A Laborer Dies Following a Forty-six-foot Fall from a Scaffold



On June 27, 1997, at approximately 1:00 p.m., a 39-year-old male laborer (the victim) was helping a siding mechanic/painter (the witness) scrape and point the front of a four-story townhouse in a large metropolitan area. They were working from a WACO scaffold seven frames high (approximately 46-feet high) and three frames wide. The witness and the victim climbed to the top scaffolding boards and began to scrape the walls and windows. As the victim stood up, he apparently lost his balance and fell backward off the scaffold, striking the boards at subsequently lower levels and the brick sidewalk. The witness climbed down from the scaffold to render aid. A passerby, who saw the victim fall, use her cell phone to call 911. Emergency medical services responded within five minutes and transported the victim to the nearest shock trauma center, where he was pronounced dead.

The Maryland FACE Field Investigator concluded that, to prevent similar occurrences, employers should:

  • Perform a thorough hazard assessment of the scaffolding to ensure that all components, such as adequate planking, cross bracing, toe boards and guard rails are in place prior to the start of work.
  • Train workers in fall hazard recognition when erecting and working from a scaffold.
  • Maintain a strict vigilance for substance abuse and working while impaired or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.


On June 27, 1997, at approximately 1:00 p.m. a 39-year-old laborer (the victim) sustained fatal multiple injuries when he fell from a scaffold. The victim had worked for the employer for approximately seven months. This was his second day at the job site. A MOSH Preliminary Report on June 30, 1997, notified the MD/FACE Field Investigator of the accident.

Information regarding the incident was gathered from an on site visit on July 1, 1997 and an interview with the company owner on July 22, 1997. Supplementary information was gathered from a police report, the Medical Examiner’s Post mortem Examination and the MOSH inspector’s report.

The employer is a small contractor who provides masonry and painting services to the exterior of commercial and residential buildings. The company has been in business for 24-years, has five regular employees and hires additional personnel, on a temporary basis, as may be required. The victim and the witness were the only employees on the site; the foreman had left the site to pick up additional materials. The victim was a casual acquaintance of the owner, who he hired because he needed a job. There were no written company safety rules that addressed the hazards associated with the tasks being performed, nor was there any resemblance to an organized safety and health program.


On June 26, 1997, a crew of three, a foreman, a siding mechanic/painter (the witness) and the victim were sent to a four story residential townhouse to erect a scaffold in preparation for refinishing the front of the building. They were unable to erect the scaffold due to steps leading into the house and preventing them from setting the north end of the scaffold.

The next day, June 27, 1997, at approximately 8:45 a.m., the owner and the workers met at the work site. The owner proceeded to alter one section of the WACO scaffold metal frame by cutting 13 inches and 40 inches off its legs with a hacksaw, so that it could be placed on the steps. Cross braces were not installed from the first frame to the altered frame (second frame from the north end) due to the stair railing, which prevented its installation. In addition, a cross brace was not used from the second frame to the third frame, on the side closest to the house, due to the alteration. The owner left the site and the three men completed erecting the scaffold. The 60-inch wide WACO fabricated frame scaffold was assembled seven frames high and three frames wide. It consisted of 28 scaffold end frames, 33 cross braces and 17 – 2-inch x 10-inch planks. The scaffold was tied to the front of the building by wire from the frame to nails driven into wooden window frames.

Placed randomly throughout the scaffolding were 2-inch x 10-inch wood planks, 8′- 0″ to 15′ – 0″ in length. Some of the planks were found to have cracks running lengthwise through the planks. Located approximately seven feet above the sidewalk, the first platform consisted of two 2″x 10″x 8’0″ planks, side by side between the second and third frames and one 2″x 10″x 8’0″plank between the third and forth frames. The second level had one 2″x 10″x 15’0″ plank crossing the first three frames. At the third level the working platform consisted of three 2″x 10″x 15’0″ planks between the first three frames, north to south and two 2″x 10″x 15’0″planks between the last three frames. The forth level had two 2″x 10″x 8’0″ planks, side by side between the first two frames. At level five, there were two 2″x 10″x 15’0″ planks, side by side, between the first three frames and two of the same size between the last three frames. At the top level, where the employees were working, there was one 2″x 10″x 15’0″ plank across the second through fourth frames.

The mechanic/painter and the victim proceeded to climb to the top level of the scaffold in order to complete the tie-in. There was no ladder access for them to reach any portion of the scaffold. Only the first three frames of the scaffold at the north end had built-in rungs. To reach the top level, the workers had to climb the frames using the narrow gusset supports. Once they were on the top level, the mechanic/painter stated that the victim closed his eyes and fell backwards off the scaffold.

However, he made a conflicting statement to the police, which was supported by another witness who said they were standing and scrapping the wall when he lost his balance as the plank shifted, causing him to lose his balance and fall.

There were no guard rails or toe boards, and the scaffold level at which they were working was not completely decked over. As he fell, the victim struck planks at subsequently lower levels, breaking one of them before striking the pavement.


The Medical Examiner determined that the cause of death was due to multiple injuries sustained from a forty-six-foot fall. The victim had been consuming alcoholic beverages prior to death.


Recommendation # 1: Perform a thorough hazard assessment of the scaffolding to ensure that all components, such as adequate planking, cross bracing, toe boards and guard rails are in place prior to the start of work.

Discussion: The victim was working without guard rails or toe boards. Guarding on scaffold platforms is required by 29CFR1926.451(a)(4). Additionally, there was only one 2″ x 10″ x 15’0″plank at the level from which the victim fell. Proper set up procedures should include the installation of guard rails, midrails and toe boards around the scaffold as well as ensuring that the walking surface is completely covered. Also, damaged or weakened parts of the scaffolding materials were not removed or replaced.

Recommendation #2: Train workers in fall hazard recognition when erecting and working from a scaffold.

Discussion: Employers should encourage all workers to actively participate in workplace safety and ensure that workers understand the role they play in preventing accidents. In this case the men were working approximately 46 feet above the ground without guarding or safety equipment. A safety and health program as required by 1926.20(b)(2) would, “provide for frequent and regular inspections of the job site, materials, and equipment by competent persons.” A competent person being one who is capable of identifying existing hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are hazardous or dangerous to employees and who has the authority to take prompt corrective action. Neither the employer nor the employees recognized the hazards created by the incomplete scaffold that they had erected. They also did not recognize the need to have a ladder access to the scaffold.

Recommendation #3: Maintain strict vigilance for substance abuse and work while impaired or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Discussion: The employer stated that intoxication should be presumed the cause of the accident for employees with confirmed high blood-alcohol levels. However, a combination of both work hazards and intoxication impacted the accident and subsequent fatal injury.

Please use information listed on the Contact Sheet on the NIOSH FACE web site to contact In-house FACE program personnel regarding In-house FACE reports and to gain assistance when State-FACE program personnel cannot be reached.

Page last reviewed: November 18, 2015