Falls from height are one of the biggest killers in all workplaces around the world. To give you an idea, let us look at some statistics.
On average, 25% of all workplace fatalities that occur every year in the UK are falls from height. Since 2014, at least nine people have been killed this way every single year in Singapore. In Brunei, out of 64 fatalities since records began in 2013, 15 of these have been falling from height.
During one period of my employed life, a saying used by one of my seniors has always stuck with me: “Proper planning prevents poor performance”. There is a slightly more adult version of this, but I shall not repeat it here. “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is another one that sticks in my mind. These phrases can be related to everything, whether it be in our work or personal lives. This is the theme of what I want to talk about today. In particular, the goal is to address some issues around procurement of equipment for working at height.
“if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”
As those of you who have read my articles before know, I have written several times about the subject of working at height and the many issues involved. So in this article, I want to take a slightly different approach from the usual “What is the problem? Why is it a problem? What is the solution?” route. Instead, I would like to discuss some specific types of tools, equipment and other resources we can use for working at height activities.
Please note: I do not work for any supplier or manufacturer of any of this equipment, and I will do my best to avoid naming specific brands etc. as I will talk about these resources generally. What is best for you, as always, depends upon your exact circumstances of work, legal requirements, budget, etc.
To begin with though, let us remind ourselves of why working at height is such an issue.
Misconception of resource
One of the biggest reasons why work at height incidents continue to
plague our world is misconception. This is down to poor risk assessment, analysis and so on, but it is also down to a lack of understanding of control measures, how they work and how they interact with the hazard we are trying to deal with. The classic case of wrong thinking is always the “harness and lanyard”.
A harness and lanyard system not being worn by a worker is always labelled by many people as the reason the worker has fallen. A harness and lanyard and other traditional fall arrest systems are not designed to prevent someone falling, however. They are only designed to limit how far the victim falls. Even with this design in mind, it can be totally useless. The worker may not wear it correctly, so they fall out of loose shoulder straps, or get seriously hurt by leg straps being too loose or tight.
I always remember a safety alert that was shared worldwide. This discussed a particularly graphic incident where a worker had a fall and was caught by their fall arrest system. Whilst the worker survived, as a result of the leg straps being too loose, that worker can no longer have children and struggles going to the toilet. I am sure you can imagine why.
“Suspension trauma” is also an issue, whereby the harness affects blood supply to the victim and they end up passing away whilst hanging or dangling in the air, waiting to be rescued. “Fall arrest” systems are made up of many components (the body harness, lanyard, d-rings, metal buckles, etc.) and any one of these can be a point of failure themselves, particularly if the system is in poor condition or is damaged.
Another unfortunately common scene is seeing the workers wearing these systems without actually being hooked on to any anchor point, rendering the system pointless. It is also important to remember, that even if you are wearing these systems correctly and have a fall, the energy involved means you are probably going to be injured in some way, as described earlier.
This lack of understanding of equipment and its purpose can also mean you end up with the wrong resources. I always remember a story a friend of mine told me. He was trying to procure some fall arrest systems for a project, where the workers would be working at a height of at least five metres from the ground. He decided that the systems that they required would need to have three metre long lanyards (when deployed). This way if the workers fell, they would stop before they hit the ground, limiting the consequences of any falls that may occur.
“fall arrest systems are only designed to limit how far the victim falls”
After discussing this requirement with his procurement team, he was baffled when the incorrect equipment was purchased. The systems he was given had six metre long (when deployed) lanyards. When he asked the procurement team why they had bought these ones, instead of the ones that had been agreed upon, the procurement team told my friend that the ones that were purchased were “double the value for money, as the lanyards were twice as long!”. You can imagine the look of shock on the procurement team’s face when my friend told them that with six metre lanyards, if any of the workers fell, they would hit the floor and die before the system had time to deploy properly. My friend could have looked at something even better, “fall restraint”.
Fall restraint can look similar to fall arrest to the untrained eye, but there are major differences. Fall restraint is designed so that you hook on to a structure or other similar load-bearing point, which is located far enough away from an area where you could fall, so you cannot have the fall in the first place. Think of someone working on a flat roof. They connect to an anchor point in the middle of the roof. The edge of the roof is four metres away from them, but the fall restraint system will only extend three metres. This means the only possible way to fall when using these systems is again, to either not connect to an anchor point, or the system itself has a hardware failure of some kind.
If you are struggling with this idea, think of walking a dog, or a small child. You put them in a harness with a lead, and if you do not want them to go too far away from you, or you want them to stop, you can push a button on the lead which stops the lead from growing longer. Fall restraint is a similar concept. For comparison, fall arrest would mean that when you fall, an energy absorber or something similar on the lanyard would begin to unravel, and/or absorb much of the energy from the fall (think of a bungee-cord, just not quite the same effect).
“if these systems are not maintained or used properly, they become totally ineffective”
Personal vs collective protection
In the previous section, I mentioned that it is better to not have the fall in the first place. So you should be looking at products, systems, and ways of working that do this. The “fall arrest” and “fall restraint” systems have their place, but they only protect one person, and should really be the last line of defense for working at height. As only one individual is protected, this is called “personal protection” and these systems would fall under Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the Hierarchy of Control. Ideally, we want “collective protection” systems that can protect multiple people at once. Of course, the best and most effective thing would be to not do the work at height at all, or elimination. Can we use long-handled tools to clean windows? Can we fit a camera to a drone to perform an inspection of a tower? Can we lower floodlights to ground level to change light-bulbs? (I have actually done this with mobile lighting towers in the past). This unfortunately is often not as easy as it sounds, so let us have a look at some other resources we could employ.
Some sort of barrier or guardrail (as is often seen on scaffolding, platforms, stairways, etc.) is an ideal way to limit the chances of people falling, doing this for many people at once. Exactly what barrier, guardrail etc. may be used depends upon the exact circumstances of work. It may be part of the scaffolding system itself, some sort of temporary wall or other structure, or even netting of some kind. Also, some of these would only be a partial construction (i.e. have gaps) but others can be a fully solid construction.
Another added benefit of these types of systems is that not only do we offer protection from people falling, but we can also offer varying degrees of protection against other hazards. Acoustic barriers can help stop noise spreading from site; debris netting, toe-boards and so on can prevent falling objects, waste etc., either from falling onto areas below, (where they may land on people) or getting out of the site altogether. Something to always bear in mind, however, is that these systems will normally need to be constructed and maintained by competent persons (scaffolders for scaffolding as an example). Just like the systems we spoke about earlier, if these systems are not maintained or used properly, again, they become totally ineffective. A guardrail will not protect you if the entire scaffold collapses, for example.
With regards to falling objects (which is also a big killer in many industries and workplaces), there are some other simple things we can do.
Workers could use tool-belts and bags for carrying items, rather than them trying to carry everything in their hands. These belts and bags can be traditional with pouches, pockets etc., or they can even be magnetised. Workers could also make use of tool-tethers. These can include things like wrist straps, so that if workers were to let go of their tools/equipment, the tether would effectively “catch” the object, stopping it from falling. Perhaps we could also deploy lifting equipment like forklift trucks, cranes, hoists, pulley systems etc., to move items from ground level to working level and back again, so the workers do not have to do it themselves. This tactic would also give the added benefit of vastly reducing (but not eliminating) manual handing issues.
On the flip side however, you would now need to consider the requirement of competent operators; inspection, testing and examination of equipment, and so on. You should also take care not to use these types of equipment for lifting people. There are safer ways to get people up to the height they need to work at, which we will discuss next.
Another consideration is how to access the “height” in the first place. Ladders are very commonly used, and very often blamed for worker injuries and fatalities. However, ladders are perfectly acceptable if the work is for a very short duration, and you are not going too high. Now that of course is open to interpretation, but I would suggest if you were going more than three metres high, you may want to look at a different access solution. People often get hurt using ladders because they do not use them correctly; do not secure them from moving and/or slipping; they use ladders that are in poor condition; or even use home-made ladders. There are many different kinds. You could consider including one piece ladders of certain lengths, telescopic extendable ladders with different sections, lockable a-frame ladders, the office-classic “step” ladder, the list goes on and I certainly do not want to bore you to tears on this.
“even the largest MEWPs in the world only have a lifting capacity of around 700 kg”
For longer duration work, you can look to scaffolding, whereas ladders would be good for work lasting minutes. The main advantage of scaffold systems is that they can be erected and used for months at a time if necessary. Again, there are many different types of scaffolding systems out there. I am sure many of you have come across the classic “tube and fitting” system, but you could also consider cup-lock systems, or even modular scaffolds. Which one you would consider again depends on all the circumstances of your work.
For work duration somewhere in between, Mobile Elevated Working Platforms (MEWPs) may be the answer. Think of a crane, only instead of a hook on the end, there is a platform or basket of some kind. When used correctly, these machines are incredibly useful, and come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from very small “indoor-only” scissor lifts to mammoth truck-mounted, telescopic boom lifts that can reach hundreds of feet into the air. Some of these machines also offer the advantage of mobility, meaning they can go from job-to-job and site-to-site if required. Just like lifting equipment however, you will now need regular inspection, testing and maintenance, and competent persons to operate them. If this is too much of an expense, however, there are plenty of companies who specialise in the renting of this equipment (and sometimes the operators as well).
You must also bear in mind that these machines are only designed to lift people up to high places. They are not cranes! Even the largest MEWPs in the world only have a lifting capacity of around 700 kg, so you should not start employing them for lifting anything else.
If, despite our best efforts, someone does have a fall then we need to be ready. Relying on calling the fire brigade/civil defense is not a rescue plan. Another common issue I see is people relying on mobile cranes. This is no good if the crane is in the middle of a lifting operation. It could take a long time to get the mobile crane re-deployed, whereas if you think back to “suspension trauma” earlier, people can die in as little as 10 minutes (this number varies wildly depending upon the source of information you read). This is where rescue equipment comes in.
This could involve rope and pulley systems, rope access, tripods, “snatch” systems, “technical rescue” systems, and so on. There are potentially thousands of falls from height and/or suspended person scenarios, so it is important that you plan for every eventuality and purchase the correct equipment accordingly.
Also, it goes without saying that everyone working at height must be competent, so this is particularly important for your height rescue team. Often suppliers of this equipment will offer the necessary training to go with it, but you can always also reach out to health and safety training providers, who may be able to offer this education.
As always, working at height should be managed like any other work activity, with sufficient planning, risk assessment, supervision, training, and so on. I hope today though, that I have helped you understand the purpose of some the of working at height resources that you may wish to employ. This will hopefully allow you to plan, budget and purchase more effectively before the work starts, saving you many potential headaches further down the road. More importantly however, these new understandings and ideas will help you to keep yourselves and your colleagues safe during working at height activities. If in doubt, do not be afraid to reach out for help and advice from equipment suppliers, specialists, your local enforcing authority and industry, and never start (or if you have already, stop) work until everyone can be assured of going home safely to their loved ones.