What You Need to Know About Scaffolding, Injury Risks & Safety Regulations

If you’ve ever walked past or under a scaffold before, or you’ve watched a window washer working away while several stories up, you may have taken a second to wonder at how precarious it might be to work on those platforms, if it’s as unsafe as it looks. Even if you haven’t, the buildings you live, work in, and pass by have undoubtedly involved the work of various occupations that required the construction workers, painters, and whoever else to work on scaffolding. They’re a needed part of many jobs, and as such, there are many regulations that govern how scaffolds should be built and used. Regulations don’t automatically equal compliance, however, and scaffolding safety violations rank among the top OSHA citations just about every year, making work that involves scaffolds more dangerous than it needs to be.

In this scaffolding overview, we’ll discuss the various structures that count as scaffolding, who uses them, and the safety rules and risks involved.

Who Uses Scaffolds?

For most people, scaffolding would probably bring to mind an image of construction workers walking across various levels of planking that are next to a building, one that’s being built or repaired. While that is certainly the most common type of scaffolding you’ll come across, scaffolding is used across a range of industries, and many different workers face the injury and fall risks associated with these often wiry, temporary structures.

Some of the industries & occupations that use scaffolding include:

  • Construction workers (contractors, cement finishers, caulking mechanic, bricklayers, plasterers, and so many others)
  • Painters (both interior and exterior painting for homes, buildings, water storage tanks, and other commercial uses)
  • Building inspectors
  • Civil engineers
  • Arborists, scientists, and others who work with trees and plants
  • Photography, TV & other media personnel (from erecting banners and posters to getting high-angle shots, setting up lights and sound equipment, etc.)
  • Event planning/decorators (setting up displays and decorations, hanging up art in galleries, etc.)

Types of Scaffolding

There are many more types of scaffolding beyond the multi-level metal poles that support wooden planks at each story of a building, and they can vary as much as the different occupations that need them. Overall, there are two main types of scaffolding: supported and suspended scaffolds.

Support scaffolds have rigid supports in the form of wooden or metal frames and poles, such as with:

  • Frame scaffolding, or fabricated scaffolds, are the ones you may have first pictured, and these most common and cost-effective types of scaffolding usually have one to two tiers. However, they can built to reach several stories high if needed. These are the ones generally used by home contractors and painters.
  • Mast climber scaffolding is so named because it rests on one or two vertical structures that look rather like a ship mast that has been rooted in the ground, and along this “mast” you’ll have a power-operated platform that easily ascends and descends. It can be used for significant heights and heavier loads.
  • Mobile scaffolds move along the ground, but not necessarily up or down. They are platforms with guardrails, and they have wheels with locks.
  • Pole/wood scaffolds are made entirely of wood, from poles to braces, but these aren’t as common anymore as steel scaffolds are reusable, safer, and more durable.
  • Trestle scaffolds use tripods or stepladders to support the platform, so they can only go up one level.
  • Tube and coupler scaffolds use bracing, which are the “X” shapes you’ll often see as support below the platform along all sides. They can be complicated to construct, but they can be built in various directions as a project demands, can handle heavy loads when built correctly, and can do so for several stories at once.

Suspended scaffolding on the other hand, is a great option when there isn’t a solid foundation to use for building a scaffold from the ground up, or sometimes for when more flexibility and mobility are needed.

Suspended scaffolds hang from a building or other structure:

  • Catenary scaffolds are the ones you see hanging from two ropes or wires, and these are ropes or wires that also run horizontally underneath the platform.
  • Float scaffolds/ship scaffolds have two parallel sets of bearers underneath the platform that have to stick out at least 6 inches beyond the platform. Rope or wire is fastened to the ends of these bearers, suspending the scaffold from an overhead beam or some other support.
  • Interior hung scaffolds hang from four ropes or wires of a fixed length that hangs from a roof, ceiling, or other structure, like an overhead beam
  • Two-point or swing stage scaffolds are the types of scaffolding you see hanging off of skyscrapers, supported by ropes or wires hanging from stirrups, and you can move this scaffold vertically.
  • Multilevel scaffolds hang from ropes or wires, and they also have ladder on each side of the scaffold. At each level, the platform rests on the rungs of both ladders.
  • Multipoint adjustable scaffolds usually have four ropes, one per corner, and they can also move vertically. These are handy scaffolds for jobs involving tanks, silos, chimneys, and so forth.
  • Needle beam and cantilever scaffolds are attached perpendicularly to the structure being worked on while also being held up by ropes and wires.
  • Single-point adjustable scaffolds are small platforms suspended by a rope or wire that are used by only one person at a time. They’re also known as boatswain scaffolds because of their similarity to the suspended chairs used for inspecting the side of a ship. These are scaffolds you’ll see one person sitting or standing on. Typically, this is what window washers use for cleaning skyscraper exteriors.

What Are Some of the Most Common Scaffolding Accidents?

Falling from Heights

Fall risks are the top reason that construction workers die on the job, whether it’s falling from roofs, ladders, or of course, scaffolds. This includes roofers and contractors in residential construction as well, not just commercial projects. In some years, scaffolds have accounted for 14% of fatal fall accidents, which comes to about 119 deaths in the private construction industry (this from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The top OSHA violation each year for the past 13 years and counting was violating OSHA’s general requirements for fall protection.

This isn't just the top OSHA violation in construction; it's the top violation across U.S. workplaces. In spite of all the regulations OSHA carefully outlines for the various types of scaffolding and the required fall protection systems and equipment (such as body harnesses and lanyards) to provide with them, there are thousands of violations of these rules that are caught each year, which of course, doesn’t let us know how many have been able to fly under the radar.

Falls from heights can also be due to employers ordering workers to keep working on scaffolds, even in the middle of severe weather conditions (another OSHA violation). This is especially true for work done during stormy weather and/or high winds, when something as simple as lifting some plywood can make that plank catch the wind like a sail, picking you up and pushing you with enough force to fall off the edge.

Falling Objects / Struck-By Accidents

Struck-by accidents account for many non-fatal injuries in the construction industry, and many of these occur from objects falling from heights, such as tools, work materials, and other objects falling from scaffolding, whether hitting someone on ground level or on a lower level scaffold.

This includes even small objects falling from above. A one-pound tape measure can inflict severe injuries if dropped from 200 feet or higher, while a five-pound object from that same height can be deadly. For a 10-pound object, like a paint can, a drop from 100 feet higher can also be lethal. Whatever the cause, accidents from falling objects could be prevented if regulations were followed for securing tools and other objects, and in some cases, providing canopies overhead as well.

Faulty Scaffolding Design & Builds

Of the top ten violations OSHA cited in the workplace for 2023, scaffolding construction came in fourth place, with a resounding 2,859 citations given that year. OSHA has very clear guidelines on how different scaffolds should be built, and what components scaffolding should have for certain heights and projects. When these rules aren’t followed, scaffolds can collapse due to instability or overloading,

Electrical Accidents

Because of the great heights that some scaffolding can reach, overhead power lines are a real safety concern. Without proper planning and communication, or if it’s due to working in adverse weather conditions, construction workers can face electric shock or even electrocution because of contact with power lines and other power sources, especially if there are any loose wires.

What Are the Injury Risks of Working on Scaffolds?

Whatever type of scaffolding-related accident a painter, contractor, decorator, or other worker goes through, they could be dealing with long-term disability or even lifelong effects.

Some of the non-fatal injuries sustained in scaffolding accidents can include:

Of course, in some cases, these injuries can quickly prove fatal, all the more tragic because of how many scaffolding accidents are thoroughly preventable.

How Many Scaffolding Injuries Occur Each Year?

There aren’t hard numbers for this data, but according to data from OSHA, if proper protections were always used in the construction industry, then 4,500 scaffolding injuries and 50 scaffold-related deaths could be prevented each year. These numbers were given back when there were 2.3 million workers in the construction industry, of which about 1.5 million were working regularly with scaffolding. By some estimates, there are now about 8 to 9.3 million workers in the construction industry, everyone from painters, carpenters, and ironworkers to steelworkers, bricklayers, electricians and more. Using the same percentages, this could mean that there are around 5.5 million workers (in the construction industry alone) who regularly work on scaffolds. Because of consistent patterns of safety violations, this could mean that the above injury and fatality numbers have more than doubled as well.

Why Do Scaffolding Accidents Happen?

While OSHA has a host of regulations for fall protections, scaffolding structures, training practices, and more, thousands of violations are caught every year, which show worrisome patterns of no progress or even of worsening.

Safety policy violations that lead to many of these scaffolding accidents can include:

  • Lack of fall and falling object protection, like netting, body harnesses, and lanyards
  • Putting more than the accepted weight limit on the scaffold
  • Using damaged safety lanyards and suspension ropes instead of inspecting and replacing them
  • Defective scaffolding, whether through faulty manufacture, using substandard materials, or not installing bracing, toe boards, or guardrails as required
  • Poor maintenance, whether it’s not dealing with slippery surfaces, not replacing worn out sections, etc.
  • Failure to provide adequate communication about overhead power lines, or failure to prevent loose wires

Who’s Responsible for Scaffolding Accidents & Injuries?

From negligent manufacturers to reckless contractors and employers, many parties can fail to meet federal regulations for safe scaffold construction, maintenance, and processes. It’s a disturbing pattern of failures too. Of the top ten citations that OSHA gave out in 2023, we’ve already mentioned how a failure to provide fall protection was number one, with faulty scaffolding construction being number four. Coming in at number eight for the most common safety violation was a failure to provide fall protection training, which registered 2,112 citations. Whether it’s a company’s duty to provide workers with the knowhow and equipment to work on scaffolds safely, or ensuring that the scaffold itself is sound, companies nationwide are noticeably deficient in their duty to protect workers from scaffolding accidents.

Additionally, while the exact number of violations caught changes each year, these same failures have made the top 10 list every year, for at least the past five years. In fact, for every single one of the three major violations listed above, 2023 had the highest number of citations given out for each out of the past five years—the numbers have consistently moved in the wrong direction.

It’s also worth mentioning again that all of these statistics weren’t meant to be specific to the construction industry or scaffolding accidents. This was out of all OSHA citations across all workplaces in the U.S. That means these high-risk jobs are made even more vulnerable to scaffolding accidents because industrywide, safety records aren’t improving. While federal regulators make citations, these enforcement measures are apparently not leading to policy changes for companies, nor a reduction in scaffolding accidents.

Even though working on scaffolds can be a high-risk venture, the employees who use them are still owed a safe worksite. When scaffolding accidents do occur, it’s often the fault of companies failing to take safety regulations seriously enough, whether it's for cost-cutting purposes, caring more about meeting deadlines, or finding some other priority other than worker safety. The workers and families affected by scaffolding accidents have every right to hold those companies accountable.

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