Luigi is a bricklayer working on a high-rise luxury apartment building in Miami. He was working on the building’s south facade when screams from the mast climber working beside him suddenly snapped his attention. He turned just in time to see the climber tip and dangle two fellow workers several stories from the ground. Some fast thinking and finagling allowed Luigi and some other workers to rescue the two men, yet hours later an engineer on site still couldn’t find the reason for the accident. The next day, despite his thirty years in the business, Luigi thought twice about going up in his mast climber.
Is there such a thing as being overly trained? Ask Luigi.
While some bricklayers who’ve used many kinds of scaffolding proclaim mast climbers, a type of scaffold with built-in support, are not the most dangerous type of scaffolding in use today, fatalities have occurred because of the equipment. That’s why we at Masonry are giving an updated safety reminder.
Mast climbers can be free standing or tied to a structure at intervals for stability at increased heights. The base’s small footprint makes them useful on projects with limited space. They may be adjusted to various heights and easily customized to reduce material handling hazards. They may be supported on a stationary base or, on low projects, a mobile base. They handle heavier loads than regular scaffolding, and workers use them to lift themselves, their tools, equipment, and materials up the walls they’re building.
Also known as MCWPs, mast climbers’ flexibility provides multiple options for performing work efficiently, in safe and ergonomically correct work conditions. For instance, they have been known to reduce the potential for shoulder and lower back injuries and fatigue.
Since becoming commonplace in the 1990s, they have, without a doubt, improved productivity on countless construction sites. Their usefulness isn’t limited to masons. They’re also used by trade such as plastering, drywall, insulation, carpentry/framing, siding contractors, ironworking, glass and glazing, painters, demolition crews, and managers in building construction. Because masons are among the top three trades involved in mast climber fatalities, it’s imperative the trade be familiar with safety.
OSHA lists MCWPs under scaffolding. Of OSHA’s most commonly cited standards for fiscal year 2017, falls remain number one. The organization’s 13 fall-related regulations concern certain types of scaffold, training requirements, criteria and practices of fall protection systems, and fall protection training. That’s why employers must provide fall protection such as a guardrail system, safety net, or personal fall arrest system, all of which are likely to be found on MCWPs.
Properly trained employees such as engineers or others certified in MCWPs are the only ones who should erect, maintain, disassemble, and inspect protection systems that are used, including guardrails, personal fall arrest systems, safety net systems, warning line systems, safety monitoring systems, controlled access zones, and more.
“Given the basic mechanics of their design, mast climbers may be less forgiving than other types of scaffolds if not correctly installed or operated,” a Center for Construction Research and Training (also known as CPWR) report titled “Reaching Higher” states. Its study of a 20-year span in which 12 mast climber incidents led to 18 deaths revealed these as the most common causes:
- Fall hazards such as ”unguarded ends or removed guards; climbing from the platform to a building opening; inadequate platform material or plank bearing” resulted in four deaths.
- Loading issues, “overloaded platforms or use of inadequate bridging,” resulted in five fatalities.
- “Failure to use the correct mast climber components or faulty configuration” caused four deaths.
- “Instability of the mast climber during dismantling” led to four deaths.
- Equipment failure in which two systems failed simultaneously led to one fatality.
Safety is equally as important to construction managers and contractors, subcontractors and site supervisors, as it is to anyone else who steps foot on these mobile forms of scaffolding. Supervisors like these or a designated “competent person,” someone who’s been trained in MCWPs, can therefore ensure workers know how to and in fact do properly use them.
Some safety tips can’t be checked off a list. They’re about checking what’s going on between the ears. If workers don’t check bad habits or poor thinking results might include monetary fines of four or five figures, or court cases costing six-figure sums, or death.
Experts have found that older workers are less safety conscious than their younger cohorts. The latter are often given thorough equipment training in their construction schools. The former, however, may consider safety practices irrelevant because they have been doing this work since before many of today’s safety practices were put in place by local, state, and federal organizations, and by his own employer. They are therefore less likely to concern themselves with such measures.
Regardless of age or training level, human error and equipment failure may be the culprit of injuries and accidents. They’re often avoidable. Which of these do you think are avoidable?
- Because every mast climber model differs from others, workers should be trained in setting up and operating the particular mast climber they use.
- When setting up and taking down segments, they might collapse or fall on workers below.
- Don’t be absent-minded. A certain level of mindfulness, a periodic surfacing to the present moment for an environmental lookover, may prevent accidents.
- Overloading causes imbalanced loads.
- Climbing up the mast to gain access to the mast climber platform.
- Safety steps include tying the device off at specified intervals, loading the platform carefully to maintain balance, and establishing an appropriate anchor point.
- Proper access techniques for gaining access to the platform include using ladders or lowering the platform to their level.
“Several of the reported fatalities associated with mast scaffolds involved modifications performed on site,” a post on the Center for Construction Research and Training (also known as CPWR) website states. “Structural engineers should evaluate all modifications such as when the MCWP is erected on an elevated floor slab, if it’s supported on a cantilevered base, on a frame not supplied by the manufacturer, or when the equipment’s support conditions differ widely from the manufacturer’s recommendations.”
The CPWR further suggests evaluating the ground surface to determine its ability to support the weight of the scaffold, workers, and building materials. Installing scaffolds on uneven surfaces is also a no-no because of course that impacts its stability.
The Scaffold Industry Association has some additional commonsensical tips:
- Check the perimeter around the mast climber for hazardous overhead obstructions, protrusions from the building, high-voltage lines, sturdy base support, drop offs, and debris.
- Verify ground compaction or base conditions.
- Keep track of weather conditions and consider their potential effect on the MCWP.
Alliance, an OSHA cooperative program, has more safety tips:
- Inspect the equipment before each shift.
- Make sure to fully plank extensions with scaffold-grade plank or its equivalent and properly secure them.
- Look in the direction of travel when operating a MCWP.
“The employer shall determine if the walking/working surfaces on which its employees are to work have the strength and structural integrity to support employees safely. Employees shall be allowed to work on those surfaces only when the surfaces have the requisite strength and structural integrity,” the OSHA website explains. OSHA requires an MCWP to hold its own weight plus four times the weight expected to be placed upon it.
In his October 2012 Masonry Magazine article, Michael Solomon, CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Premier Scaffolding Equipment and TNT Equipment, made these safety suggestions:
- Involve your mast climber dealer/manufacturer or qualified trainer with your next project.
- Ensure the equipment is up to standards– before job site delivery. Simply assuming this has been done may mean the difference between life and death.
Some safety tips seem obvious but are nevertheless worth checking:
- All inspections and maintenance should be performed according to the equipment manufacturer’s instructions. All concerns, problems, and malfunctions must be reported to the competent person.
- Ties must not be removed when dismantling unless the base and remaining ties can support the MCWP without tipping.
- Guardrails and mast guards must be installed. All access points including access gates must be protected with guardrails.
- MCWPs cannot be operated under the influence of intoxicants.
- All required personal fall protection equipment should be during erection, dismantling, or extant fall hazards. Do not exceed 14” from the front unguarded edge to the face of structure; for plastering/lathing it’s 18”.