What is scaffolding?
Picture a construction site and you’ll likely conjure up an image of a half-finished building surrounded by a tall, steel structure. This structure is commonly referred to as scaffolding, and it is an essential component of construction, ensuring workers can operate safely and build efficiently.
Scaffolding is installed at the very beginning of a construction project or maintenance work. It is a temporary structure that offers support and elevation – allowing workers to carry materials and easily access the building site, offering a safe and secure setting while working at a considerable height.
The history of scaffolding
For as long as humans have been building structures, they have used scaffolding. The use of scaffolding dates back to prehistoric times – 17,000 years ago, Paleolithic caves were painted with the assistance of scaffolding, and the ancient Egyptians used wooden scaffolding to construct their impressive pyramids.
The use of scaffolding has evolved extensively since then – metal scaffold poles were popularised in the early 1900s, replacing the traditional wooden facets. The typical frame scaffold system that we see today was introduced during the post-WW2 building boom, allowing companies to build faster and safer.
Scaffolding is still improving to this day, with the introductions of safety netting and working regulations to improve safety, and new types of scaffolding such as cantilever and aerial lifts to improve efficiency.
When is scaffolding required?
Concluding whether scaffolding is necessary is usually carried out by a risk assessment – these are required by law where employees are working at height to ensure the job is carried out safely. For low-risk jobs, such as minor repairs to a house or painting at low levels, it may be considered safe to use a ladder. But for working at height during a sustained period or moving about at height, a safe working platform such as an appropriately designed scaffolding system is essential. Competent tradespeople will know when scaffolding is and isn’t required.
What are the different types of scaffolding?
Often referred to as bricklayer’s scaffolding, single scaffolding is set parallel to a wall and typically used for brickwork on homes.
Usually used for stonemasonry, where it is difficult to make holes to support scaffolding. Double scaffolding instead uses two rows of scaffolding, the first row between 20 – 30cm from the wall with the other 1m further away, and connected with cross beams and braces to ensure a sturdy structure. This is an example of independent scaffolding.
Designed for use in areas where the ground can’t support scaffolding, cantilever scaffolding uses needles, typically made of timber, that are extended out from holes in the wall of the building being constructed. Particularly useful for building work on a structure situated on a busy road that can’t be closed.
You may have seen window cleaners using suspended scaffolding. Instead of being raised from the ground, the platform is suspended from the roof and hangs over the building.
Extensively used within construction, steel scaffolding is constructed by steel tubes which are fixed together by steel couplers or fittings. Offering greater strength, durability, fire resistance and safety for workers, it is the most commonly used type of scaffolding.
Readymade scaffolding which is also made of steel, patented scaffolding features an adjustable working platform. Very easy to assessable and disassemble.
Usually used for indoor work at heights of up to five metres, trestle scaffolding is made up of tripods or ladders as the base with boards laid across the top. Best used for painting low walls and ceilings.
Aerial lifts fall into three main categories: scissor lifts, boom lifts and telehandlers. They are mobile, adjustable platforms which can be used to raise heavy loads and workers to difficult to reach positions at height, without the need of building a scaffolding frame.
What are the main parts of scaffolding?
Scaffolding can take many different forms, so there are lots of different parts involved, but the main components involved in common tube and coupling scaffolding are standards, ledgers and transoms.
A standard is the long pipe or tube running vertically which connects the mass of the scaffold directly to the ground. The base of each standard is connected to a base plate, which helps distribute the weight each standard bears. Standards typically come in a set height of 21ft, so taller structures would require multiple sets of standards connected on top of one another.
In between each standard is a ledger (also known as a runner) that runs horizontally along the length of the scaffold, which adds further support and weight distribution. Each bay is fixed with ledgers at the front and back of the scaffolding framework. The placement of ledgers defines the height at which the worker platforms are staged.
Transoms (or bearers) are placed on top of ledgers and at right angles to them, they run horizontally and define the bay width. Transoms provide support for standards by holding them in position, as well as support the placement of boards (or planks) which the workers can walk on.
There are a number of other parts involved in supporting a scaffolding framework, including: scaffold boards, ties, braces, fittings and more.
Ensuring the safety of workers when constructing and using scaffolding is the number one priority for scaffolders. There are a number of regulations and guidelines in place to maintain safety on site:
The HSE scaffold checklist
The HSE scaffold checklist provides information for workers and their customers on when scaffolding is needed, what type is required, the maximum heights and loads it can bear, when bespoke designs are required and much more. By meeting this checklist, workers can be assured they are going to conduct their work in a safe manner, and customers know what information they need to supply their builders.
You can read the checklist in full here.
The Health & Safety at Work Act
- Employers have towards employees and members of the public
- Employees have to themselves and each other
- Certain self-employed have towards themselves and others.
Work at Height Regulations 2005
The Work at Height Regulations are essential compliance material for all scaffolders. Their purpose is to prevent death and injury caused by a fall from height. They set out employer’s requirements to ensure the work is properly planned, using the correct equipment, supervised and carried out by competent people.
You can read HSE’s handy guide here.
Find out more about the role of a scaffolder
Interested in pursuing a career as a scaffolder? Check out the job description here.