Old buildings were scaffolding once

and workmen whistling.

THIS POEM by T E Hulme (1883-1917) displays a rare appreciation of the scaffolder's art. For no structure taller than a garden shed would be possible unless the builders had something to stand on. St Paul's Cathedral, Nelson's Column, The Colosseum (I mean the Roman amphitheatre, as well as your local dance hall) - none could have been built unless the builders had been able safely to climb up and work on the outsides.

But the thing that scaffolders sometimes resent is that once the construction work is finished, no trace of their labours remains, and so their part in the building process is rarely appreciated. You only have to look at old photographs of famous buildings under construction - Tower Bridge, say - to realise the contribution that scaffolding made to the final product.

Old scaffolding was made of timber lashed together with ropes, a system still used today in countries where wood is cheap and plentiful. In the Far East they use bamboo, and it is amazing to see a modern 30-storey concrete and glass office block going up in Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur shrouded in a delicate lacework of runner-bean sticks. Bamboo scaffolding is actually much safer than it looks, because its flexibility enables it to distribute loads and bend with the wind.

In Britain tubular steel scaffolding has been used almost exclusively since 1945. It is stronger than timber but also less flexible, so if there is a collapse it all comes down in one lump. Scaffolding disasters are rare, but those that do happen are usually due to the modern practice of enclosing the whole thing in netting or sheeting, the main purpose of which is to stop the labourers dropping bricks onto the foreman's car and whistling at passing women. High winds can catch the sheeting like a sail, and exert a tremendous lateral force. And since scaffolding has to be tied into the building - usually through the window openings - when the wind pulls it over it can take the front wall with it.

Since scaffolding is temporary, householders often fail to appreciate its desirability; they expect a price for roofing or painting a four-storey house to include sums for materials and labour, but never for the provision of a safe working platform. So the cowboy who offers to do the whole thing perched on a triple 20 (60ft) ladder will obviously be able to undercut the conscientious builder who includes the cost of professional scaffolding in his price.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act it is illegal for employers to ask employees to work from ladders - these are only to be used for gaining access to safe working platforms, ie scaffolding. If a self-employed person chooses to risk his life in this way you can't stop him. However, if you persuade a builder working on your property to work from a ladder, and he then has an accident, you may still be liable in law. Besides, if your builders have the security of working from proper safe scaffolding, then you are far more likely to be rewarded by hearing their whistling.

'Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House', by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, PO Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, price pounds 9 inc postage.