Fatal Incident Summary Report: Scaffold Collapse Involving a Painter

FACE 8306


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Division of Safety Research (DSR), is currently conducting the Fatal Accident Circumstances and Epidemiology (FACE) Study. By scientifically collecting data from a sample of similar fatal accidents, this study will identify and rank factors which increase the risk of fatal injury for selected employees.

On May 25, 1983, a painter suffered fatal injuries when the suspended scaffolding from which he was working collapsed. The County Coroner requested NIOSH technical assistance to develop information on factors involved with the incident data.


After receiving notification, three Division of Safety Research personnel, a safety specialist, a safety engineer, and an epidemiologist, visited at the site to interview the employer and witnesses and to obtain comparison data from suitable co-workers. The research team, the police department, and the employer examined the impounded scaffold at an independent testing laboratory.

A debriefing session was held with the employer, other employees, and the contractor. During this introductory meeting, background informaton was obtained about the contractor and the employer, including an overview of their safety and health program. Interviews were conducted with witnesses and co-workers. Examining the scaffold assisted the reseachers in developing hypotheses about the sequence of events leading to the incident.


The two workers had placed the scaffold supporting wire rope on the 7th floor permanently installed eye hooks. They then reeved the wire rope to the scaffold stirrups which are located at each end of the scaffold staging. After reeving was complete, the workers raised the scaffolding to the 7th floor windows. This action was accomplished by turning the drive motor directional switch to the “up” position and holding the motor switch in the “on” position.

The victim had to apply caulking around the windows. After caulking half way across the floor, he had to change positions, including independent life lines with a co-worker, who survived the incident. After caulking the remaining windows, the workers switched positions again in order to begin their descent.

The co-worker stated that he turned away from the victim and faced his stirrup in preparation of desent. As he did this, he felt some movement in the scaffold. He turned and looked at the victim, who motioned by hand signal to turn the directional switch to the “down” position. The co-worker signaled “okay” and turned to face his stirrup. As he was in the process of preparing his stirrup for downward’movement plus getting his lanyard grab device ready to move down, he felt several sudden jerks and was suddenly dangling from his life line. After regaining his composure, the co-worker looked for the victim in the area of his life line. The co-worker then noticed the victim lying in the street across from the building.


There is some evidence which indicates the deceased was not familar with the operation of this type of scaffold. For this type of scaffold, the operator must operate the drill and a brake lever at the same time with one hand, while releasing his lanyard on the safety line with the other hand.

Additionally, the victim’s lanyard failed to prevent the fatal fall for one of two reasons. Either the lanyard was deteriorated to the extent that the impact load was in excess of the lanyard strength or the lanyard became entangled in the scaffold components.

It is suspected that the wire rope broke because the hoist’s secondary safety mechanism did not function quickly enough. The wire rope broke at a level 20+ feet below where the scaffold was originally positioned . When the mechanism finally activated, the force of the falling scaffold caused the emergency braking cam to squeeze the rope to such an extent that it actually cut 5 of the 6 strands. The remaining strand was not of sufficient strength to hold the falling scaffold and it also broke.

It is recommended that workers who use scaffolds should be trained in the proper use, maintenance, and limitations of scaffolding, life lines and lanyards. Also management should be aware of their responsibilities when their workers are using scaffolds. Safety requirements for scaffolding are outlined in the OSHAct regulations 1910.28, 1910.29 and 1926.451.

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Page last reviewed: November 18, 2015