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Safety at Height

Published: 01st Apr 2009


The challenges facing the height safety industry

When entering the world of height safety some 18 years ago, I was astounded by the range and complexity of available products for ensuring the safety of people who choose to work at height.

18 years on and the industry’s inventiveness never ceases to amaze me and my interest in the subject is every bit as stimulated as it was back then.

Articles written in the past four years have repeatedly quoted, generally in some depth, the Work at Height Regulations 2005. I have chosen not to carry on this tradition and have taken a more rounded view of the industry in which I work.

As an industry we have been faced with numerous challenges, such as issues surrounding lanyard degradation, the introduction and subsequent misuse of twin lanyards (new standard is being drafted), misuse of inertia reel devices (EN360), the use of fall protection within caged ladders etc. How to best resolve or overcome these and other issues is indeed a constant battle - a battle generally brought about by shortfalls in EN standards, that have in some cases been in force for many years and almost always found to be lacking, when transferred to the working environment

Working Together

General users of fall arrest equipment may be unaware of the immense amount of work undertaken by various individuals and organisations within the industry. This work has led to the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations 2005, The Code of Practice for the Selection, Use and Maintenance of Personal Fall Protection Systems and Equipment in the Workplace BS8437 2005 and BS8454 Code of Practice for the Delivery of Training and Education for Work at Height and Rescue, and of course many improved EN standards.

BS8454, for instance, was given to the HSE as a working draft by the Height Safety Training Committee of the BSIF Height and Access Safety Group (now the Height Safety Group). Members of the group had worked for some years to develop the document as they were concerned about the variation in and quality of training available. It was finalised by the HSE, Advisory Committee for Work at Height Training.

More recently, the publication of the new HSE guidance on Health and Safety in Roof Work was achieved with the diligent work of the HSE Advisory Committee for Roofwork.

A number of challenges facing the industry have been, or are being addressed, including legislative and new guidance documents brought into being. These are designed to serve one purpose alone and that is to raise awareness and save lives of people who by the nature of their work, put themselves at risk. Lives are lost due to negligence and often due to ignorance, lack of training and education in the selection and use of fall prevention and arrest measures and equipment.

The industry has seen substantial growth in all its many areas of activity, none more so than the design and manufacture of product, the variety of which can sometimes be a challenge for the uninitiated. The down side of this growth has been that some products are modified and copied, without a clear understanding of why the original was designed in the way that it was. This can and does lead to failures, sometimes compounded by the test requirements under EN standards, which in many cases do not address the manner in which products are used outside of the test environment. Diligent conscientious manufacturers test above and beyond the requirements of EN standards.

Height Safety standards are under constant review, but this is a complicated and time consuming process and can be extremely frustrating for those involved in this work.

Development of improved standards

Worthy of mention due to its wide ranging use is (EN360) inertia reel blocks. They have for many years been used in all manner of circumstances, vertically fixed overhead as per the standard, but also horizontally, at obtuse angles and over sharp edges, yet none of these additional uses is allowed for in the standard tests. Whilst CE approved inertia reel devices function within the allowable limits of EN360 tests, performance can vary considerably and does not necessarily mean that the locking speeds achieved in standard testing will be replicated in real fall situations - this is sometimes a shocking experience for the user.

Passing tests is in reality only part of the story and the industry is working hard with the HSE to improve test methods for these and a number of other products. Research commissioned by the HSE into EN360 devices is expected to be published shortly and should bring more clarity for the purchaser and the user alike.

Caged ladders help or hindrance?

For some years the effectiveness of caged ladders for fall protection has been in question, as documented in Research Report 258 1 (“Preliminary investigation into the fall-arresting effectiveness of ladder safety hoops”).

Tests in RR 258 showed that Fall Arrest Systems (FAS) were able to arrest a fall much more effectively and safely than a hooped ladder could. The general conclusion was that cages can not be expected to provide positive fall arrest. One of the main recommendations from the report was that the use of ladder safety hoops should be abandoned unless they could be modified to demonstrate that a fall could be positively arrested whilst in use.

It should be noted that the tests in RR 258 were far more standard for FAS on ladders, and are now more comprehensive than those in the BS EN353-1 and have been adopted by industry in addition to EN353-1 tests. These additional tests are the so called “HSE 08” tests, which are a response to the findings of RR 258 and HSE release E074:04 and safety warning 011007.

Additional work

More recently, research (which is awaiting publication) into the effectiveness of fall arrest devices when used in caged ladders has been undertaken.

Research has indicated that whilst the types of fall arrest products (EN353-1 EN353-2) used in test perform satisfactorily in line with the standards, when combined with caged ladders the outcome may be far from satisfactory. In order to ensure complete functionality, further additional tests are being devised and procedures put in place to ensure compatibility with caged ladder use. What should be understood is that fall arrest products require clear uninterrupted free fall to enable satisfactory lock off - anything that interrupts this is likely to seriously impair that functionality.

Rescue from hooped ladders

Using fall arrest systems inside hooped ladders can cause severe difficulty for those tasked with performing rescue of a suspended casualty. The advent of an ‘improved’ caged ladder manufacturing standard BS 4211 and the increase of vertical cage bars from 3 to 5, compounds the difficulty by restricting the ability to access the casualty from outside the cage. Serious consideration should now be given to the usefulness of hooped ladders and moreover rescue of suspended casualties. It could be viewed that fall arrest systems perform far better without hoops and make rescue considerably easier. Hooped ladders are of course still in constant use.

Risks and control measures

Personal experience has highlighted that the quality of control measures used to ensure safety at height can vary alarmingly, despite the introduction of The Work at Height Regulations and Guidance available. This is generally due to a lack of product knowledge and experience.

Duty Holders are responsible under UK legislation for ensuring that ‘adequate’ risk assessments are undertaken and that preventative measures are put in place to ensure the safety of workers at height, generally by the provision of a Safe System of Work. I believe that there is also a moral obligation to ensure workers safety and not to cut corners and risk lives.

All too often the lack of indepth Height Safety Knowledge is a problem and this leads to inappropriate choices being made. This can be a dangerous and costly mistake when things go wrong.

Employers and the self employed need to ensure that they have the mandatory control measures in place both in carrying out the work and documenting all aspects of the process, from training records, PPE selection and issue and risk assessment. There should be a procedure and requisite skill that allow operatives to carry out dynamic site risk assessment, taking account of such things as weather and other site conditions which may affect and prevent work from taking place safely.

Often workers are not involved in the risk assessment process and this can lead to misunderstandings and dangerous situations. It is essential that those required to undertake the work are included as they often have a far greater knowledge of the job requirements than the managers that produce the document (often generic). This can be invaluable when implementing a safe system of work.

Hierarchy controls required by the Work at Height Regulations 2005 give a clear message on the process and selection of fall prevention measures and particular attention should be paid to this. Where it is possible to eliminate work at height, either by design or change of process, this should be the goal. Unfortunately for many industries this option does not exist and particular care and expert advice should be sought where needed.

Horizontal and vertical lifelines

One field of activity that always requires specialist knowledge is the provision of pre engineered safety systems, such as horizontal and vertical safety systems. These can offer permanent safety solutions for a variety of buildings and a multitude of activities ranging from construction, vehicle access, aircraft maintenance, to wind turbines.

Such diversity has seen prolific growth for some manufacturers and led to more inventive systems and considerable development expenditure. Like the humble vacuum cleaner, lifeline systems can vary enormously in design, aesthetics and cost. Selection should never be based on cost alone.

In reality, choosing a lifeline system should involve a considerable amount of thought, as invariably it is a significant cost and may literally be a ‘once in a lifetime decision’ for the user, if the wrong choice is made. Lifelines, whether vertical or horizontal, are technically developed, pre engineered safety systems designed to arrest falls from height in a given manner, proven by a complex calculation of pre-determined data, collected in test.

The collection and analysis of the data produced from repeated and continued testing on a variety of roofing materials is essential to ensure that an accurate assessment of acceptable loads on both structure and user are achieved. Systems designed and installed in this way are determined to be pre-engineered.

The more dynamic tests carried out and the more accurate the data, the safer the installed system will be.

The next step

Responsible manufacturers and installers will advise on the correct, most appropriate and safest installation and responsible designers and architects will heed the advice and ensure that safe standards are implemented at the construction stage.

The system chosen should always be provided based upon the associated risks, and expert advice should always be sought when any doubt exists. Remember that the provision should be appropriate for the risks, not only in the construction phase, but also for on going access and maintenance requirements.

21st March 2006, HSE urges caution over ‘retractable type fall arresters’

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is today reminding industry of the dangers of misusing retractable type fall arresters - sometimes referred to as ‘inertia blocks’ - following the interim findings of a research project commissioned by HSE.

The findings reveal that retractable type fall arresters, used to protect workers against falls from height, are commonly being misused in circumstances they have not been tested for, creating safety hazards and an increased risk of fatality.

David Thomas, Principal Specialist Inspector and HSE’s technical lead on fall protection issues, emphasised the need for caution when using this specialist equipment:

“All industry sectors are exposed to the risks presented by falls from height and these findings underline the need for employers and workers to ensure retractable type fall arresters are used in the correct way. They should be used only in the vertical plane with an overhead anchor unless the manufacturer’s instructions clearly state otherwise. If this equipment is used in any other way, or combined with other components in a fall arrest system, it may be unsafe and could result in injury or fatality.”

The findings also indicate that some manufacturers and suppliers in the UK are failing to provide adequate instructions and information to use the products safely, which is adding to the problem.

Commenting on the testing of the fall arresters, Mr Thomas said:“The European Standard does not cover retractable type fall arresters being tested for use over edges - which is sometimes how they are used. In a fall over an edge the retractable lanyard may break, the braking system might be overloaded to failure, or the fall might not be arrested in the distance available. There is a test used by some manufacturers - known as the VG11 test - but we have concerns over its intent and adequacy and will be considering this over the next few months, once the research project is completed. If there is any further advice we will issue it immediately.”

2009, Further research is now awaiting publication.

A final note from Mike Luke.User weights and the dynamic loads produced in fall situations, are generally outside the understanding of every day users, who select or are often provided with equipment and do not question its ability to function in a way that will ensure that only acceptable loads are transmitted to the user. For clarity, energy absorbers conforming to EN355 are tested with a drop mass of 100kN, as indeed are other items of height safety equipment. Weight ranges above and below this weight can produce very different outcomes. It is therefore advisable to check with manufacturers and suppliers before issuing equipment to users where there is doubt.

It is clear that the issues raised above are cause for considerable concern. Confirmation by way of test to support any claims made by manufacturers, should always be requested before using equipment.

All safety systems, including Lifelines, require regular inspections (BS EN 365) this includes pre use, and annual maintenance by an approved installer for lifelines. This not only ensures that the system has not been damaged or misused, but also renews the manufacturers warranty. Choose only approved installers to carry out this work as they will be trained, certified and licensed by the manufacturer.

In some ways the industry I joined some 18 years ago has come a long way; however we have a considerable distance to go before we can be satisfied by all we provide.



Published: 01st Apr 2009 in Health and Safety International

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