Alberta scaffolding companies look to government designation of scaffolding as a trade, while efforts to develop nationwide standards gather steam
Scaffolding is big business in Alberta. In large construction projects like oilsands upgraders, scaffolding can account for as much as six per cent of project costs.
Massive scaffold structures towering hundreds of feet in the air and stretching hundreds of feet in length are engineered with both safety and utility in mind. The skills needed for erecting scaffolding have increased as industrial construction has grown in the province. And now there are efforts under way to standardize training to ensure that scaffold erectors have the skills needed to meet industry demand.
Carpenters have traditionally erected scaffolding, and the carpenter's union in Alberta has long led the charge providing trained, skilled workers to industry. In the mid-1990s, the union, through the Alberta Carpenters Training Centre (ACTC), launched an intensive three-year in-house scaffolding apprentice program. It's become the gold standard for scaffolding training in the province, with over 3,000 journeyman scaffolding certifications issued. Around 33,000 workers have taken scaffolding training through the centre.
"The program started when refineries and plants started to be built," says Len Bryden, director of training and apprenticeship for the ACTC. "Industry identified a need for qualified scaffolding workers. They identified the need because working on the sites was dangerous. Falls were the No. 1 killer, and there were other issues like people dropping things."
Bryden says the carpenter union's apprenticeship program is modelled after government programs, with apprentices attending both theory and practical training three weeks a year and then building their hours in the field towards journeyman certification. Everything must be documented as well, like government trade certification. As technology has changed in the industry, the program has been continually upgraded.
"It's a difficult course," Bryden adds. "It's very physically demanding and we take testing very seriously."
Bryden says the union, through its National Apprenticeship and Training Advisory Committee, has been working towards standardizing scaffold training across the country.
The Scaffold Industry Association of Canada (SIAC) supports this effort. In an article in the association magazine Access Canada, president John O'Hara comments if the ACTC apprentice program "could be applied across Canada, we would certainly have common inter-provincial standards and full labour mobility for all certified workers in this skilled trade."
The Alberta chapter of the SIAC wants to take this effort one step further and is pushing to have scaffolding recognized as an occupation designation with the provincial government. This effort would mean both union and non-union journeyman workers would have to meet a minimum standard. The drive for occupational designation is being driven partly by a new Canadian Standards Association code of practice for access scaffold, replacing a 2003 standard. The new standard calls for proof of certification for both theory and practical training in scaffolding.
At its annual meeting in September 2009, the Alberta SIAC chapter reported scaffolding companies were on board with the effort, and it was looking for support from industry to move the effort forward.
Bryden says he is uncertain whether the effort to make scaffolding a designated occupation will succeed.
"It may," he says, "but right now the big companies rely on our program."