A Long Way Down

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that 2.3 million construction workers (65 percent of the total construction work force) frequently work on scaffolds. Electrical contractors are no exception. A large portion of their work is performed on scaffolds and aerial lifts.

The problem is that scaffolds, which include lifts, account for a significant number of injuries and fatalities. OSHA estimates that protecting workers from the possibility of accidents related to scaffolds could prevent 50 deaths and 4,500 injuries a year. This could be accomplished with simple scaffolding maintenance, inspection and common sense.

Remember, scaffolds can only be erected, moved, dismantled or altered by or under the direct supervision of a competent person. That is someone with the qualifications and authority for such activity. Before allowing employees to use a scaffold, the competent person must determine the maximum intended load that the scaffold can handle. In doing so, it is important to know how much the employees, tools and materials weigh. A scaffold must be capable of supporting four times the intended load, but no more.

Routine inspections are mandatory. These inspections should be done before the beginning of each shift and after any occurrence that may weaken the structural soundness of the scaffold. An inspection should include attention to any visible damages or defects that could weaken the overall structure.

Anything determined to be weakened or defective (e.g., improper or shifting planking) should be repaired or replaced. Structure support parts and guardrails need to be checked for soundness and safety.

The inspection should also include a check for slip hazards on the platform’s surface. Materials should not be stored on the scaffold unless absolutely necessary. Materials and tools that are stored on the platform should be arranged and stacked to prevent a possible trip hazard.

The majority of injuries and fatalities associated with scaffold use occur because of exposure to three main hazards: Falls, being struck by falling objects and electric shock.


Most falls from scaffolding are due to the lack of guardrails, improper planking or improper use of the scaffold. Fall protection must be provided on all scaffolds above 10 feet. For most scaffolds, either a guardrail or personal fall arrest system may be used.

On suspended scaffolds, both are required. A guardrail system includes a toprail, midrail and toeboard. The personal fall arrest system must limit the fall to 6 feet or less, and limit the arresting force of the fall. To prevent injury from improper planking, OSHA requires the use of scaffold-grade planks, the working surface to be fully covered and the planks to be secured in compliance with the minimum scaffold overhang.

Spacing between planks is restricted to 1 inch except for required spacing around uprights. The scaffold may be no more than 14 inches from the face of the working surface. Scaffolds planks that are not cleated must extend over the supports a minimum of 6 inches.

Struck by falling objects

Employees working or walking below must also be aware of hazards. Tools, materials, debris and pieces of the scaffold’s structure may fall. Those working on a scaffold may also be subject to falling objects if there are others working above them. Two protective measures must be taken. All employees must wear appropriate head protection. The secondary protective measures include barriers, screens, mesh, nets and toeboards, or anything that will catch materials before they leave the deck of the scaffold.

Electric shock

Electric shock is especially dangerous. The possibility of electric shock comes from overhead lines or the work being performed. It is especially important to work deenergized while on a scaffold. The added hazard of a fall after receiving a shock compounds the potential for injury. Be sure to observe proper work practices and OSHA clearance distances.

Many of the hazards described here can be easily avoided by ensuring employees are aware of the hazards and the appropriate action to take to avoid them. This should include thorough instruction on the fall protection systems and their use, proper scaffold use, handling of materials on the scaffold, load capacity and any other OSHA requirements specific to the type of scaffold being used.

Employees responsible for erection and dismantling of scaffolds must also receive training in these procedures by a competent person. If at any point an employee exhibits behavior that would indicate a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, employers are required to provide retraining. To act safely, employees must be aware of the requirements and know that compliance is a priority with their employer. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.


About the Author

Joe O'Connor

Freelance Writer
Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@inte...

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