Worker Safety in High Places

Every year, OSHA releases its annual list of the most frequently cited safety violations. In the past three years, from 2009-2011, the violations most often reported include misuse of scaffolding, and fall protection and hazard communication violations.1 According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2008, there were 88 reported fatalities due to employees working with scaffolding and related equipment.2

Scaffolding is a temporary structure used to construct and repair buildings. Often made up of metal pipes and tubing, scaffolding provides workers easy access to parts of a building that would otherwise be restricted. Employees that work on scaffolds are many feet above the ground, so the potential for accidents is always there.


Scaffolding is a traditional means of maintaining buildings both inside and out. However, scaffolding can be expensive and hard to keep in good working condition. It can also be a challenge to ensure workers are using scaffolding safely or that they are properly trained to assemble scaffolding.

Hazards Related to Scaffold Use

Each year, there are more than 4,500 injuries and 60 deaths stemming from scaffold-related incidents. In a Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) study, 72% of workers injured in scaffold accidents attributed the accident either to the planking or support giving way, or to the employee slipping or being struck by a falling object.3

Common Causes of Scaffolding Injuries

  • Improper use of scaffold—using scaffold for other inappropriate tasks
  • Improper installation—if a scaffold is improperly installed, the scaffold may collapse
  • Jumping on scaffold—jumping or hopping on a scaffold may cause the scaffold to give and collapse
  • Â Defective components used to erect scaffold—if built with faulty or defective materials, a scaffold may collapse
  • Unskilled construction of scaffold—by someone who is untrained to erect scaffolds
  • No supervision
  • Wrong Components/Mixing Parts—If built with materials not specifically designed by manufacturer for scaffolding device may fail
  • Excess Weight—When manufacturer weight limits are not followed employees put themselves at risk.
  • Slippery Surfaces/Bad Weather—High wind, rain and slippery surfaces can lead to falls from scaffolding.4

Alternatives to Scaffolding

While in many cases, using scaffolding makes the most sense to accomplish a building or maintenance task, you may want to consider whether there are safer alternatives available to do the same job. Platform or personnel lifts can offer more substantial support for some tasks, and can be used both indoors and out. But using lifts is not without its own dangers, and proper training is also required.

During the Fall 2010 college football season, a student who was also an employee of the University of Notre Dame was killed while filming the school's football team practice from a scissor lift. A scissor lift is a portable, hydraulic-powered lift with a platform that can be raised into the air directly above the base. Reportedly, the worker, who had not been trained to properly operate the scissor lift, raised the lift over 39 feet into the air to film the practice. The wind gusts that day were more than 50 miles per hour. The high winds blew the lift over, killing the worker.5 Â This is just one of many similar incidents each year that occur when workers are either not using the right safety harness while on scaffolding or lifts, or if they haven't been properly trained to use the equipment. Accidents like this can be prevented by taking the right safety precautions.

Use Lifts Properly

Establish and follow safe work practices for using lifts.

  • Inspect controls and components before use
  • Select work locations with firm and level surfaces away from hazards that can cause the lift to be unstable, e.g., drop-offs or holes, slopes, bumps or ground obstructions, or debris
  • Select work locations that are clear of electrical power sources, e.g., power lines, transformers – by at least 10 feet and other overhead hazards, e.g., other utilities, branches, overhangs, etc
  • .
  • Operate lifts only during weather conditions that are safe for use, e.g., not in high winds, rain, snow, sleet, etc.
  • Move the lift to/from a work location safely, with the lift lowered, unless following safe practices allowed by the manufacturer
  • Set the breaks and stabilize the lift before raising it
  • Ensure that the lift is not overloaded
  • Work safely from the lift, e.g., do not remove guardrails or stand on them for extra height
  • Report problems and malfunctions
  • Train workers on, and make sure workers follow, established safe work practices and manufacturers' recommendations for operating lifts safely
  • Allow only trained workers to use lifts, and make sure those workers show they can use a lift properly
  • Make sure the lift has a guardrail system that protects workers from falling and
  • Test, inspect, and maintain lifts according to the manufacturer's recommendations6

Make Safety Training a Priority

Whether you need to use scaffolding or you decide instead to use lifts for your specific maintenance tasks, your next step is to develop a comprehensive safety program that includes safety training. Workers not only need to be thoroughly trained on proper use (in fact, OSHA §1926.454 requires it) but should also be able to demonstrate they know how to use the equipment before they use it. Many companies specialize in safety training for this purpose, and will come to your site to train your staff. Manufacturers of lifts and similar equipment typically offer training courses. Be sure to ask about this before you buy


While safety training may cost money and time, it's a necessary step that not only gives your workers the confidence they need to operate machinery safely and effectively, it can save money in the long run. By preventing fall injuries, you can help prevent OSHA violation fines and can even help you keep down worker's compensation costs and insurance premiums. By fostering a safe environment, you reinforce the message every day that your employees' personal safety is a top priority, which can potentially improve morale, and boost worker productivity.

1, 2.
3, 4
5, 6.
JLG International offers safety training courses for proper use of hydraulic lifts.