There is a well known saying that says, “what goes up, must come down” and this is generally true, however the challenge for businesses worldwide is to ensure that this is done safely. The statistics associated with accidents involving falls from height are startling as they are still the biggest cause of workplace fatal accidents, with a large percentage of all injuries associated with falls from below 2m, dispelling the myth that the “higher you go, the greater the risk.”
The definition of work at height is also one for consideration; as well as the risk of falling from height from a roof, ladder or scaffold whilst undertaking work, people are also at risk from falls at work in any place from which a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury; this includes access to and egress from work at height (using a ladder to access a roof), work at or below ground level (adjacent to an excavation with a risk of falling into the void) and dangers of falling through fragile materials. Additionally, if you stand on a table to change a light bulb in an office, this would also constitute work at height because a fall could cause injury!
Work at height should always be properly planned and supervised and not carried out if weather conditions jeopardise health and safety.
Those planning or executing working at height should be competent in the operations and any plant or equipment they are to use and be fully aware of the hazards that they face and the associated risks.
A practical, yet pragmatic approach to work at height should be taken and the adoption of hierarchical control is recommended.
- The employer should avoid work at height where practicable; an example of this is the use of pressurised extension poles and brushes etc to clean windows from the safety of the ground rather than climbing ladder to wash by hand
- The employer should then consider ways to prevent falls; the use of an existing place or means of access should be considered as well as using the most suitable way of working and selection of the most suitable equipment
- As a last resort, the employer should minimise the distance and consequences of any falls by providing suitable equipment and systems of work
“whatever system of protection is adopted, the employer must ensure that all employees are correctly trained and refresher training is carried out”
The employer should avoid work at height where practicable; an example of this is the use of pressurised extension poles and brushes etc to clean windows from the safety of the ground rather than climbing (an often unsecured) ladder to wash by hand.
The employer should then consider ways to prevent falls; the use of an existing place or means of access should be considered as well as using the most suitable way of working and selection of the most suitable equipment.
Finally as a last resort, the employer should minimise the distance and consequences of any falls by providing suitable equipment and systems of work.
The following are examples of actual fall from height accidents
The following are examples of actual fall from height accidents including the circumstances surrounding the incident. In all cases, the employers received substantial criminal and/or civil action against them for their failure to ensure safe working at height.
“A farm worker fractured his lumbar vertebra and badly bruised his ribs after falling through a fragile roof whilst cleaning the gutters. He had cleared an edge gutter by riding in a grain bucket whilst the farmer drove the tractor along next to the gutter. He then moved onto cleaning a valley gutter. The asbestos cement sheeting on the adjacent roof was fragile. The farmer had examined the work area from a ladder and told the worker to ‘just walk on the bolts and you won’t go through’. The farmer then left the worker on his own to clear the gutter and carry the waste to the grain bucket. At some point he slipped and fell through the roof to the concrete floor below.”
“A teacher needed to retrieve items of stationery from a top shelf in a store cupboard. No stepladder was available so she used a small table that was in the store. Once on the desk she found the items she needed were further along the shelf than she’d realised. As the desk had other papers and books on it, she didn’t want to descend, remove the other items on the desk and re-position it. So she over-reached for the items from her existing position, lost her balance, fell and fractured a wrist. She was off work for two weeks.”
“A worker died following a fall from machinery. He was working alone at night cleaning parts of the plant and there was no protection against falling. He was found with head injuries the following morning and died the next day.”
“A window cleaner sustained broken ribs, fingers and a broken arm when he fell 2.3m from his ladder while cleaning the windows of a show home on a new housing estate. The ladder was not secured or footed, the ground was dry but sloped gently away from the building. The construction company had not produced a method statement and the injured man had received no health and safety induction when he arrived on the site.”
“The supervisor of a team of shop fitters was concerned that the target date for completion of a project would be missed. On arriving on site to assess progress he became involved in helping to finish the job on time. He fell 2m from an unsecured ladder after over-reaching while trying to pull cabling through ductwork. He broke an ankle and a wrist in four places. The project was not completed to deadline.”
“harness restraint systems, inertia reels, running line systems, safety harnesses, lanyards with shock absorbers, double lanyards and many other variations”
Avoiding working at height where possible
There are various ways that the employer can approach this matter and the first consideration should be “do we really have to work at height?” An example of avoiding work at height during a construction operation could be the fixing of edge protection and other such preventative measures to steel structures prior to them being lifted into place at height; this way the protection will be in place should people have to access such areas at a later date and reduce the risk to workers.
The employer must consider ways to prevent falls from height as the next consideration in the hierarchy if work at height is required and unavoidable. The employer should select physical means of preventing falls such as guardrails/working platforms before personal fall prevention (e.g. work restraint). An example of this would be to provide temporary access scaffolding such as an aluminium tower to work at height in favour of working from ladders or step ladders; this provides a stable working platform and edge protection for the person undertaking the task.
Mitigating distances and consequences of a fall
Where the avoidance and the provision of means to prevent a fall are not practicable and the risk of a fall cannot be completely eliminated, the employer should consider the use of work equipment or other measures to mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur. Such equipment could include the use of safety nets, soft landing systems such as airbags and personal fall arrest equipment.
It is critical to recognise that whatever system of protection is adopted, the employer must ensure that all employees using such equipment are correctly trained in the application of the selected system and ensure that refresher training is carried out as appropriate. Manufacturers of all available systems have a responsibility for producing a safe system of work for the product they sell.
Selection of equipment
The employer should ensure that the correct equipment for the working conditions is selected. Considerations in this process should include available access and egress for people and equipment, the distance and consequences of any potential fall, the duration of the work activity and the frequency of the task, the ease of any rescue or evacuation that may be required and any associated risk of use, installation and removal of such equipment.
“preventing falling objects is critical to avoid any risk to people working below”
Equipment to be considered
The provision of temporary guardrails around working platforms can be achieved via the provision of scaffolds or Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPS.) Things to consider if you are thinking of using a MEWP:
- Height – How high is the job from the ground?
- Application – Do you have the appropriate MEWP for the job? (If you are not sure, check with the hirer or manufacturer)
- Conditions – What are the ground conditions like – is there a risk of the MEWP becoming unstable or overturning?
- Operators – Are the people using the MEWP trained, competent and fit to do so?
- Obstructions – Could the MEWP be caught on any protruding features or overhead hazards, e.g. steelwork, tree branches or power lines? Is there passing traffic, and if so, what do you need to do to prevent collisions?
- Restraint – Do you need to use either work restraint (to prevent people climbing out of the MEWP) or a fall arrest system (which will stop a person hitting the ground if they fall out)? Allowing people to climb out of the basket is not normally recommended – do you need to do this as part of the job?
- Checks – Has the MEWP been examined, inspected and maintained as required by the manufacturers instructions and daily checks carried out?
Safety nets and/or soft landing systems such as airbags can be useful for roof work or short duration work (such as roof work or the loading or unloading of vehicles). The equipment should be properly installed and maintained at all times.
There are a wide variety of personal fall protection systems available, these include harness restraint systems, inertia reels, running line systems, safety harnesses, lanyards with shock absorbers, double lanyards and many other variations. It should be reiterated that personal fall restraint or fall arrest systems
should be considered by the employer only where the avoidance or prevention of falls cannot be achieved or to supplement such protective measures.
Use of ladders
The use of ladders can be an efficient and safe way of working at height in certain low risk, short duration activities. The circumstances in which a ladder may be appropriate should be subject to an assessment by the employer to justify their use; for example, it may not be practicable to provide scaffolding to provide access for a task likely to take a few minutes when a properly secured ladder in good condition could provide the answer.
Considerations to be made during any such assessment should include the level of risk, the duration and the site conditions. Supervision and management to ensure good practice is followed and individuals should be competent to use the ladder etc. An example of a typical ladder accident is explained below.
“An electrical fitter, in trying to unscrew a stuck plastic cap off an infrared detector, got more than he bargained for. The force he was using caused the body of the fitting to fail and his hand grabbed hold of live metal whilst he was nearly 3m up the ladder. He was thrown off suffering shock, burns and severe bruising.”
Avoiding risks from fragile surfaces is vital when working on roofs and similar structures. Preventative measures to be considered would normally include staging systems, roof ladders, valley gutter protection, safety nets and safety harnesses. Particular attention should be given to roof lights etc. You must ensure that no one working under your control goes onto or near a fragile surface unless that is the only reasonably practicable way for the worker to carry out the work safely, having regard to the demands of the task, equipment, or working environment.
Preventing falling objects is also critical to avoid any risk to people working below or adjacent to the area if tools and materials are not properly secured and controlled. Preventative measures can include edge protection, netting, toe boards, fan protection, and good house keeping practices. You must ensure that nothing is thrown or tipped from height or stored in such a way that its movement is likely to injure anyone.
If the workplace contains an area in which there is a risk of someone being struck by a falling object or person, you must ensure that the area is clearly indicated and that as far as is reasonable unauthorised people are unable to gain access to it.
“preventative measures can include edge protection, netting, toe boards, fan protection, and good house keeping practices”
The employer should ensure that no work is done at height unless it is reasonably practicable to do it other than at height; work must be properly planned, appropriately supervised, and carried out in as safe a way as is reasonably practicable; with plans made for emergencies and rescue in the event of an emergency.
The employer should ensure that the work is postponed while weather conditions endanger health or safety.
Everyone involved in the work must be competent to undertake the task and have received the proper prescribed training, where required. This includes involvement in organisation, planning, supervision, and the supply and maintenance of equipment.
Where other precautions do not entirely eliminate the risk of a fall occurring, the employer must (as far as it is reasonably practicable to do so) train those who will be working at height how to avoid falling, and how to avoid or minimise injury to them should they fall.
The place where work is done
The place where work is done at height (including the means of access) must be safe and have measures to prevent a fall.
Equipment, temporary structures, and safety features
If the employer is providing equipment or measures for preventing a fall occurring. All must be done that is reasonably practicable to minimise the distance and effect of a fall.
When selecting equipment for work at height the employer must use the most suitable equipment to give collective protection measures (e.g. guard rails) priority over personal protection measures (e.g. safety harnesses) and must take account of the working conditions, the risks to the safety of all those at the place where the work equipment is to be used and must ensure that all equipment, temporary structures (e.g. scaffolding), and safety features comply with current international standards, where applicable.
All work equipment that is used for work at height needs to be inspected, after it is assembled before first use and at suitable intervals to check that no deterioration in safety has taken place. If the equipment is used for construction work then it can’t be used unless inspected in that position within the previous 7 days. Inspection means such visual or more vigorous inspections by a competent person that includes any testing that may be appropriate (e.g.: scaffold ties using drilled anchors).
Where appropriate, inspections should be recorded and records maintained along with details of any remedial work undertaken as a result of the inspection.
The employer should ensure;
- That all work at height is properly planned and organised
- That all work at height takes account of any weather conditions that could endanger health and safety
- That those involved in work at height are trained and competent
- That the place where work at height is done is safe
- That equipment for work at height is appropriately inspected
- That the risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled
- That the risks from falling objects are properly controlled
“all equipment, temporary structures, and safety features must comply with current international standards”
Good advice for the employer on the hazards/risks to health and safety associated with work at height are that if you follow current industry good practice you should be doing enough to comply. You are advised to undertake an assessment and thoroughly plan and organise your work properly and arrange monitoring to ensure that this is done safely.
Always follow the hierarchy of work at height: avoid – prevent – minimise
Always ensure that you choose the right equipment – select collective protection (guardrails etc) and personal protective equipment as required.
Always be prepared to change the way you work and consider the continual developing technology in the industry regarding safe work at height solutions. Author Details:
Rick Statham CMIOSH, HAS DipOperations Director Safety & Access
Rick Statham is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health and has been a full time safety practitioner for over twenty years. He is currently a member of the NASC (National Access and Scaffolding Confederation) Health & Safety Committee and via this position represents the scaffolding and access industry in the UK as a committee member of the UKCG (UK Contractors Group) Safety Forum.
Safety and Access is a safety training and consultancy business devoted to workers at height.
The Company support businesses where work at height is part of their everyday operations: within construction, utilities, process industries and government, we help to ensure that their workers are properly trained, that their installations are properly inspected and that their business has the best possible advice for scaffolding, ladder operations, exposed edges, roofs, platforms and all other areas where work at height is involved.
The Company offer a full range of training for both management and operatives; regular, independent site inspections and a full health and safety consultancy service for height issues.
Published: 01st Sep 2009 in Health and Safety International