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The dangers of tampering

ACCESS

The safety of major construction sites is under threat because untrained workers are allowed to tamper with the scaffolding.Should the main contractor threaten instant dismissal, asks Emma Crates

YOU WILL see them taking the ties out of windows, removing the guardrails in order to take deliveries, or taking away scaffolding boards.

The safety of sites up and down the country is under threat because untrained workers are being allowed to tamper with the scaffolding.

This is by no means a new crime on site.Any scaffold contractor will tell you that the practice is as old as the concept of tube and fittings itself. But what may surprise many non-scaffolders is the extent of the problem. It is not confined to small construction sites.The National Access and Scaffolding Confederation has evidence that some of the UK's largest and most prestigious projects are affected.

'Every scaffolding contractor experiences it, ' says one scaffolding boss.

'We're at the mercy of main contractors.We haven't had an incident yet, but it's a constant battle.'

The NASC launched an investigation with its members after a serious accident occurred on a site run by a member of the Major Contractors Group.A scaffolder was working on the third lift of a four-lift scaffolding tower, installing an up-and-over gate to enable the loading of mortar and bricks for that level.The lift was fully boarded and double guardrailed. But the guardrail he was leaning against swung free and he fell 6 m, breaking his ankle, knee, arm and pelvis.

Inquiries found that the bricklayers on the project had removed the guardrails to allow a forklift to have access to the level.They had been unable to replace it correctly because it was too tight.

'It is a significant problem, ' says Brian Houston, managing director of Turner Access and former NASC president.'In that instance it was the guardrail.More commonly it's the removal or incorrect replacement of ties.'

He cites other frequent incidences of boards being removed and not replaced correctly, unsafe gaps left between scaffolding boards and interference with the foundations, such as when a trench is dug near or below the scaffolding. Both system scaffold and tube and fitting are vulnerable.

'In many ways the prefabricated system is easier to interfere with than tube and fittings. It doesn't require a spanner to make alterations - just a hammer to loosen the connection, ' adds Mr Houston.

The root of the problem, he believes, is that on most sites scaffolders are not present once the scaffolding has been handed over.While there is a requirement that the scaffold is inspected every seven days, alterations could be made in between.

There are courses that train non-scaffolders to make minor alterations to scaffolding on site, such as in the removal and correct replacement of scaffolding boards.

'It's fine if they have the training, ' says Mr Houston, 'but they must be made to realise the implications of the changes they make. I'd like to see the duty-holders take more responsibility.'

The confederation is concerned that by allowing other trades to make unauthorised alterations, the MCG is seriously undermining its own safety strategy.

'We've supported the MCG all the way on safety.Our target is to get CSCS and CIRSC scaffolding cards for all of our members, ' says Mr Houston.

'We are disappointed, though, that some major contractors are only paying lip service to the safety initiative and not asking for proof of competence.'

An MCG spokesperson says the organisation would welcome any proposals scaffolders had to improve site safety.'We see this as an important safety issue.The NASC is pushing on an open door, ' he adds.

One scaffolding insider urges large contractors to become more dictatorial.'We've worked on sites where the main contractor threatens instant sackings to unqualified site workers who tamper with scaffolding.

The approach works, ' he says.