4 min read

Reaching new heights: Scaffold safety

Scaffolds are an asset on many worksites as they are an excellent method for safely performing work at height. But when improperly installed or used, scaffolds pose a huge health and safety risk. We have seen this recently in news reports of tragic events related to scaffolds at worksites. Collapses and falls from scaffolds continue to cause death and serious injuries. Another issue relates to things falling from high-rise scaffolds. Recently, a section of pipe fell to the street in the Melbourne CBD.

Setting up a scaffold safely is complicated and requires experienced and skilled staff. Unless the scaffold is single story or of the ‘no-bolt’ variety – where it hinges or folds out like a platform ladder – the design and assembly of a scaffold must be conducted by a licenced tradesperson. There are different types of licences depending on the complexity and risk factors of the scaffold. Scaffolds are temporary structures and fall under the plant and equipment regulations and other laws throughout Australia.

Despite negative media reports and injury statistics, scaffolds are an excellent method for safely performing work at height. They are much preferable to working off a ladder or trestle. They are easy to work from, and allow for tools and equipment to be situated at the work location. From a safety perspective, when assembled and used correctly, scaffolds are firm and stable platforms to work from.

Stability and ground suitability

Ideally, a scaffold would be placed directly onto a perfectly level hard surface like bitumen, concrete or solid decking boards. However, this is not always possible. Terrain can be undulating, sloping or stepped. Sometimes scaffolds need to be assembled on soft ground or sand. The base of the scaffold needs to be set up on a surface that will not slip or give. Sole boards placed under the baseplates may be required to prevent the scaffold from sinking into soft ground. Outriggers may be extended to increase the stability of the base level. Be wary of nearby excavations, as these may dislodge the base of the scaffold. Also rain or water flowing around the base of the scaffold may undermine the soil so inspection must occur to make sure this does not compromise the stability of the scaffold.

The upright pipes (standards) need to be truly vertical and the connectors (ledgers and transoms) need to be perfectly horizontal. The base plates will need to be adjusted for steps and stairs. The braces, couplers and ties are used to lock the pipes together, to tie multiple scaffolds together or lock onto an existing building façade. Façade braces need to be attached to a building structure at every level of the scaffold. Cross braces are used diagonally to provide additional strength and rigidity. If possible, the scaffold should be anchored using chemically set expansion bolts to further prevent movement or protect from collision with vehicles. Hand rails, half rails and toe boards are required to prevent persons and equipment falling from height.

What skills and licences are required?

Throughout Australia, a licencing system is in place for scaffold construction workers. It is administered by the various state-based workplace safety regulators and delivered by accredited registered training organisations (RTOs).

An assessed and competent scaffolder is issued with a High Risk Work Licence (HRWL) card that is valid for 5 years. There are three classes of scaffolding licences – Basic (SB), Intermediate (SI) and Advanced (SA) – depending on the complexity and design of the scaffold. The scaffolder must also possess the Construction Industry Induction card (CI card). It is also recommended that in addition to an HRWL licence, verification of competency should be undertaken to authorise the scaffolder to perform the work, and to ensure that the skills are current and retained.

Documentation for scaffolds

A number of key documents need to be in place to ensure safe scaffold assembly. These should be available near the scaffold location. These documents can include:

  • Safe Work Method Statements (SWMSs). These risk-assessment documents ensure all hazards are identified, and risks are assessed and controlled. They are also a mandatory requirement under the various state regulations for high-risk construction work.
  • Design, scaffold plans, lay-down and site drawings. These can specify how and where the scaffold will be located, and allow clear space around the area for both lay down of the components and other equipment, including delivery vehicles. They also allow the assemblers a construction zone free of obstructions. The design drawings, plans and specifications should determine the assembly method and the type of duty (i.e. light 225kg, medium 450kg or heavy 675kg). These weights are per bay and include persons, tools, equipment and materials.
  • Hand over certificate. Once the scaffold has been assembled, the scaffolder should provide the principal contractor, site manager or other responsible person with a hand over certificate. Any alterations should be recorded on the hand over certificate, and be performed and authorised by a qualified person.
  • Inspection tags. There should be a tag or card attached at the base of the scaffold to identify the type of duty, date of assembly, inspection frequencies and be signed off by the assembler. Until the scaffold is complete, it should be tagged as ‘out of service’ and access restricted to only the scaffolders.

Other risks to consider

Some other things that may need to be taken into account are:

  • overhead structures or powerlines;
  • persons working around or under the scaffold – tools may be required to be tethered;
  • slippery or damaged scaffold planks or boards – housekeeping is critical on scaffolds;
  • wind or other inclement weather effects;
  • overloading by tools, materials or equipment – never exceed the specified duty type;
  • damage by being struck by plant – daily inspection of the scaffold should occur and any damage assessed;
  • stairs, ladders and access methods; and
  • assembly and disassembly. This is the time of highest risk. As a scaffold is being assembled and removed, the scaffolder must ensure that they are not putting themselves at risk. Work should always be performed from a planked deck below, and standing on the transoms or ledgers is not allowed.


When properly assembled and used, scaffolds are an asset to many construction, repair, maintenance and other working-at-heights activities. They provide an excellent stable floor surface and allow for work to be performed with good ergonomic considerations. Harnesses and lanyards generally are not required, as fall prevention is established with perimeter rails and toe boards. They need to be properly assembled by trained and skilled people. They must be kept in good condition and any damage reported.

The workers on scaffolds also have a responsibility to make sure they are not overloaded and that workers below are not put at risk of injury.

Unfortunately, there have been some tragic workplace deaths recently on construction sites. The investigations and any resulting prosecutions will identify where improvements may be required, and where those who are responsible have failed to install or maintain a safe scaffold.

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