Scaffolding is assembled when it's necessary to work from heights — and anytime workers are performing tasks at elevated heights on a job site, there's the potential for danger. This is why it's important for work sites to follow a variety of scaffolding safety procedures and requirements to ensure that construction workers don’t become a statistic. In this post, we'll cover what scaffolding is, when it's commonly used, why it has the potential to be so dangerous, and how to ensure you're staying safe on site.

Scaffolding Basics: What You Need to Know

Think of scaffolding as temporary structures that support construction work. Also commonly known as "staging," these structures are often set up on the exterior of buildings or properties to support construction work crews, the materials that they're using, and the tools that they're working with. There are various types of scaffolding used in construction, which include single and double scaffolding, cantilever scaffolding, suspended scaffolding and trestle scaffolding, among others. It's important to examine the project to properly choose what type of scaffolding should be erected on site. When assembled and used correctly, scaffolding essentially provides a safe way for workers to perform a task at heights.

What Industries Commonly Use Scaffolding?

Broadly, scaffolding is used in the construction industry. Depending on the type of work that is being performed, it may be assembled either outdoors or indoors, though it's more commonly set up for outdoor work. For example, brick and stone masons assemble scaffolding to work on the facades of properties. Painters may use scaffolding to work at heights, both inside and outside of properties. It's also commonly assembled for cleaning-related tasks, such as window washing.

Hazards Associated with Working on a Scaffold

Though scaffolding is designed to help construction workers safely perform tasks at heights, there are hazards associated with using these temporary structures. "Temporary" is the key word here, as these are not stationary structures, but structures that are built, disassembled, and moved around a site based on where work is occurring at a particular time. For this reason, scaffolding is dangerous and there's more risk associated with them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, scaffolding is responsible for about 60 deaths and 4,500 injuries per year. Furthermore, falls from scaffolds account for about a quarter of all fatalities in the construction industry each year. Falls are designated as one of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's "Fatal Four," and are the leading cause of death from job site accidents. Because construction workers are typically working at heights, falls from scaffolding have the potential to be very dangerous. There's the potential for harm not just to the workers that are accessing the scaffolding, but also to any workers below it because building materials and tools are also at risk of falling.

Scaffolding Tagging

Scaffolding tagging is one way to help keep anyone using scaffolding safe. Simply put, it's a system that helps identify a scaffold as either safe or unsafe following assembly. Tagging must be performed by a trained professional that's experienced in scaffolding assembly. Following an inspection, this individual will assign either a green, yellow, or red tag to the structure. Scaffold tags are not a legal requirement, but one of many important scaffolding safety precautions that workers on a job site should follow to ensure safe use of the structure. They should be placed at the entry point to the scaffolding so anyone accessing the structure is aware of potential hazards or lack thereof. The colors of the tag system are as follows:

  • Red: This means that the scaffolding is unsafe for use. These tags are often used during the assembly or disassembly of scaffolding to signify that it's incomplete and there's a major safety hazard associated with its use. Scaffolding may also be tagged red if there was an injury or incident on it until an investigation can take place.
  • Yellow: This means to proceed with caution. It signifies that the scaffold may be safe to use, but it was assembled in a manner outside of normal conditions to better meet a specific purpose, requirement, or work environment.
  • Green: This signifies that the scaffolding is safe to access for its intended use.

Ideally, scaffolding should be inspected before every workday and the tags adjusted as necessary. Construction professionals should follow a checklist before workers report for their shift each day to ensure its safety. This checklist should include inspecting the guardrails, connectors and fastenings, tie-ins, and the planking. It's also important to ensure that materials are not stockpiled on scaffolding and straining the structural integrity.

OSHA's Scaffolding Standard

The OSHA scaffolding standard (1926.451) offers scaffolding safety procedures that construction work sites should follow for worker safety. While anyone using scaffolding and site supervisors should take the time to review the entire standard prior to accessing scaffolding, the standard does call for fall protection at a 10-foot height from a lower level for anyone working from scaffolding. It also states that scaffolding should only be assembled, moved, and/or disassembled under the supervision of a qualified professional.

According to OSHA, violations of this standard are among its top 10 most cited, which highlights how many professionals can become nonchalant with scaffolding safety. With a greater adherence to this standard and the tagging system, it's likely that injuries and fatalities involving scaffolding will decrease.

Best Practices and Safety Tips When Working on Scaffolding

Aside from ensuring that construction workers are following the tagging system and the OSHA scaffolding standard, there are other key safety measures that should be discussed at safety huddles and toolbox talks prior to accessing scaffolding.

What to Do:

  • Follow the OSHA 1926.451 standard and the scaffolding tagging system.
  • Ensure workers are wearing the appropriate PPE. Hard hats, gloves, boots, and high-visibility vests should be worn when working on scaffolding. Workers should also be tied down with harnesses to prevent falls per the OSHA scaffolding standard and follow any site-specific safety guidelines.
  • Ensure workers have proper training before accessing scaffolding. They need to know weight capacity, what PPE to wear, how to read inspection tags, and how to properly access and work on the platform, among others.
  • Ensure workers know how to safely access building materials and tools and that they understand materials and tools should not be left on the scaffolding after a shift.
  • Ensure that the area under and around the scaffolding is free from vehicles, pedestrians, and other potential hazards. Rope or tape the area off if necessary.
  • Assemble netting underneath the scaffolding (if appropriate).
  • If using rolling scaffolding, ensure the wheels are properly locked and secured with wheel blocks to prevent it from moving during use.
  • Ensure that the scaffolding has been inspected prior to workers using it each day.

What Not to Do:

  • Don't access the scaffolding without proper training on weight limits, PPE, information on how to read the tagging system, and the OSHA standard.
  • Do not overload the scaffolding with materials or tools, even if it's under the weight limit.
  • Don't use unstable objects to support the scaffolding.
  • Don't stand on ties, guardrails, or connectors. Your feet should be firmly on the planks of the scaffolding.
  • Don't access scaffolding during inclement weather or when it's covered in ice or snow. This significantly increases the risk of slips, trips, or falling.
  • Do not climb scaffolding with tools or materials in hand. Any tools or materials should be hoisted up to where workers are. This helps prevent tools from falling as workers climb the scaffold.
  • Don't jump on scaffolding or rock the assembly.
  • Do not lean outside of the guardrails; this can throw off a worker’s balance and cause him or her to fall.
  • Don't drop, throw, or release anything off of scaffolding unless there is a designated spotter indicating that it's safe to do so.
  • Don't attempt to move a scaffold if someone is working from it.

As you can see, there's a lot to working safely from scaffolding — and it's important that your site follows all related safety precautions to avoid any sort of incident or citation. From the tagging system, to PPE, to knowing the OSHA standard, take the time to reinforce scaffolding safety so workers are safe and productivity doesn’t slow down.