Stilts Finally Get the Nod

Don Procter

December 2009

Around the time this column is published, Ontario will have a provincial regulation in place that allows drywall tapers and insulators (including vapor barrier installation) to use stilts for work in the residential sector.

While that might not seem like a big deal in American and Canadian jurisdictions where stilts have been permitted for years, in Ontario it represents a significant victory for an industry that has been lobbying for about a dozen years for the right to use stilts.

Stilts have been prohibited in the province for more than 40 years and the latest charge by industry to persuade government to give them the OK began back in March 2006. Bill Nicholls, business manager and secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 46, has played a key role in getting the regulation passed. "I feel this is a win-win for all stakeholders,” he says.

At press time, he said that only a few formalities (primarily a review of the language of the regulation) separated it from becoming law.

Nicholls was instrumental in weaving through the process to assimilate the viewpoints of all parties involved in a Stilts Committee, a group comprised of his union, the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Loc. 675, the Construction Safety Association of Ontario and the provincial ministry of labour.

The push to lift the prohibition is a result of changing working conditions in the residential sector. Ceilings are getting higher (10 and 11 feet), which makes it difficult for tapers and insulators to work from a bench or a ladder.

"It legitimizes what the industry has been doing (illegally) for years and years,” says Hugh Laird, executive director of ISCA. When caught on stilts by MOL inspectors, tapers and insulators were subject to $250 fines while the drywall contractors that retained them as subs paid fines of up to $5,000.

Laird says for ISCA the push to get stilts approved has always been about safety. A six-month ergonomic study concluded that stilts reduce the repetitive strain injuries associated with work on benches. He hopes that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board will take notice and drop insurance premiums for contractors with workers using stilts.

The study, conducted at the University of Waterloo, revealed that stilts are "far less harmful over the long term on repetitive strain than benches are,” says Jim Steketee, the CSAO’s manager of the labour-management department. Steketee’s hat goes off to Nicholls and various associations and groups involved in the process as well as the provincial government for taking the issue seriously.

To qualify for using stilts, tapers and insulators must complete a training program offered through the ISCA’s training centre. Certified users must carry proof on site or face a fine by the ministry of labour. Fines will also be handed out for improperly protected or guarded sites. Barriers must be installed around or over stairways, vents and other openings such as windows. Guardrails must be 30 inches higher than usual (the regulations allow for stilts up to a maximum height of 30 inches).

Steketee says the fact the government approved stilts because they minimize repetitive strain injury is an indication that the province is willing to listen to industry about other possible changes in the workplace based on minimizing repetitive strain woes.

Stilts are legal in a number of other provinces, the Yukon and many U.S. states.

A pair of stilts will run a worker between $300 and $400. Experts note that they are a vastly improved version of models made 10 to 20 years ago.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.