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Scaffolding is a temporary structure that is typically made from metal poles and wooden planks and is used to support construction workers, inspectors, cleaners, and others who need to work at height. Scaffolding must be designed, erected, altered and dismantled by professional competent scaffolders to ensure that it is safe and secure for use.
Scaffolders work in a variety of environments and on all types of construction projects, including housing, factories, offices, roads, and all kinds of public buildings and structures, so they need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them. It is important that they know what safety issues to be aware of and how to observe and promote safety at work.
What is the role of a scaffolder?
Scaffolders play an important role in the construction and building trades sector. They erect and dismantle temporary metal scaffolding externally on all types of structures, or inside a building undergoing construction, renovation or demolition, so that other people can work at height and carry out their jobs safely. A scaffolder may work in a small team, or as part of a much larger crew, and their day-to-day responsibilities can vary based on the job that they are working on and the project’s surroundings.
Depending on where they work, the role may involve, but is not limited to:
- Loading and unloading scaffolding equipment on-site and back at base
- Transporting equipment and moving equipment and materials manually
- Creating different kinds of platforms, from simple scaffolding through to complex structures such as suspended scaffolding, cantilever drops and temporary roofs
- Preparing site area
- Working to plans and drawings
- Following manufacturer’s guidance
- Ensuring a stable base for scaffolding
- Erecting scaffolding poles
- Fixing scaffolding to buildings or structures
- Laying wooden planks for workers to walk on
- Fixing guard rails and safety netting
- Using harnesses and lanyards
- Using hand and power tools
- Inspecting scaffolding before use for defects and at least once every 7 days while it is up, and after alterations, damage or extreme weather conditions
- Dismantling scaffolding when a project is complete
- Working in close proximity to other building workers, members of the public and other buildings
- Working on-site in all types of weather conditions
Working as part of a team, scaffolders collaborate with, for example, other construction professionals such as contractors, painters and roofers, and with homeowners when working on residential projects. Whatever the environment they work in, a scaffolder will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their work, tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks scaffolders can encounter?
Working at height will always bring with it added risks and challenges, and perhaps the most widely recognised danger in scaffolding is falling from height; it is the biggest cause of serious injury and even death. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 are referred to the most when it comes to planning work at heights. They outline specific measures to follow, as well as suitable safety equipment to use, for example a safety harness, safety nets, or roof anchor systems. The type of safety equipment needed depends on what the job includes. Scaffolders must take action to prevent or protect against a fall from height, as they are no longer permitted to work at height and be exposed to the risk of a fall without using Personal Fall Protection Equipment as a minimum. We will look at PPE later in this guide. Scaffolding contractors in conjunction with clients should prepare a fall rescue plan as part of the risk assessment process for each job and all scaffolders must be trained in the fall rescue techniques.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of allowing tools to fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and check that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
Manual handling injuries have a major impact on all workplaces and sectors, costing the economy hundreds of millions every year. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects; the risks are endless for scaffolders who may experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Overexertion is something that is easily done in any environment and can be difficult to avoid. Overexertion is usually caused by someone trying to lift or move something heavier than their capabilities or doing so incorrectly. Manual handling tasks should be avoided wherever possible. Where it isn’t possible to avoid handling a load, suitable safety measures should be introduced such as having the use of trollies or lifting equipment to move heavy items, and all scaffolders should receive manual handling training to prevent and avoid injury.
Slinging and load handling is perhaps the most vital part of any lifting operation for scaffolders. They should not get involved in any slinging or elevator operations unless they have been adequately trained and authorised to do so. Failure to follow this advice could lead to death or injury.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be caused by a variety of tasks at work, such as forceful or repetitive activity, or by poor posture. The condition mostly affects parts of the upper body, such as the forearms, elbows, wrists, hands, shoulders and neck. RSI is usually associated with doing a particular activity repeatedly or for a long period of time. Continuous standing and bending while working is a common source of discomfort and fatigue for scaffolders. Frequent changes of body positions, including alternating between sitting and standing, help to avoid fatigue. Scaffolders should be aware that breaks are important elements of the work. Breaks should be used to relax when muscles are tired, to move around when muscles are stiff, and to walk when work restricts the scaffolder’s ability to change postures or positions.
Scaffolders are often exposed to extreme weather conditions, especially when they are working over long periods. For scaffolders working outside, weather conditions such as high winds, heavy rain or hot weather can all present health and safety risks. Scaffolders should assess the weather conditions before undertaking work and not undertake the task if conditions are unsuitable. In windy conditions roof sheets can act like a sail and can seriously affect the stability of the platform resulting in overturning. Also, beware of a wind funnelling effect between buildings.
Too much sunlight, even on cool days, is harmful to the skin. In the short term, even mild reddening of the skin from sun exposure is a sign of damage. Sunburn can blister the skin and make it peel and longer-term problems can arise. Exposure to too much sun speeds up the ageing of the skin, making it leathery, mottled and wrinkled. The most serious effect is an increased chance of developing skin cancer. Scaffolders should use a high factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 on any exposed skin and, if possible, wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck. They should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration is an issue for any construction project, and scaffolders should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and keep from working outside at midday, when it is hottest, if possible. On hot, sunny days, scaffolders should take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion and heat exhaustion.
Scaffolders could suffer sprains or fractures if they trip over, for example, waste including brick bands and pallet debris. Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints. Slips or trips at height could result in a serious fall.
Key aspects of slips and trips include:
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Changes in level
Make sure the work area is clean and as even a surface as possible. Waste including brick bands and pallet debris should be disposed of in a skip. Access steps to scaffolding and equipment should be kept clean and any damage reported.
Working near overhead power lines (OHPLs) can pose particular risks particularly if using mobile elevated working platforms (MEWPs). Scaffolders should treat every power line as live until further controlled information is received. Contact with overhead power lines cause fatal or severe electric shock, burn injuries and electrocution which can be fatal, and also falls which can produce secondary injuries such as head injuries or broken or fractured bones. Some falls may be fatal. This can also happen when a person or object is close enough to a power line for a flashover to occur.
Another potentially fatal risk, not only to scaffolders but also to other building tradespeople and members of the public, is the collapse of scaffolding. This happens when a scaffold is put together incorrectly or a mistake is made. This could include a loose bolt, an inadequately supported section of the construct or a miscalculation of how much weight the platform can hold. Even a perfectly built scaffold should be regularly checked over to ensure that no defects have come into play, as even the smallest inaccuracy can put people at a very serious risk of injury.
Equipment presents a significant risk, so a scaffolder needs to ensure that all tools and equipment that they use in the course of their job are fit for purpose. Ensuring tools are in proper working condition is key to ensuring safety on a job. Inspect all equipment before use and only use if in good working order. Store all equipment in a safe place to ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands and doesn’t become a hazard in the workplace.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements.
Generally, any equipment which is used by an employee at work is covered by PUWER, for example hammers, knives, ladders, drilling machines, power presses, circular saws, photocopiers, lifting equipment (including lifts), dumper trucks and motor vehicles. Similarly, workers providing their own equipment will be covered by PUWER and it will need to comply.
Dust exposure including brick dust or silica is a major hazard to all workers on construction sites. Silica is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. For example, sandstone contains more than 70% silica, whereas granite might contain 15-30%. Silica is also a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. Silica is the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos and the amounts needed to cause this damage are not large.
Heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases such as:
- Silicosis – this can cause severe breathing problems and increases the risk of lung infections. Silicosis usually follows exposure to RCS over many years, but extremely high exposures can cause acute silicosis more quickly.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – this is a group of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. It results in severe breathlessness, prolonged coughing and chronic disability. It can be very disabling and is a leading cause of death. Around 4,000 deaths are estimated annually due to COPD resulting from past workplace exposures in the past. Construction workers are a significant at-risk group within this.
HSE figures show that 800 people lose their lives to cancer every year because they inhale hazardous dust particles. A further 39,000 suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the same particles. Flying particles such as dust, shavings, chips or slivers on any construction project can also cause injuries to the eyes or skin through splinters or shards. Even a tiny splinter of wood can cause severe eye damage.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) adopt workplace exposure limits (WELs) that apply to the concentration of the hazardous substances in the air, averaged over a specified period of time, referred to as a time weighted average (TWA). WELs are published regularly by the HSE, specifying the current limit values.
Industrial noise pollution on construction sites caused by machinery and loud tools can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental and physical well-being. Prolonged exposure to noise can lead to:
- Stress and anxiety
- Productivity loss
- Communication issues
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Nervous disorders
- Neurological problems
Construction sites are places of constant movement of vehicles, machinery and equipment. As the building site develops, the risks associated with it increase accordingly. Scaffolders should be trained to keep vigilant and aware of their surroundings and to avoid hazards.
Sources of risk from moving objects for scaffolders include:
- Working close to moving objects
- Poor working light
- Heavy-duty vehicles
- Overhead lifting equipment
- Little space to manoeuvre
On some projects, scaffolders may be erecting scaffolding on or near public highways where there can be the risk of encountering traffic and the general public. If there is a risk to the public, scaffolding work must be scheduled for quiet times or a highway closure obtained from the local council.
Scaffolders transport scaffolding to project sites, meaning that they are travelling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places throughout their day. It has been estimated that up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve somebody who is at work at the time. Health and safety laws apply the same to on-the-road work activities as to all work activities, and the risks should be effectively managed within a health and safety management system. Risk assessments for any work-related driving activity should follow the same principles as risk assessments for any other work activity.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by scaffolders. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Scaffolders must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration, for example, the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a scaffolder’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to a scaffolder’s health and safety including, but not limited to:
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 state that the main responsibility is to make sure the project is suitably managed, ensuring the health and safety of anyone who might be affected by the work, including the general public.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over lifting equipment.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, scaffolders have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
- Hard hats or bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all construction sites where there is a risk of head injury. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – that is, the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection.
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances, such as silica or mortar dust. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Safety goggles/glasses – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying particles or dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – construction sites are loud and scaffolders can often be exposed to much of this noise. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Gloves – thick gloves can not only keep scaffolders’ hands warm but can also protect them from sharp tools and general damage from working with different materials daily. Their main purpose, however, is to provide additional grip when climbing up and down the scaffolding and transferring equipment and materials around the structure. Should a scaffolder slip or fall when working at height, the gloves also provide an extra layer of protection against damage to the hands.
- Footwear – footwear is another important aspect of scaffolding PPE to get right as there are lots of potential tripping hazards, slippery areas and sharp objects. Steel-toe boots that are non-slip are essential to protect scaffolders’ feet from any misplaced tools left on the scaffolding platforms or heavy falling objects that can cause a lot of damage.
- Protective clothing – the clothing worn by scaffolders should keep them warm and dry against the elements. Overalls are a good choice as they are less likely to snag on materials or the scaffolding itself, minimising the risk of getting caught and falling. Trousers with removable knee pads are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling. If scaffolders will be working in low lighting conditions, their protective clothing should be highly visible, especially if there are any construction vehicles in the vicinity, to significantly reduce the risk of accidents. High visibility clothing allows all scaffolders to be aware of each other’s positions at all times, meaning they can easily find them should an accident happen. Hi-vis clothing should be comfortable, non-restrictive and provide good visibility during the day, at night, and in poor weather conditions.
- Fall protection – for example, a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points and/or connectors. The risk of falling is high when working on scaffolding, especially if the building is several floors high. The most basic form of protection against falling is wearing a harness while moving around the scaffolding. This is essential when working on higher areas where there is no safe platform to stand on.
- Sunscreen – scaffolders should use sunscreen with SPF minimum 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, scaffolders still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
- Mobile phone – scaffolders require a method to maintain contact whilst on the road.
What training should scaffolders take?
The Construction Industry Scaffolders Record Scheme (CISRS) is the industry recognised scaffold training scheme and the preferred scaffolding qualification of all the major construction organisations, demonstrating that the card holder is trained and fully qualified to construct, use and dismantle scaffolding. When scaffolders are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all scaffolders appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for scaffolders might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Noise Awareness
- Ladder safety
- Assessing Risk
- Electrical Safety Awareness
Scaffolders should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for scaffolders
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course
Assessing Risk (Risk Assessment Course)£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Ladder safety£20 + VAT View course
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Noise Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
Electrical Safety Awareness£20 + VAT View course