High on Safety: Strength in Unity
In the early 1970s scaffolding contractors on the West Coast were going through difficult times. “Some of us had insurance problems, some of us had union problems, and we were faced with the new federal OSHA standards,” said SIA’s first President, Gerald Towse. He recalls discussing all of these with Cletus “Bud” Jones during a meeting of the California Association of Lathing Contractors in 1972. “We wondered why the scaffolding industry didn’t have an association of its own.”
Previous attempts to establish such an association had been unsuccessful, but this time, most likely because of the threat that the OSHA regulations posed to their business, scaffolders were ready to band together. D. Victor Saleeby, managing director of the Lathing Contractor’s Association, helped the contractors, and the Scaffold Contractors Association was organized on July 21, 1972. Fifteen companies signed up in the first months.
The first officers and Board of Directors included Towse as President, David Roberts as Vice President (replaced shortly thereafter by Melvin Masterson), and Kenneth Abbiss as Secretary/Treasurer. Board members were Ross Chandler, David Beatty, Mel Masterson, Cletus (Bud) Jones, Roger Geis (replaced by Harry Clements shortly after the meeting) and Jerry Schapira. Saleeby served as the unpaid Executive Director. Jerry Schapira was the only founding member not from California.
Issues with OSHAThe Association started on the West Coast because scaffold contractors there were most concerned about OSHA, according to Dave Beatty, the organization’s second President. “There was a big difference between the East and the West; primarily all of the scaffold work back East and in the Midwest was heavy duty. Their scaffolding had to be set on seven-foot centers. But here, we had primarily wood and plaster or stucco construction, which doesn’t require a heavy-duty scaffold. We had always done it with strings on 10-foot centers.”
OSHA favored more stringent standards. “When OSHA came out with its new scaffolding regulations in 1971 it didn’t conform to what we were doing,” added Schapira. “There were many items we couldn’t live with.”
The Association soon became the voice of the industry. “We proceeded through our workings with OSHA to help them rewrite meaningful standards,” said Beatty. “OSHA was strongly bureaucratic-exceedingly bureaucratic,” noted Ken Buettner, who served as SIA’s 11th President.
In 1975, with more than 100 members from 16 states and Canada, the organization changed its name to the Scaffold Industry Association, deleting the word “contractor,” and inviting distributors and manufacturers to full membership. The definition of scaffolding was changed to include “scaffolding, shoring or any device used to support workers, materials or equipment.”
Insurance crisisInsurance was another major issue for SIA at its founding. “You almost couldn’t buy insurance,” said Beatty. The crisis hit in 1978 after a forming system fell and 51 workers were killed in West Virginia. “The word went out that it was a scaffolding accident, although it really wasn’t,” Shapira said. “A lot of us lost our insurance because of the bad publicity that this was getting.”
SIA stepped in to fill the gap by forming its own Bermuda-based insurance company with $400,000 in loans from member companies. Companies put in $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 as loans and were eventually repaid with interest. The SIA Insurance Company offered member companies coverage for more than 20 years.
The SIA formed a separate non-profit foundation in 1988 to increase education and training opportunities. Bill Ayres, SIA’s ninth President, served as the foundation chairman for 18 years. “The foundation helped develop the scaffold training program. More recently we have funded videos for the Swing Stage Committee and have funded translation into Spanish of SIA safety codes.” It also funded development of the SIA’s Web site.
Period of transitionWhen Saleeby died suddenly in 1997, the SIA board chose Gary Larson as the new Executive Director. In 2000 the SIA hired its own staff and today operates out of Phoenix, Ariz., where it moved in 2005 during Howard Schapira’s tenure as President.
From 2000 to 2002 SIA struggled, as its membership was continually reduced by consolidation of scaffolding firms mostly due to the continually rising cost of insurance. “The cost of insurance is a detriment to new business owners going into this business, and most small companies can’t afford it. So now the only way for medium to large companies to grow is to consolidate and acquire,” said John Miller, SIA’s current President.
Not long after 9/11, the Association was also forced to sell its insurance subsidiary due to widespread insurance industry losses from the attacks. The SIA continues to offer insurance programs to members, however.
Putting strategies in place for the futureThe move to new offices has given the SIA a clear ground on which to build a modern organization, which began when the SIA board, working with a professional firm, adopted a strategic plan for the Association in 2006.
One of the first steps was the hiring of additional staff members. SIA’s staff now includes Richard R. J. Marshall, Executive Director; Maureen Orey, Director of Training and Education; Eloise Schultz, Director of Membership; Nicki Santo, Director of Communications; and Sarah Haines, Operations Manager.
The Association has also launched a membership drive. Miller has organized a summit of 14 of the largest scaffolding and access companies. “We need those companies who have acquired or who are acquiring other companies to support those acquisitions with SIA membership at the branch level,” he said. “If the company has only a corporate membership, the message is not getting down to the branch level and the everyday end user. They’re the ones who need to know what’s going on at the SIA and to take advantage of the SIA education and training programs.”
Having a stronger membership will allow the industry to withstand attempts to over-regulate it. Miller noted that scaffold violations, which had dropped back to number three on OSHA’s most-cited list, rose again last year to number one. “We need to be out of that top 10. If we don’t clean this mess up, OSHA will try to come in and clean it up for us, and they’re not qualified to do it.
“If we beef up membership we can go to Capitol Hill to the Department of Labor and demand a meeting with these people so that we can regulate ourselves.”
Miller plans on recruiting more international firms into the Association. “We have an influx of foreign firms coming into this country. We need to embrace them so we can introduce them to the way that we do business here.”
Finally, Miller wants the SIA to enhance the industry’s image. “We want to introduce this profession as a rewarding career path. We need to have a pool of well-trained scaffold and access professionals to pull from.”
The successes of the last quarter century in the scaffolding industry shows that by uniting and working together to support the SIA, the scaffolding industry is best assured of finding good answers to the problems that its members face today.