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Thinking Better and Doing Better With Scaffold Safety

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Scaffolding is essential for most building projects, but according to SafeWork NSW, it’s also something too many sites just are not getting right.

As part of Safe Work Month, the results of a recent inspection blitz across both urban and regional worksites were revealed, showing that almost half of the sites used unsafe scaffolding.

More Improvement Needed

“While inspectors have seen some improvement in scaffold safety recently, the level of risk is still unacceptable with 44 per cent of scaffolds having missing parts, while on 36 per cent of sites it appeared unlicensed workers had altered or removed scaffolding components,” Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation Kevin Anderson said.

Since April this year, SafeWork NSW has been targeting unsafe scaffolds, visiting more than 700 construction sites and issuing 832 notices, including $109,000 in on-the-spot fines for falls risks, according to Anderson.

According to Chief Executive of Australian Scaffolds Scott Butlin, there are three aspects to achieving better safety and compliance with scaffolding—education, innovation and changing industry culture.

Where Highest Risks Are Found

Butlin tells Jobsite ANZ the problems SafeWork NSW identified are not new. It is more probable to encounter these issues at the lower budget end of the industry where time and money are tightest, he said.

Residential projects, such as two-storey dwellings, are more likely to have unsafe scaffolding than major commercial projects, he explained. Big projects often assume a more comprehensive approach to inspection and oversight of works involving scaffolding.

Major projects with the highest risks, where workers are “hanging off buildings or the underside of bridges”, often have an engineer involved in the scaffolding design and installation. This, in turn, makes them safer.

On smaller projects, on the other hand, scaffolding is generally viewed as an access system, Butlin said. It is there simply to enable workers to perform tasks like bricklaying and painting. However, first and foremost, scaffolding is a safety system, he said. That is the key thing to keep front of mind.

Lack of Skills Add to Safety Risk

Another issue Butlin identified is a possible lack of skills at the low-budget end of the market.

In Australia, scaffolding is not recognised as a formal trade. In order to gain certification as a scaffolder, one needs only 32 hours of direct training. Butlin believes this needs to change so that safety, skills and compliance could be improved.

By contrast, scaffolding is a trade in Germany and Switzerland. The training includes learning about structural engineering. This means scaffolders are better equipped for their role—one which, Butlin pointed out, is integral to the construction process.

Builders may need to consider scaffolding earlier in the detail design and program development stages. At the moment, it is treated by many as an add-on, rather than a key element, and so is often considered late in the process, Butlin said. 

Because [scaffolding] is temporary, it is perceived as temporary. The builders and tradies can’t see it on the architect’s drawings, and a lot of the time it is overlooked until the last moment, Butlin said.

“It is like a forgotten trade.”

How BIM Can Improve Safety

BIM is one of the tools that can be used to improve integration of scaffolding in the detail design, program planning and ongoing project oversight, Butlin claimed.

His company uses BIM for scaffolding designs. It has also started utilising virtual reality so workers can take a walk through the worksite and scaffolding design.

Smart Scaffold, a UK 3D software, is used to assess whether a scaffolding design drawing is compliant. It can be used in app-form on site to check the as-built scaffold matches the compliant drawing.

Where a build is utilising project management software, Butlin said, using an app to report daily progress could be a really positive innovation. This way project managers can see what has been completed and what aspects of scaffolding may require changes.

The need to change scaffolding as works progress is one of the key ways things can go wrong, Butlin explained.

Sometimes, the scaffolding may be in the way of a trade, such as a painter or tiler. They might end up removing a part of the scaffold and plan to replace it once they down tools.

There are a few issues with this; primarily that only licensed scaffolders are supposed to dismantle or erect scaffolding. Another is that the worker may not reinstall it properly.

Modular Scaffolding Approach

Butlin said his company is working with a partner firm to solve this issue by “engineering out” the possibility of having scaffolding dismantled by an unauthorised person through developing a new tamper-proof product. Another area of innovation is the use of off-site, modular approaches.

Butlin’s company recently had to provide scaffolding access stairs for the North West Metro in Sydney, he said.

“We built them in our yard on the horizontal at ground level.”

They were then loaded onto semi-trailers to be trucked to the site and craned into position.

The modular scaffolding approach is gaining traction in Europe. In addition to its advantage in terms of speed of erection, it also takes away the risks scaffolding tradies face working heights. European scaffolding manufacturers are also starting to produce scaffolding that uses higher grades of steel. The products are then lighter, which reduces the risks of injury from lifting and other installation tasks.

“Education, design and [changing] the culture can eliminate every problem,” Butlin said.

Join Procore on Nov. 12 or 14, for a panel discussion to understand how your company fares against others and network with industry leaders to discuss how they make health and safety a priority in their businesses. Click here to register.

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