker climbs. Light materials should be hoisted by pulley and rope, while heavy materials should be lifted using a hoist or crane. Light materials can be shifted from one location to another in bags to avoid the risk of dropping them.

Once tools and materials are on the scaffold, they need to remain actively attended or secured and organized in designated areas. Everything should be stowed at ground level at the end of each day. Never leave freestanding ladders or boxes lying on platforms at height that can tip and fall.

Makeshift items should also not be used to increase your working height. If you use a ladder to increase working height by bracing it against another structure, you need to secure the scaffold to compensate for the sideways thrust the ladder creates.

Remain aware of your surroundings as you work on scaffolding. Be aware of what's happening above, below, and around you. To this end, adequate illumination needs to be available at all times.

Keep your hard hat on until you exit the barricaded area and throughout all work. Anyone more than 10 feet above a lower level must be protected from falls by a guardrail or fall arrest system at all times. There are some situations where OSHA requires both guardrails and a personal fall arrest system.

Any hazards that appear during scaffold use should be reported and dealt with promptly. If spills occur, barricade the area and clean them up immediately.

Where Can You Get Scaffold Safety Training Online?

OSHA requires employers to provide training through "a qualified person" to any employee who performs work while on a scaffold in order to help them recognize the hazards associated with the type of scaffold being used and the ways to control or minimize those hazards.

It can be helpful to cover the basics with an online course provided by an OSHA-authorized training provider like us. Our online, self-paced Construction Safety courses allow workers to tackle the material at their own pace and in their own language, then ensure they've absorbed the critical points with quizzes and testing. You'll also retain records of the training through us, making it easy to prove you've met your training obligations when the OSHA inspector drops by.

We have a Scaffold Safety in Construction course that provides an essential primer on everything your workers need to work safely on and near a scaffold. Enroll today!