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Achieving Best Practice

Published: 20th July 2015


Erik Birkhoff shares his industrial observations to help workforces achieve best practice when working at height.

Site based safety programmes are now integrated in the work organisation and remind everyone that going home safely is of paramount importance; the old adage “we work safe or we don’t work” is really put into practice nowadays. With the recognition of human factors, workers are encouraged and even expected to actively think about their own safety and the safety of others.

The use of safe work at height techniques is still a very common sight on many industrial complexes, especially during turnarounds when a lot of less regular locations are visited for long term maintenance.

While it’s our last line of defence in a series of risk mitigating measures, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) can be overlooked. With the introduction of safety shops, however, there is no excuse not to use the right protective equipment for the job.

As we all know, in our work the law expects us to supply workers with two things: the right PPE for the job, and training or instruction. With early models of fall arrest lanyards and shock absorbers dating back to the end of the last century the concept of fall protection is certainly not new, yet workplace accident statistics are still heavily peppered with falls. Why is it that we still encounter height related accidents? Well, as always, the devil is in the details.

Staying informed

There’s an abundance of work at height PPE for sale and more is being developed as we speak, including cut resistant materials, self-retracting lanyards and shock load indicators. So how can we as employers keep up with all the latest developments to achieve best practice?

Get advice

If you don’t use work at height equipment on a daily basis seek advice – from professionals. This doesn’t have to mean spending thousands on expensive consultation; just let someone help you to make important decisions about equipment, training and techniques. Be cautious of independent PPE suppliers who may have a vested interest in selling specific brands or solutions. We know there are true specialists out there who give real advice, so seek them out.

Invest in realistic training

Training is often outsourced to a training agency. While good, it often focuses on a general programme in a training setting. If you don’t make use of permanent fall arrest systems there’s no need to train on them. The subject of rescue provisions is often barely touched or only covered on an awareness level. Workers risk leaving the training centre with a certificate of attendance and a satisfaction level based only on the quality of the lunch provided.

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand

Remember that formal training is only the first step in education. People need to log field hours before they can be considered truly competent. A safety mature programme can be a valuable tool to give freshly trained co-workers a proper introduction to working at height.

After work at height training: make sure there is a follow up; make work at height safety part of your site safety visits; and check if procedures, training and use of equipment are adhered to and actually work.

Remember that training is no substitute for carefully gained experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor.

Select the right equipment

The perfect equipment for one job can be a liability on the next. Too often we see organisations focus on achieving a single standard without choosing the right equipment for the job. ‘Right’ is often confused with ‘easy’, ‘cheap’ or ‘standardised’. This can result in a configuration we call all the gear and no idea. This might even create a more dangerous starting point, as the user would have a false sense of safety.

Fall arrest lanyards are available in different lengths of up to two meters. Be sure to purchase types that are as short as reasonable practical without obstructing progress, or make use of self-retracting lanyards, which due to an intern clutch (similar to a car seatbelt) limit the length of the lanyard.

Be aware that standard safety helmets are not the best choice available for work at height activities where there is a residual risk of a limited fall. Standard helmets have no protection against a side impact and the chinstrap is often too weak to prevent unwanted opening.

Now onto the issue of back clipping: what do you do with the second scaffold hook on your fall arrest set? Too often this is clipped away on the harness, but when worn in this way it could prevent the correct working of the shock absorber.

Focus on work at height

Try to have at least one employee within your company who serves as a focal point for work at height.

Include work at height in your audit or site safety visits schedule and try to look for improvement instead of ticking the boxes on your audit form. I’ve seen numerous audits on rope access programmes coming no further than the daily kick off meeting and a tour of the trailer with rope access equipment, leaving a management who thinks they have everything under control.

Focus on supervision during work at height activities and team awareness. We all agree that safety culture is an important aspect of accident prevention on the work floor, but its integration in audits is often minimal as we tend to focus on hard facts instead of behavioural factors.

Storage and maintenance of equipment

Make sure all your work at height equipment is traceable. I once worked for a company that decided, in all its wisdom, to get its harnesses through the employment agencies together with their temporary personnel. The ensuing traceability chaos and mishmash of systems being used were the direct result of this.

You are organising the work and are therefore responsible for selecting and providing PPE. Of course you can hire everything, but this doesn’t release you from your duties.

Make sure you have a dedicated storage space for equipment. All the ‘soft’ PPE made from nylon and similar materials needs to be stored in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. Also you want to keep it away from strong chemicals. The back of a van, for example, is generally not considered an appropriate storage space.

Preferably you’ll be able to lock the storage to keep strangers out and to keep control of where your equipment is going.

Implement an inspection regime with an interval based on the risks in your field of activity and not on the minimum legal standard of a year. Inspection can be done by a specialised company or by your own personnel if trained in PPE inspection. Don’t forget that a lot of sets are still made of loose components and that every item needs to be marked and inspected individually.

A good regime could be:

  • Regular inspection - periodic thorough inspection
  • Intermediate inspection - after heavy use or use in an aggressive environment
  • Pre-use check - part of normal working routine, the user checks for correct functioning, extreme wear and tear, damages and/or contamination

It is also a good idea to have a quarantine system in place to temporarily store faulty or suspicious equipment away from the work floor until it can be checked by a competent person.

Prepare the work

Work at height should get the attention it deserves. The fact that it’s used a lot is no excuse for minimal work preparation. Do a proper task risk analysis and involve the people executing the work in this process. Not only is their knowledge of the utmost importance when correctly assessing the risks, but also when you involve the workforce in this process they will understand the risks of their work better and act accordingly.

Don’t be tricked by the notion that safety procedures aren’t necessary at heights of less than two metres; you need to protect employees at any height from which injury could occur.

Consider alternatives for the favourite harness/fall arrest lanyards combination. Not only is PPE the last step in your hierarchy, but also fall arrest equipment should be the last alternative when considering work at height safety techniques. Work restraint and work positioning equipment limits or eliminates the risk of a fall and might be a much more suitable alternative.

One size won’t fit all

We still see work at height described on work permits and risk assessments with a generic term such as “wear harnesses” listed as a safety measure. As a stand-alone instruction this is far too broad and site and activity specific risk assessment is needed.

Insist on buddy check systems as a regular work procedure instead of a training routine.

A start work meeting is a great way to line up the work and doesn’t have to take hours. Try to work with a standard agenda that includes work at height related topics such as method statements, communication, weather conditions, logistics, third party interference, exclusion zones, emergency procedures, anchor points, and used tools.

Pay extra attention to preventing dropped objects. Dropping objects can be prevented by the use of tool lanyards. Yes, we know they can be a pain to use, but ease comes with practice and this isn’t a reason to compromise on safety. Dropped tools can be lethal for bystanders or for the team members. That’s before even considering the more serious, but often overlooked, risk of dropping tools on vulnerable process equipment containing hazardous substances.

We see the time spent on start of work meetings generally paying off in a direct gain on efficiency, as the team becomes more focused on the tasks on hand.

If you have workers in your team who can be considered as occasional users of work at height equipment, pay extra attention to these individuals in your work preparation and make sure the team understands and is on board for the task at hand. It is not good practice to send your electrician, for example, who normally only does ground level work, up a 60 metre high antenna.

Have a rescue plan

The exact physics of orthostatic intolerance, or harness suspension trauma (HST), is still the subject of research, but we all agree that physical injuries are caused when patients are suspended in safety harnesses for too long. Time ranges, but a suspension trauma can set in after just 10 minutes of suspension.

Although suspension safety straps might offer some relief in certain scenarios, they are not a substitute for a dedicated rescue plan. The plan can be generic as long as it does the job. Just make sure to identify the exceptions and treat these accordingly.

If there is no site based height rescue team available you need to have measures in place to deal with a scenario of a casualty suspended at height. Luckily, today compact rescue sets are available that are designed for novice rescuers. Here, again, training is the key and should be a standard part of work at height refresher trainer and company emergency response training.

Getting a casualty back on the deck again is only the first part of a work at height rescue. From there the casualty will probably need stretchered transport to medical facilities.

Remember that a caged ladder can become an impassable obstacle as soon as you have to transport somebody in a stretcher.


This article reflects real observations from the field. As with all our work activities the basis should be a proper risk assessment, which should include the aspects mentioned in this article. A focus on true expertise and supervision will be beneficial for a lot of companies, as there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Published: 20th July 2015 in Health and Safety International

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