Scaffold Safety

Targeting accident prevention:

Scaffolds are a common source of accidents in electrical construction; in South Carolina, a 34-year-old electrician fell 12 feet to his death from a mobile scaffold. The circumstances in the case illustrate the purpose for a number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) scaffolding requirements and demonstrate that employers must focus their safety efforts on specific hazards facing their employees.

The company had been contracted to install the electrical system for a new shopping mall complex under construction. The company, which was in business for 70 years, had been on-site for four months. At the job site in question, there were 17 workers, including electricians, helpers, supervisors and the job site superintendent. Each new hire received a handbook containing the safety rules of the company. Weekly safety meetings were conducted on-site by the job superintendent, who is responsible for safety.

At the time of the accident, the electrician (the victim) and a helper were installing conduit into the structure’s ceiling directly below the steel-beam framework. The ½-inch conduit would encase the conductors for the lighting system of the structure. The scaffold used to access the area was a mobile, three-tiered, aluminum-tubular frame. Each tier measured 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 6 feet high.

Work began at 7 a.m. and about an hour later, the two men needed to move the scaffold to access the next section to be worked on. The top tiers were removed, the bottom tier was moved across the concrete floor to the new work area. The scaffold’s outriggers were put in place and the casters were locked once the scaffold was in position. The second tier and the bottom section of the third tier were put in place. The victim then began to move the floorboards, measuring 2 inches by 8 inches by 8 feet, from the second to the third tier. The helper went to retrieve a remaining side section for the third tier.

When the helper returned, he found the victim lying facedown on the concrete floor. The electrician was bleeding from the mouth and nose. The emergency medical services (EMS) were called by the site superintendent. Five minutes after the accident occurred, the victim stopped breathing and had no detectable vital signs. Coworkers began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Fifteen minutes after being called, EMS arrived and transported the victim to the hospital. He was pronounced dead by the attending doctor. The cause of death was found to be head trauma.

Based on an analysis of the accident by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the employer should have:

  • Provided required personal protective equipment to employees and ensured it was used
  • Provided safety training to all new employees
  • Periodically observed the working habits of new employees to ensure they were accomplishing their assigned tasks in a safe manner.

In terms of the OSHA regulations on scaffolding, the recommendations can be translated as follows. Part 1926.451(g)(1) requires employees on a “scaffold more than 10 feet (3.1 m) above a lower level shall be protected from falling to that lower level.” OSHA realizes that this is not always feasible during erection and dismantling of a scaffold. However, it is the employers’ responsibility to determine if safe access and fall protection can be provided at each stage and, if so, comply with the requirement. It is also necessary to have a competent person, with the appropriate knowledge and experience present to make this determination.

There are several OSHA regulations dealing with safety training for working on and around scaffolds. The main point is that scaffolds should only be erected, moved and dismantled by trained and competent individuals [1926.451(f)(7) and 1926.454(b)]. Competent means that they not only have the skills, but also the authority to act on hazards that are present.

Also included in these regulations is the statement that if an employer believes an employee doesn’t have the skill or understanding to use, erect or dismantle a scaffold, the employer needs to retrain this employee so that the needed skill is achieved. This concept addresses the recommendation from NIOSH that employers should periodically observe working habits to ensure that the employees are performing their assigned tasks in a safe manner. Without these observations, one cannot determine their skills.

What the regulations seem to point out, which is vaguely addressed in NIOSH’s recommendations, is that employers must provide safety training for the issues at hand. This employer seemed to address safety. There were weekly meetings and a person on-site responsible for safety. The question is whether or not the specific training and requirements of the standard governing scaffolding were addressed. Employers need to become familiar with the requirements of each regulation governing the hazards faced by their employees.                 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 by e-mail at




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