Authors : Jesmond Chetcuti & Marc V. Spiteri
What a Developer Needs To Know
It would be difficult for anybody to refute the current state of the construction industry in Malta at the moment. The case of Jaiteh Lamin and the most recent incident which resulted in the death of another construction worker, this time of Eastern European descent, are only the latest in a marred and chequered history that the local industry has had with a lackadaisical and amateurish approach towards safety, welfare and responsibility.
Dangers on site are utterly non-biased and indiscriminate. Tragedy and accidents can befall anybody, any time – site owner, site worker, illegal immigrant, or even an experienced and trained professional. This series will intend to raise awareness of all parties in the industry and also of the first-time buyer intent on doing some plastering or painting work themselves, the DIY enthusiast and anybody who considers themselves fit and able to undertake works. We will begin with the most evident lesion on the face of it all. An element right there, standing tall and visible for all to see. The rising towers which we sometimes see around our buildings.
Definition of scaffolding and its use
Scaffolding may be defined as, “a temporary structure intended to facilitate working at heights, used by workmen while building, repairing, or cleaning the building”.
By its very definition it is a temporary structure, therefore intended to be mountable and demountable, easily moved and also, lightweight. Technically, these are referred to as dynamic structures, which are quite complex in their own right, susceptible to minute vibrations, including the effects of heavy winds, and are designed with little margin for additional loading. They are generally intended for exterior use and for access to workers and need to be fit for purpose. While a simple paint job might not be too complicated, a paint job three storeys high brings about a fair share of intricacies. A scaffold structure has various purposes, but the main one is to create a safe system of work for working at height, intended to provide safety for either those using it, or for those passing beneath it.
Are the scaffold structures in Malta being built the right way?
Currently, the regulations pertaining to scaffolding seem to be a well-guarded secret within the local context. A quick Google search yields links to a number of reputable suppliers and a strew of articles documenting political promises to reform the health and safety regulations locally.
In depth delving is necessary to refer to the existing legislation that regulates the local Occupational Health and Safety Authority and to find reference being made to ‘works at height’ and ‘scaffold and ladders’ in subsidiary legislation to the OHSA Act (S.L.424.36). This legislation correctly points out that all scaffolding must be, amongst other things, properly designed, constructed and maintained to ensure that it does not collapse or move accidentally, and that work at height must be properly planned and carried out on the basis of the requirements of a separate subsidiary legislation, which in turn refers to the importance of preparing risk assessments, the obligations of employers and workers, and the requirement of training, with regards to occupational health and safety at the work place, in general.
Further digging eventually leads one to guidance notes with regards to scaffolding and temporary structures, however, all the existing legislation cannot be considered ‘design standards’ or ‘minimum specifications’ for the erection of scaffolding. The regretful situation is that one need only look around anywhere on the island at the state of some of the visible scaffolds that speaks for itself. While there are some enterprises who try and actually succeed to implement safe and well erected scaffolds, they are oftentimes overlooked with the excuse of budget limitation as well as a possible lack of developer knowledge.
Cases arise where an uninitiated developer, your everyday Joe undertaking to build his home or their first block of flats, reasons out that they have paid for a service, and that should include for all necessities, failing to have sufficient knowledge of the industry to know the relevance of costs or their own responsibility. The onus is put on a developer to ensure a competent person has certified the scaffolding, however, it is rarely the case that a private developer is aware of such persons or requirements, let alone having access to them.
In such situations, a simple plank of wood or a hastily erected frame, being the most readily available solution to the inexperienced, becomes more of ‘a death trap’ than a safe system of work. This is because such a “structure” gives a false sense of security for those making use of itand this applies also to any passers-by if the structure is built on a public footpath- when in reality, there is no security and safety actually being offered.
Other countries and Code of Practice
Within the European context, scaffold structures considered under the temporary works category are regulated by Standards and by Code of Practices, especially with regards to their safe erection, maintenance and use.
The workers that erect scaffolding must be trained and certified, they need to have the competence to work in such a dangerous and responsible environment and also to erect such structures safely.
Locally there are few properly trained and certified people competent in the safe erection of scaffolding, and it is very evident which companies employ such individuals. It is also very clear, when scaffolds are not erected under the direction of such individuals.
Locally, the training that is offered is a series of short courses that are less technical and more a case of “don’t this, and this must be done”.
They are also very basic and intended for all persons on a site, offering little towards raising one to becoming a certified competent person. From personal experience, the individuals boasting such status have received their training abroad.
In many cases of amateurish works, we see a notable absence of some of the most basic and necessary items in a scaffold. No toe boards (that protect anyone walking underneath from being hit by a falling object), handrails not at the right height (or even missing), missing boards (increasing the risk of falls), the structure not ‘tied’ properly to the supporting building, etc.
It is typical, to see ‘the metal skeleton’ of the structure in place, but missing a high percentage of boards and toe boards, not to mention the ‘structure’ not properly secured to the supporting building of elevation.
This means that this ‘death trap’ is facilitating the worker to reach higher levels BUT in an unsafe manner.
It is imperative to understand that the above are but a few of the issues we encounter on site and which arise time and time again in your average health and safety officer’s report. However, there are companies that try to achieve the standard for proper safety and well installed scaffolds. The problem is that they are shunned as a means of cost cutting and general lack of awareness.
However, all is not lost. For the past years many of the local historic buildings and fortifications have gone through a restoration programme to return them to their former glory. Working on such structures comes with new risks and their access is inherently associated with having scaffold in place as a necessity.
At least for most of these type of buildings and structures, the quality of the scaffold used has improved considerably. The likelihood here is that these works are being monitored more closely, by the client and their consultants whilst the nature of the works require a different calibre of contractor.
It is pleasing to see that in such facets of publicly funded projects, the industry is headed in the right direction. For scaffold structures of certain height and complexity, the submittal of a design should be mandatory. Erecting scaffold is not a task that is done without ‘a plan’. A reflection that there is ‘a plan’ , is the design. By this design the contractor can calculate the material he requires and the safety features required. Eventually these designs need to be reviewed and followed up by making sure that what is in the plan is effectively being built, or else it will be a futile document filing exercise.
The local scaffold contractors should be encouraged to invest in both human resources -training of personnel, and even the materials used.
Good quality boards, good quality metal pipes, tidy netting, access stairs, ladders etc. and more importantly to keep up to date with new practices and materials used in other countries.
However, it is not just the contractors. Developers need to be educated on the reality of the situation. Overheads are real costs and safety is a running cost that needs to be catered for at all avenues. It cannot be skirted and most of all, the responsibility that comes with it cannot be shirked.
What about the public?
A good portion of scaffold structures are required to be built on public footpaths or walkways This requires permitting and clearance to be issued by the relevant entity, usually the local council, and comes with certain criteria that need to be adhered to regarding the protection of users of the walkways, and the need to ensure safe, continuous, free and unobstructed access. Are the client and his contractor looking at this aspect when they are due to erect a scaffold? Are the conditions on the permit being followed and adhered to?
Some of the structures, just occupy the footpath, blocking it, and in simple terms, the builder is ‘inviting’ the public; being just a normal pedestrian, a woman with a pram and a little child, or even a wheelchair user, to ‘step down’ from the footpath and walk on the road- if they are lucky- as most of the time cars are parked, meaning they need to go onto the carriageway facing all the related dangers. Again, in public contracts, it is noticeable that this scenario is being catered for and the contractor is being instructed, to keep the public in mind when erecting the structure. Forming a tunnel – like access, allows for the pedestrians and other footpath users, to remain safely on the footpath. Even here, another safety aspect that is to be kept in mind is the design and building of the ‘tunnel’ itself.
Making sure that no debris (or even water) falls from the platforms above, is a priority. If the latter is not happening, the public will be avoiding ‘the tunnel’ and what looks a safe set up will result in the opposite.
Scaffold building is a specialist industry. Locally, it must be regulated better. This will not only help the “good and professional” contractors, but also encourage them to invest in better and safer practices.
Similar to many other safe systems of work, scaffolding is not a costly system that a builder or a client can do without when there are planned works at height. It is a necessity. The investment when compared to the greater cost of the project is nominal, and even so, there can be no excuse for putting a price on the safety of all those on or around a construction site. Yet, if a developer needs further convincing, it can be readily seen that the expense typically pays for itself by allowing for the works to be carried out quicker and minimises the chances of being halted due to shortcomings. Despite its growth, the local construction industry in general, particularly in the private sector, is still a far cry away from meeting the standards we see in the rest of Europe. Be it a matter of mentality, or an inertia to accept new methodologies, or a stigma towards accepting additional costs which might minutely impact the bottom line, the matter needs to be addressed, especially if we intend to continue building vertically.
A significant paradigm shift is needed, and it must stem from our basic education. Imposing fines and stop orders and other forms of enforcement can be counterproductive and simply result in new- fangled ways to dodge the system. Energies and investments would be much better focused upon creating an environment where developers and contractors actively and willingly want to provide for safe and accessible works sites, not just doing it to avoid a proverbial slap on the wrist.
We trust that recent changes in the echelons of our local authorities will result in new regulatory systems being introduced, and the drive to introducing the SKILLS card amongst other things will achieve the desired results in most major works, but education will always remain essential in moulding our approach and objectivity towards the general principles of health, safety, obligations and duties towards each other.