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Fall Arrest Equipment

Published: 10th Oct 2002


Still the biggest cause of fatalities across industry is falls from height. See the table ‘Industry Falls for the UK’ that details incidents over the last few years and the actual heights.

Industry Falls for the UK

Type of accident 1998/99 1999/00 2000/01 2001/02*
Falls from height 80 68 74 68
Up to and inc 2m 9 5 5 11
Over 2m 70 58 69 44
Fall distance not known 1 5 0 13

* Provisional figures

By far the most significant proportion of those were falls from height involving, on the whole, fragile materials, ladders and inadequate work platforms.

The table ‘Industry Fatalities’ shows the number of fatalities in the period 2001/2002 (provisional) split by industry.

Industry Fatalities

Type of accident Agriculture, hunting, forestry & fishing Extractive & Utility supply Manufacturing Construction Service industry
Fall from height 5 2 11 37 13
<= 2m 1 - 3 6 1
> 2m 4 1 6 24 9

One observation that can be noted is that the European offshore drilling and exploration industry bucks the trend, revealing a very low incident/fatality rate from falls from height. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the methods employed in this area are more stringent and more heavily monitored, that more highly specified product is widely accepted and used, and that the risks to the work force are more widely acknowledged and respected by the management and individual workers.

Our third table highlights the fatal injury rate per 100 000 workers (in the UK) split by industry.

Workplace injury statistics for Europe are not particularly up to date however the following comparisons can be drawn by looking at figures for fatal injury rates per 100 00 workers for the period 1996/97 across Europe. Please see the fourth table.

Fatalities per 100 000 workers

Period Agriculture, hunting,forestry & fishing Extractive & Utility supply Manufacturing Construction Service industry
96/97 11 4 2 6 1
97/98 8 8 2 5 1
98/99 9 5 2 4 1
99/00 8 3 1 5 1
00/01* 10 4 2 6 1

*All fatal injury rates are rounded up to the nearest full point for easier comparison.

European fatalities per 100 000 workers

Industry Type Great Britain Germany France Italy Spain EU Average
Agriculture 10.8 15.4 12.1 14.4 4.2 12.9
Manufacturing 1.4 3.2 4.1 6.2 8.4 3.9
Construction 5.6 8.6 20.8 17.6 28.9 13.3


There are a number of areas relating to the use of fall protection equipment (FPE) in fall risk mitigation; bear in mind many managers/workers still believe FPE to be the ‘be all and end all’ of height safety solutions. This of course is not the case and the ‘hierarchy of control’ has been well documented in UK guidance in support of this.

The quality of equipment chosen and supplied to the workforce, the information that comes with it, the appropriateness of it for differing applications and the techniques of its use are all important factors in determining how effective it is. The single biggest factor must be training and the education process, from management down. The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has already shown the message is not always clear at site level particularly in demolition and refurbishment projects. A recent survey by construction inspectors highlighted unsatisfactory weaknesses in training provision throughout the construction sector. Therefore the quality of the training company and their courses, as well as the ability of the student to understand and be able to implement what they are being taught, is extremely important.

The liability for the selection, provision, inspection and maintenance of FPE lies entirely in the hands of the employer and their nominated competent person. If your company does not have procedures in place to deal with all these issues then it may not be complying with Health and Safety best practice guidelines.

Training is the basis of all best practice implementation and paramount to anyone involved with safe working at heights, and it is required under law. The Work Equipment Regulations state that ‘adequate information, instruction, training and supervision should be provided when using FPE’. The Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations state that ‘any person who carries out any activity involving construction work where training, technical knowledge or experience is necessary to reduce the risk of injury to any person shall possess such training as maybe appropriate’. The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations state that ‘every employer shall take reasonable steps to ensure that training and PPE provided is properly used by their employees’. The PPE regulations require that training of any type should involve:

  • Theory/classroom work
  • Practical exercises and equipment inspection
  • Assessment
  • Therefore it is vital to consider course content and the qualifications of the training organisation and how applicable the training is to the particular discipline in which you are involved.

    Typically the best all-round courses are for ‘Qualified Fall Protection Instructors’. These will generally include some practical and some theory whilst specifically covering the management of workplace height safety.

    Quality of Equipment

    As already mentioned product selection and its correct use in the application considered is also critical. There is an ever widening gulf between low-cost compliance product and higher cost ergonomically engineered product. This has been particularly prevalent over recent years as some manufacturers/importers have seen price as an easy way in to an ever developing and maturing market (especially in Northern Europe and Scandinavia), and have supplied cheap products which are of dubious design quality. This has also meant that some of the traditional high quality manufacturers have found it difficult to produce their product at a competitive level. Ultimately this is to the detriment of the whole industry.

    A recent research report issued by the HSE showed that normal daily degradation of webbing lanyards can cause reduction in their strength of up to 39%. The report also uncovered worrying trends for manufacturers to use raw material that is very close to minimum static strength requirements, so that even after a short period of time in use the lanyard (if tested) would not perform as required by the Standards. This should be of major concern to managers of personnel that use FPE regularly, particularly with the level of abuse, misuse and infrequent/unsatisfactory inspections.

    In addition, as a result of the test mass and test methods used, there is a recognised working load limit on the majority of type tested FPE of 100kg. Regardless of the inevitable discussions over the use of a rigid mass torso which may not perform in the same way that a human body would most manufacturers are imposing a 100kg WLL at least to their ‘soft’ product. Any user over that weight (including heavy clothing, tools and equipment) could potentially be exceeding the designed loads of the FPE and putting themselves at greater risk.

    Even mechanical or engineered products give cause for concern when for example, fall arrest blocks are sold without load indicators and horizontal lifeline systems are installed without due consideration for end loads or fall distances. With the commercial pressures that industry faces, buying cheap does not necessarily lead to low life costs. Now that much Health and Safety emphasis is on regular and continuous inspections of FPE, the quality and durability of product should become a high priority for product specifiers/purchasers. Some suppliers and installers will now provide products with built in 2 or 3 year compliance inspections.

    Since the introduction of the CE standards and the accompanying regulations in the mid 1990’s, industry has constantly examined new ways of working at height more safely. For example the telecoms industry enforces very high levels of training particularly for tower climbing and roof work, and requires that a suitable range of FPE is available for use. In the late 1990’s the electricity industry introduced first man up and wood pole choking devices to try to eliminate free climbing of wood poles and the risks associated with it. More recently in Holland and the UK, the same industry is examining the need for permanently installed vertical lifeline systems on all towers and pylons.

    The offshore oil industry throughout the North Sea has worked with the principle of only using fall arrest blocks with in-built retrieval devices whenever personnel work outboard of the platform’s safety rails. Interestingly, over recent years as these industry bodies address the problems associated with falls from height, the fatality rates have dropped accordingly.

    Outside of these industry specific solutions product selection is still not considered thoroughly enough and there are four main areas which are not necessarily fully understood:

  • Work on fragile structures
  • Choice of anchorage
  • Rescue
  • Fall distance/clearance
  • When Things Go Wrong

    As already mentioned many falls occur because a person has fallen through a fragile roof material for example single skin roof sheeting, asbestos cement panels, timber decking or, perhaps the most common, roof lights. One of the biggest concerns is when roof lights are painted over and blend in with the roof as a whole. Man-safe roof lights are available and should be used in preference to roof-mounted safety lifeline systems; remember that a strengthened roof light is more likely to prevent a person falling than a safety lifeline system. When working on sloping roofs to carry out chimney repairs, weatherproofing or gutter cleaning there is a potential risk. In Scandinavia, a specific harness kit was developed for use by home owners clearing off snow from their roofs in winter. In Scotland many tenement buildings have a fixed eyebolt incorporated into the roof ridge.

    Roof work, just like any other area in height safety, relies fundamentally on the availability of a suitable and secure anchorage point. Across Europe there is some uncertainty as to whether purpose designed fall arrest anchor points are classed as PPE and therefore subject to EN795. In a few countries it has been agreed that this is the case, however as yet an alternative has not been offered. Where doubt lies, do not be confused by the theory and the bureaucracy – it is advisable to stick with the guidelines laid down around EN795.

    In general this uncertainty only surrounds specifically installed systems such as eyebolts, horizontal lifelines and rails and beyond all doubt the manufacturer and the installer must between them provide certificates of conformance through calculation and/or test. Bear in mind that flexible horizontal lifeline systems will generally create an increased load along the line to the extremities compared to the point load created at the fall. For example, we know that the maximum allowable force projected to the point at which a person falls is 6kN – that force however projected down a flexible horizontal lifeline could increase to 15kN for a temporary web or rope system, and >20kN for a permanent wire system.

    Other EN795 products such as class B temporary anchor devices should display their CE approval in the normal ways. Interestingly, around the world there is a crossover from lifting/materials handling products to class B products. There are many instances where in an industrial plant for example, a 1tonne (1000kg) push beam trolley would be used as a mobile anchor point with a fall arrest device - but if it is not EN795 approved should it be used? That argument could run for some time!

    If the worst happens and a fall does occur then a rescue will need to be affected. It is commonly and correctly accepted that 20mins is the maximum suspension time for a semi- or fully unconscious person. German, French and American studies all suggest that serious pulmonary damage can be caused after that.

    With this in mind, how many sites/companies have a post-fall rescue procedure? How common is rescue simulation training? How long would the emergency services take to arrive? Rescue death is a little known phenomena and is caused by the sudden return of blood to the heart after damming or pooling of blood in the legs caused by the constriction of the main veins and arteries. A good working knowledge of rescue (just like having a first-aider on site) is vital. There are typically 3 types of rescue:

  • Spontaneous assisted - by untrained personnel using in-built retrieval devices, ladders or scaffold towers
  • Planned assisted - by trained personnel using basic manual or automatic descent devices
  • Specialist - by means of rope access techniques or by the emergency services
  • Assuming a fall arrest has taken place, followed by a successful rescue of a casualty, the FPE is assumed to have done its job and the casualty (although shocked) should be OK. However when a fall takes place and there is not the free space or clearance below then the consequences can be very serious, as the person could fall into steelwork, pipework, machinery, pedestrians or even the floor. When working at heights between 2m and 6.5m FPE must be chosen very carefully since, in a worst case scenario (a fall factor two – see picture), 6.5m clearance could be needed. If attached to a flexible horizontal lifeline system the required clearance could be greater still.

    We can see therefore the importance of the hierarchy of control since in some instances FPE should not be chosen. We can also see the disparity between recognised working at height legislation which generally requires the use of a protective safety system where a fall could take place of 2m (3m in some European countries) or more.

    Undoubtedly, people who look at the fall fatality statistics closely will be amazed that in other Euro-zone countries fatality incidents (and accordingly major and minor injuries) can be so high compared to those in the UK. A few may even wonder what the fuss is about. The majority (if not all) of these incidents are needless and arise from carelessness, ill-discipline, lack of education or lack of provision of equipment. The cost to industry resulting from these incidents far outweighs the cost of preventing them.

    But as is regularly preached by certain industry specialists, efforts to reduce these statistics must be two-way. Employers have a legal responsibility and a duty of care to protect their workforce. Employees also have a matching responsibility to consider, assist and co-operate in the selection, provision and use of their FPE. Until the ‘macho’ image of working at height disappears, incident rates will remain too high.

    Published: 10th Oct 2002 in Health and Safety International

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