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OSHA Scaffold Regulations

Scaffold Regulations and OSHA

If you've worked in or around construction or general labor anytime in the past 50 or so years, there's a good chance you've heard the word OSHA thrown around, like some sort of omnipresent guard dog to be both feared for its regulations and revered for its protections. Since Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the ever-evolving Occupational Safety and Health Administration has served as the branch of the U. S. Department of Labor that provides training, outreach and education. Most famously, OSHA creates and enforces workplace safety standards. From hazardous waste guidelines to scaffolding standards, it pays to know OSHA guidelines before stepping onto the job site; it may just save your skin, literally and legally.

General Capacity and Construction Requirements

Among the most vital OSHA scaffolding regulations are those that relate to capacity. Per federal regulation 29 CFR 1926.451, each scaffold and scaffold component must support its own weight and a minimum of four times its maximum intended load. The regulations also state that scaffolds must not be loaded in excess of their maximum intended load, so don't get too excited. Any load-carrying timber members must be composed of 1,500-pound-force per square inch, construction-grade lumber.

Hearty lumber is just the beginning of OSHA's scaffolding construction and general industry guidelines, though. Other rules break down like this:

  • Scaffold planking requirements indicate that the space between platforms and uprights not exceed 1 inch of width, or 9.5 inches when side brackets or other nonuniform structures result in wider openings.
  • Each scaffold platform and walkway must be at least 18 inches wide and feature guardrails or/and personal fall arrest systems for each employee more than 10 feet above a lower level.
  • Guardrails are required on all open sides and ends.
  • Solid sawn wood, fabricated planks and fabricated platforms are acceptable planking, provided they adhere to the load-bearing recommendations of the manufacturer, a lumber grading association or an inspection agency.
  • Top rails and mid-rails must not be made from plastic or steel banding.
  • A platform's maximum deflection –  meaning movement from its original position due to an applied force or load – shall be no more than 1/60 of its span. 
  • Platforms must not be cluttered with debris. 

Supported Scaffold Regulations

Any type of scaffold supported by legs, beams, brackets, poles, frames or the like qualifies as a supported scaffold, according to OSHA. And these types of scaffolds come with their own unique set of rules and regulations.

Supported scaffolds must be restrained from tipping by way of tying, bracing or an equivalent means if it has a height-to-base-width ratio of more than 4:1. The supports that give supported scaffolds their name need to feature base plates, mud sills or an equally effective footing or foundation measure. A forklift may only serve as the support when the entirety of the platform – not just most of it – is attached to the fork itself, and the forklift does not move horizontally while workers are on the platform.

Employers must provide proper training, which must encompass subjects such as fall hazards, falling object hazards, electrical hazards and handing of materials before putting people to work on supported scaffolds. Particularly brave –and trained – employees may use stilts on a large, supported scaffold, provided the guardrail height is adjusted to compensate.

Suspended Scaffold Regulations

You might've guessed by now that suspended scaffolds are those that are suspended by ropes or other flexible means from an overhead structure. And just like supported scaffolds, suspended scaffolds have lots of OSHA regulations hanging off of them. In fact, suspended scaffolds are protected by many more OSHA safety mandates than their supported cousins, including:

  • Employers must provide hazard training specific to the type of scaffold.
  • Any support device must rest on a surface able to support at least four times the load exerted on it by the scaffold when operating at the rated load of the hoist, or at least 1.5 times the load imposed on it by the scaffold at the stall capacity of the hoist, whichever is greater.

  • All direct connections must be reviewed by a competent professional before use. Ropes must also be inspected for defects before and after each work shift. 

  • Guardrails or personal fall-arrest systems are required at heights of more than 10 feet.
  • This type of scaffold requires ramps, ladders, walkways or similar means of access when suspended more than 24 inches.
  • Unlike supported scaffolds, no methods may be used to increase working height on a suspension scaffold – that means ladders are a no-go. 
  • Safe welding on a suspension scaffold requires a grounding connector at least the size of the welding lead and insulated material covering the suspension ropes and hoist.

Additionally, only items specifically designed to be used as such may be used as counterweights, and they must be secured by mechanical means to outrigger beams. These weights must be capable of resisting a minimum of four times the tipping moment exerted by the scaffold at its highest rated load of the hoist or 1.5 times the tipping moment imposed by the scaffold operating at the stall load of the hoist – say it with us, now – whichever is greater. Easily dislocated materials like sand, masonry units, rolls of roofing felt or water, can't be used as counterweights.

Outrigger beams must be placed perpendicular to their bearing support, while tiebacks must be installed perpendicular to the face of the building and secured to what OSHA simply calls "structurally sound anchorage." This does not include pipes, vents or electrical conduits, for the record.

When it comes to suspension ropes, OSHA calls for ropes long enough to allow lowering the scaffold to the level below it without the rope passing through the hoist. The regulatory agency's standards prohibit the use of repaired wire or any ropes that exhibit kinks or heat damage. Similarly, suspension ropes require shielding from any heat-producing processes.

Fall and Falling Object Protection

No matter what type of scaffolding you're dealing with, OSHA exercises numerous key guidelines to help protect workers from falling off the scaffold and also to keep objects securely placed on the scaffold. As of September 2, 1997, OSHA requires that employers have a competent professional determine whether fall protection is necessary and feasible. You'll see the term competent person pop up in a lot of OSHA literature. Basically, this means a person not only trained in identifying hazardous, unsanitary or unsafe working conditions, but one who has the authority to take corrective measures against those conditions.

On scaffolds higher than 10 feet, fall protection systems are a necessity. In addition to guardrails, acceptable personal fall-arrest systems include key components such as harnesses, D-rings, snap hooks and anchorage points. Per 1998 updates to OSHA codes, body belts are no longer acceptable as personal fall-arrest gear.

OSHA requires specific types of fall-arrest systems for specific types of scaffolds. Those requirements break down like this:

Personal fall-arrest system:

  • Boatswains' chair.
  • Catenary scaffold.
  • Float scaffold.
  • Ladder jack scaffold.
  • Needle beam scaffold.

Personal fall-arrest system and guardrail system:

  • Self-contained scaffold.
  • Single-point suspension scaffold.
  • Two-point suspension scaffold.

Personal fall-arrest system or guardrail system:

  • Crawling board, or chicken ladder.
  • Supported scaffold.
  • All other scaffolding not specified.

To protect those near the scaffold from falling objects, OSHA demands the installation of toeboards, screens, debris nets, catch platforms, canopies or other barricades. For added protection, employees on and around the scaffold must wear hard hats.

OSHA Scaffolding Regulations: Digging Deeper

If you want to dig deeper down the rabbit hole of construction site scaffold fall protection, height requirements and all manner of related minutia, OSHA's Safety Standards for Scaffolds Used in the Construction Industry is your informational goldmine. You can find it in Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 1926, Subpart L.

These rules were revised as of August 30, 1996 and became standard in November of that year, setting new standards for falls, falling objects, electrocution, overloading and structural instability. Compared to older revisions of the code, the new Subpart L. also dives into more detail on weather conditions, ladders, stilts and aerial lifts, while allowing employers more flexibility in their choice of approved protective systems.

According to OSHA, all types of scaffolding must remain a safe distance from energized power lines. This applies to the scaffolds during construction, usage and dismantling, and varies based on the voltage of the power lines.

Voltage – minimum distance for insulated lines:

  • Less than 300 volts: 3 feet.
  • 300 volts up to 50 kilovolts: 10 feet.
  • More than 50 kV: 10 feet plus 0.4 inches for each 1 kV over 50 kV or twice the length of the line insulator (but never less than 10 feet).

Voltage – minimum distance for uninsulated lines:

  • Less than 50 kV: 10 feet.
  • More than 50 kV: 10 feet plus 0.4 inches for each 1 kV over 50 kV or twice the length of the line insulator (but never less than 10 feet).

Exceptions to Scaffolding Standards

OSHA isn't all rules, all the time (just most of the time). As is the case with most rules, there are some exceptions to the scaffolding standards. Guardrails, for instance, are not required on the front end of platforms less than 14 inches from the face of the work in question, nor are they needed with outrigger scaffolds that are 3 inches or less from the front edge. Same goes for situations in which employees are engaged in plastering or lathing 18 inches or less from the front edge.

While OSHA imposes minimum distance requirements and other safety standards for exposed power lines, extension cords and power tool cords are not considered exposed power lines.

Am I Covered by OSHA?

Now that you know OSHA's scaffolding regs, it's only natural to wonder if they even apply to you. If you're working in the United States, the answer is probably a resounding "yes," as the Occupational Safety and Health Act covers the majority of private sector employees and workers in all 50 U.S. states and territories under federal jurisdiction. You're also under OSHA's authority if you're working in any of these locales:

  • American Samoa
  • District of Columbia
  • Guam
  • Johnston Island
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Outer Continental Shelf Lands (as defined in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act)
  • Puerto Rico
  • Virgin Islands
  • Wake Island

OSHA Fines and Repercussions

So, what if your job site scaffold isn't up to OSHA snuff and you get busted? After August 1, 2016, OSHA's monetary penalties were "modernized" to keep up with inflation – which is a nice way of saying that they got a lot higher, and in some cases, more than double the fines as they were in 1990.

Under these updated rules, OSHA's maximum penalty for serious violations is $12,471. Willful or repeated violations can cost offenders up to $124,709. In addition to monetary civil penalties, employers who willfully violate OSHA standards may be subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.

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