Getting the Most from Your Scaffolding
By Brett Martin
Frame and mason's scaffolding have always been prominent fixtures in the industry. They're well known and well used by masonry crews, providing an essential component for most masonry projects.
"The better part of what we do is done on scaffolding," said Jerry Painter, president of Painter Masonry Inc., in Gainesville, Fla., and chairman of the Masonry Contractors Association of America (MCAA) Safety and Technical Committee. "Scaffolding is an integral part of masonry. You just can't do a job without it."
Due to its extensive use, ample opportunities exist for safety violations to occur, which explains why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) pays close attention to scaffolding. Yet by following established safety guidelines and using the right scaffolding for the job, mason contractors can utilize this asset even better than before - and save money.
Meeting Mason Contractors' Needs
Mason contractors' reliance on scaffolding has made them lucrative customers for scaffolding companies. As a result, companies are not only providing scaffolding, but they're also offering services.
"It seems as though there's a big trend toward having the product built for customers," said Mike Bredl, sales manager for Universal Manufacturing Company in Zelienople, Pa., which manufactures and sells steel scaffolding and custom fabricated access equipment. "Now, a lot of contractors are looking to have scaffolding put up and taken down for them."
Scaffolding rental companies have the expertise and equipment to quickly set up and dismantle scaffolding. Since scaffolding can take one day to several weeks to erect, the timesavings can be significant.
"The savings are in the efficiency. It's a time issue and it's a liability issue. Rather than the contractor taking the risk, they're saying, 'Hey, you take care of it,'" Bredl said. "What they need to be aware of is, if they are erecting and dismantling, they have to have the people who are properly trained."
Painter said the decision to buy set-up services comes down to a manpower issue. "Generally, it will save you time to get it set up, but it will cost you more," he said. "It really is a trade-off."
Micki Hentges, president and owner of Scaffold Service Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., is making a conscious effort to serve mason contractors, who are becoming a larger client base, by offering additional services. Besides scaffold set up and take down, Hentges has a 3-D CAD program that enables contractors to see where all of the scaffolding and planks will be placed on the job site.
"It's an amazing piece of equipment. It just shows it all. The response from contractors is great," she said, adding that each job is designed with CAD drawings so the contractor can visualize the scaffolding before authorizing the work.
Accommodating Products, Increasing Costs
While hand cranks and hundreds of feet of scaffolding are still commonplace on many masonry jobs, new developments are making life easier. Universal Manufacturing's Bredl said that, within the last five years, he's seen a major resurgence in large, electric and gas-powered scaffolding.
"A mason usually had to move up and down the wall," Bredl said. "The [powered] platforms raise on the wall, taking the men and supplies with them."
Two years ago, Scaffold Service started offering elevated platform scaffolding, and it's been a big hit, Hentges said. The platforms jack up every seven feet, eliminating the need for raising planks.
Having scaffolding options is important. As Painter points out, "No one scaffolding will meet every requirement for every job." Masons need different sizes, shapes, weights and access, depending on the project. Painter owns elevated scaffolding, but still rents mastclimbers.
Price is playing a greater role in buying new scaffolding, too. Bredl explains that material costs have forced price hikes. "Everyone has had to deal with two to three price increases in the last 18 months. It's tied directly to steel. Our raw material prices have increased dramatically," he said. "It's tough on the contractor who doesn't take these costs into consideration on a job."
Because masonry crews are known for being demanding on scaffolding, Bredl advises contractors to purchase scaffolding that can meet their needs.
"Most importantly, they have to make sure they're buying quality products," he said. "The main thing I would stress, due to foreign dumping of steel, is to make sure the scaffolding has been tested. Make sure they're comfortable with the product they're buying; that it's a strong, durable product."
Language Everyone Understands
When it comes to scaffold training and safety, instructors have a variety of teaching methods. The approach used by David G. Allie, president and owner of 4-Safety Training LLC in Marquette, Mich., is to focus on what's sure to get contractors' attention - money. He points out that safety impacts the bottom line.
"If you don't get hurt, you save the company money. If you do get hurt, it costs the company money," he said. "You have claims and insurance costs. Safety is about money, but a lot of safety people don't talk about it that way. I'm a realist."
Working safely can also save money by averting fines from OSHA. As any mason contractor can testify, scaffolding can be a magnet for violations if safety guidelines aren't followed.
Over the last three years, the top scaffolding violations have been issued for inadequate access or lack of access, inadequate or unavailable fall protection, and platforms that were not fully planked, said Russell "Bruce" Swanson, director of OSHA's Directorate of Construction.
Penalties are typically assessed up to $7,000 per violation, Swanson said. For willful violations - in which there is an intentional violation or plain indifference to OSHA requirements - fines can reach $70,000. In 2004, OSHA issued 32 willful violations for scaffolding, up from 20 in 2003.
In 2004, the average proposed penalty for a scaffold violation was $1,181, with the average final penalty of $347, Swanson said. Penalties can be reduced for fixing violations quickly, good faith and company history.
To avoid penalties, Painter advises having a competent person on the job site who will take charge of the scaffolding, not be afraid to clear people off the structure if necessary, and ensure it's safe. He also recommends conducting a daily visual inspection that includes making sure the base is secure, all connections are made, and the planks are lapped correctly.
The challenge is convincing workers to take responsibility for their own safety rather than expecting someone else to do it.
"The hardest part of the whole thing is to get all employees to buy into being safe and being observant," Painter said.
For contractors and employees committed to safety, OSHA is actively seeking to expand cooperative relationships through outreach programs, Swanson said. OSHA prefers to work with contractors, rather than against them.
"The adversarial relationship should be confined to our dealings with those contractors that are not interested in providing a safe and healthful workplace," he said.
The MCAA is working proactively with OSHA on scaffold safety and fall protection, and educating inspectors about the masonry industry, Painter said.
"[The] MCAA is working very hard on an open door policy with OSHA and working positively," he said. "If we can get [OSHA inspectors] to better understand our industry, it'll be better for everyone."
OSHA standards are only the industry minimum, 4-Safety Training's Allie said, which is why he avoids quoting OSHA while training classes. He prefers teaching a higher standard. "We encourage people to go the next step," he said. "Why have minimum standards unless you have minimum wage and want minimum production?"
Since scaffolding violations can be leveled against both a mason and the general contractor on a project, general contractors are becoming more rigid in their safety demands.
"We find a lot of general contractors and construction managers have very, very tough safety policies that go beyond OHSA standards. It's a liability issue," Painter said, adding that a mason contractor's safety record is important to general contractors, who ask about recent citations, workplace injuries and job-related deaths. "The people who have a good safety record are more likely to do good work and get done on time."
As a result, fear of litigation can drive safety policies, causing some to go so far that they're no longer safe. For example, requiring 100 percent tie-off for horizontal ties can result in tripping hazards.
"At some point you have to say, 'Whoa. This is creating a hazard greater than the one we're eliminating,'" Painter said.
Despite general contractor's requirements and OSHA regulations, Painter said his company strives for safety because it's good for business and they take pride in their work.
"If OSHA hits me for a couple of $1,500 fines, we take it personally," he said. "It's a slap in the face. An OSHA citation is not part of the cost of doing business. It means we failed. We didn't do the best that we could."
About the Author
Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.