Falls are a leading cause of occupational death, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has begun monitoring window cleaners to ensure they’re using proper scaffolding techniques.

In March of 1989, a 33 year-old caulking technician borrowed a window-washing company’s two-point suspension scaffold. This technician and a worker from the window-washing firm ascended the building on the scaffolding, and then began working at the sixth-floor level. Although both workers had safety belts and lifelines, they left them in their vehicles. After the work was completed, the men began their descent, when suddenly the caulking technician’s end of the scaffold dropped. The man fell 60 feet and died.

OSHA regulations were instituted in 1971 to protect workers from hazards associated with scaffold use. Even after the regulations, falls from scaffolds continued, and in 1992, the regulations were revised to include requirements for fall protection, guardrails and “use of a competent person” — defined as a person capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards, who has the authorization to take prompt measure to eliminate them. If your company uses ladders or any type of scaffolding, you are directly affected by many OSHA regulations, and also must have a written safety plan in place.

When ladders are necessary to complete a job, you are required by OSHA to provide a safe work environment. Ladder incidents are usually caused by improper use, not by a defective ladder. Choose a ladder that is best suited for the job, and use only certified ladders. For commercial work, use only Type I industrial or Type II commercial-duty ladders. Type III ladders are for household use only and do not have the weight-bearing capacity of the other ladders.

Contractors should inspect the ladder for damage before each use and follow the 4:1 rule when in use — the base of the ladder should be one foot away from the base of the wall for every foot it is high.

The feet of the ladder should be evenly supported and on a firm surface. If the ladder is used to climb onto a roof or platform, it should extend three feet higher than the platform or roof. Never place the ladder on blocks, crates or tables to make it higher — use a taller ladder instead.

There are three main types of scaffolding used in the cleaning industry: supported (site-built from tubular steel and non-mobile); rolling (tubular steel and sit-built as above but have wheels to allow them to be moved); and powered platforms (including boom trucks and suspended scaffolds on high-rise buildings).

Scaffolds are a very effective tool when used correctly, but can be deadly when misused. OSHA has very strict regulations on the assembly and use of scaffolds in general industry.

Only a competent person can erect scaffolds and they must be erected on level ground. The scaffold must support four times its maximum intended load.

The feet on non-mobile scaffolds must have appropriate base plates. The height of the scaffold cannot be more than four times its minimum base width.

Users should never climb on the scaffold railing, only access it by ladders or stairs. Keep the scaffold away from power lines.

When scaffolds are in use, a competent person must be on-site at all times. Fall protection, such as guardrails, safety nets and fall arrest, must be provided and used on all scaffolds more than six feet high.

Employees should wear hardhats and non-slip footwear and should not allow tools and debris to accumulate on the scaffold.

When using rolling scaffolds, the wheels must be locked before use and they must not be moved when workers are on the scaffold.

Use a rope and tag line to lift equipment to the scaffold – don’t allow employees to carry it up by hand. Do not allow work on exterior scaffolds during high winds or inclement weather, and do not allow employees to use makeshift devices to extend their reach.

Scissor Lifts
A subset of mobile scaffolding, scissor lifts are more complex that simple rolling scaffolds, so some additional safety guidelines should be followed.

Ensure lifts are maintained, and inspect and check the operation of lift controls before using it. Only operate lifts on level surfaces.

Users should only stand on the floor of the lift, and shouldn’t climb on the guardrails. If there are no guardrails, provide employees a personal fall-arrest system and ensure they use it.

Powered Platforms
OSHA, under the Power Platform standards, require very specific types of stabilization of these scaffolds and professional engineers design these installations into the building. Systems can be added to older buildings and there are companies that specialize in such design and installation.

These scaffolds do, however, have requirements in common with the other types of scaffolding. A written safety plan is required which describes procedures in the event of power or scaffold failure. Again, have a competent person on site when the scaffold is in use. Employees should be trained in the specific type of scaffolds they will be using, and employees must have personal fall protection and be trained in it use.

Richard M. Heeth, BS, LP, CCP, FP-C, DMTA, is a critical care and flight paramedic in Dallas, and has a safety consulting firm, Heeth & Associates, Inc. This article was co-authored by Dannette Young Heeth of Building Contractors, Inc., a national service company with headquarters in Dallas.