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Take the High Ground - Falls from height change lives

Published: 10th Apr 2010

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Latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that falls from height remain one of the most common causes of fatality and major injury in the workplace. Last year 35 workers died as a result of a fall from height in the workplace and in the same period more than 4000 employees suffered major injuries.

At their most extreme, falls can result in death and by their very nature, injuries to workers have the potential to be life changing, not only affecting the people themselves, but also impacting upon their families.

Such injuries are not necessarily caused by working at a great height either; more than three-quarters of them result from people falling from below head height.

"At their most extreme, falls can result in death and by their very nature, injuries to workers have the potential to be life changing, not only affecting the people themselves, but also impacting upon their families."

These incidents can be avoided and this is the reason that HSE, in partnership with LACORS, has relaunched its Shattered Lives campaign.

The third phase of the campaign was launched this month to highlight the devastating consequences of slips, trips and falls in the workplace and to encourage employers, to work with employees, to ‘take action’ and do more to manage these risks through simple, often cost effective, measures.

Peter Brown, HSE Head of Work Environment Radiation and Gas Division said: “These figures highlight the very real and serious nature of preventable slip, trip and fall incidents in the workplace.  Slips, trips and falls might sound funny but they shatter the lives of thousands of British workers ever year”.

Making improvements doesn’t need to cost the earth and we are encouraging people to visit the Shattered Lives website, where they will be able to get cost effective and easy to implement solutions to help manage slips, trips and falls hazards in their workplace”.

In addition to the significant human cost of all these incidents, there is also the cost to business and society. Slips, trips and falls in the workplace cost British society around £800m per year− costs at a time when both businesses and individuals are struggling financially.

As part of the campaign, HSE has developed a new campaign website, including new case studies, and two e-learning tools; the Slips and Trips E-learning Package (STEP) and the Work at height Access Equipment Information Toolkit (WAIT) www.hse.gov.uk/shatteredlives

STEP includes quizzes, videos, animations, case studies and interactive sequences that employers and employees can work through and the package can be rolled out across a workforce as part of a health and safety programme.

WAIT is a simple, user friendly, toolkit for people who occasionally work at height. It gives users practical advice and guidance on the factors to consider when selecting access equipment for planned work at height. It also gives guidance on how to work at height safely, plus useful information on some of the different types of access equipment available.

Working at height

Working at height is defined as any working place where, if precautions are not taken, a person could fall and injure themselves. This could include using working platforms such as scaffolds, tower scaffolds, cherry pickers, scissor lifts, work on a roof or using ladders.

"The majority of falls injuries are as a result of over-reaching, over-balancing, equipment failure, misuse of equipment, or the collapse of a fragile surface."

The majority of falls injuries are as a result of over-reaching, over-balancing, equipment failure, misuse of equipment, or the collapse of a fragile surface. HSE inspectors often find that duty holders have failed to plan the work properly, assessed the risks or made sure that the people involved are competent.

The six common reasons for falls from height are;

  • Failure to recognise a problem
  • Failure to provide safe systems of work
  • Failure to ensure that safe systems of work are followed
  • Failure to use appropriate equipment
  • Failure to provide safe plant/equipment
  • Inadequate information, training, or supervision provided

"HSE inspectors often find that duty holders have failed to plan the work properly, assessed the risks or made sure that the people involved are competent."

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 have now been in force for almost five years.  They require duty holders to plan and organise work at height properly and to avoid it altogether, if possible. Where it is unavoidable, measures should be put in place to prevent anyone falling and if there is still a risk of a fall the consequences should be minimised. The regulations also require that people involved in work at height are competent to do so, or if in training, are supervised by a competent person.  Employers should fully understand what these regulations mean for them and the contractors they employ on their site.

More workers fall from ladders than any other access equipment. On average 12 people a year die at work falling from ladders and nearly 1200 suffer major injuries. Ladders should only be used for low-risk, short –duration work.

HSE has a simple message for ladder users: “if it’s right to use a ladder, use the right ladder and use it safely. For more information and guidance on ladder use visit the HSE website. www.hse.gov.uk/ladders

Always remember the hierarchy when planning a job

  • Can you avoid working at height?
  • Can you prevent a fall?
  • Can you minimise the consequences of a fall?

Construction case study

National Construction College

Effective training in health and safety at the start of a career will embed good practice and awareness of risks. This will go a long way towards improving safety across the construction industry.

To help ensure this happens the National Construction College (NCC), which is the largest construction training provider in Europe, provides a range of training to more than 30,000 learners each year across its seven sites.  Health and safety is a key part of the training delivered by the College, which equips both new students and those already working within the industry with the ability to recognise dangers in the workplace and know how best to avoid them.

Andy Walder, Director of the NCC said:

“Falling from height is still a major cause of accidents in the UK construction industry and effective training is key in reducing the injury and fatality figures. At the NCC we offer a wide range of health and safety training to help overcome accidents like this, helping to create a safer, more efficient working environment as well as a fully skilled workforce.

“Our apprenticeships all place a large emphasis on the importance of knowing health and safety best practice and we also provide essential training to adults working within the industry, in addition to refresher courses. We can also develop and deliver bespoke training or refresher courses in line with the needs of the business - either at one of our training centres across the UK or out on site.”

Philip White, Chief Inspector of Construction, said: “Falls from height remain the most common cause of fatality in construction with 21 workers dying last year. On top of this nearly 1,000 major injuries were caused by slips and trips on site, many of which will have resulted in broken bones. The consequences of these accidents can be devastating for the people involved.  Not to mention the cost to the UK economy, which is in the order of £800m per year. It’s essential that businesses get it right when working at height and that they keep their sites in good order. Simple mistakes can shatter lives – your actions could stop them happening”.

Businesses and organisations can get advice on how they can help prevent slips, trips and falls through the simple e-learning tools available on the “Shattered Lives” pages of the HSE website: www.hse.gov.uk/shatteredlives.

Building and plant maintenance case study

First Line Digital

First Line Digital, the UK’s largest independent installer of digital terrestrial and satellite equipment, recognised it could be doing more to tackle falls, especially as engineers were installing aerials and dishes at a variety of heights from portable leaning ladders and roof ladders.

Between June 2003 and July 2004 the company recorded 37 falls from height, four of which were serious enough to be reported to the HSE.

After receiving recommendations from the HSE, First Line Digital implemented a number of systems to keep its engineers safe and, year on year, it has improved training to ensure that all members of staff are fully equipped to understand and use its equipment correctly.

Measures which they chose to take included making sure ladders were secured using an eyebolt and ratchet strap and equipping appropriately trained staff with specialist kit such as a flexible safety line which can be attached to the secured ladder Trained workers now wear a fall arrest harness that can be attached to the line and the ladder, this means that the ladder cannot slip during use and even if the engineer slips and falls from the ladder, the fall will be arrested.

"Measures which they chose to take included making sure ladders were secured using an eyebolt and ratchet strap and equipping appropriately trained staff with specialist kit such as a flexible safety line which can be attached to the secured ladder"

James Malone, First Line Digital health and safety officer, said: “Health and safety is a priority for us and this is demonstrated through the dramatic reduction we’ve seen in preventable incidents. Not only do we make sure that the right equipment is in place for all our engineers, but the way we deliver training and conduct random audits ensures that our staff members take their safety very seriously.”

Since First Line Digital started work with the HSE it has implemented its own rigorous testing by using the guidance on the HSE website. The results have been dramatic. Since 2004 to date, First Line Digital has recorded 12 falls from height with five identified as serious, compared to the four serious falls from height in just one year from 2003-2004.

Your business can get advice on help preventing slips, trips and falls through simple e-learning tools available at www.hse.gov.uk/shatteredlives

For more information about slips, trips and falls visit http://www.hse.gov.uk/shatteredlives/

For more information on the Work at Height Regulations 2005 visit: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg401.pdf

Personal fall protection equipment

You should only consider the use of personal fall protection equipment to prevent or minimise the consequences of a fall when collective preventive measures, e.g. scaffolds and cherry pickers, are not practical. Personal fall protection equipment that prevents a fall, e.g. a work restraint system, should always take priority over personal equipment which only limits the height and/or consequences of a fall, e.g. a fall arrest system.

Pullout Personal fall protection equipment that prevents a fall, e.g. a work restraint system, should always take priority over personal equipment which only limits the height and/or consequences of a fall, e.g. a fall arrest system.

Types of personal fall protection equipment

There are several types of personal fall protection systems and equipment. Users of these systems require high levels of training and appropriate close supervision.

• work restraint systems and equipment will include a lanyard which must be adjusted, or set, to a fixed length to prevent the user physically getting to a place where they could fall, e.g. a roof edge or fragile surface;

• work positioning systems and equipment enable the user to work in tension or suspension to prevent or limit a fall, e.g. a boatswain’s chair or linesman. A back-up system is needed in case the main support fails;

• rope access systems use two ropes, a working rope and a safety rope, each secured to a reliable anchor. The user’s harness is attached to both ropes in such a way they can get to and from the work area and the risk of falling is prevented or limited. This type of system could be used to access the side of a tall building where a cradle cannot be used;

• fall arrest systems and equipment limit the impact force of a fall on the user and prevent them hitting the ground. The anchor point should be as high as possible above the feet of the user to limit the distance of the fall. Equipment should be regularly inspected for wear and damage.

Using personal fall protection equipment

If you are using this equipment, you must:

• be competent to check the equipment for defects and do it before every use;

• be suitably trained and assessed for competency in the use of the personal fall protection systems and equipment for the particular application;

• have read and understood the product information before using the equipment;

• have checked that the components in the system are compatible.

Checks and inspections need to be carried out on all equipment before each use and should also be checked by a competent person in the interim.  Any damaged equipment must be taken out of service immediately. Even a small cut in webbing can seriously affect performance.

The user’s life depends on their personal fall protection systems and equipment being maintained properly. All personal fall equipment should be kept clean and dry, properly stored and only altered or repaired when approved by the manufacturer.

In order to work safely always:

• Follow the risk assessments you have carried out for work at height activities and make sure all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by competent persons;

• Follow the hierarchy for managing risks from work at height - take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce risks; and

• Choose the right work equipment and select collective measures (i.e. equipment which can protect more than one person and, once properly installed or erected, does not require any action by them to make sure it will work) to prevent falls (such as guardrails and working platforms) before other measures which may only mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall (such as nets or airbags) or which may only provide personal protection from a fall.

Louise Robinson – HSL (in separate box?)

Work at Height Research

HSL has carried out research over the past few years, studying the degradation of fall arrest harnesses and lanyards, and the webbing from which they are made, in order to better understand the effect of the environments in which they are used.  The tests involved exposure of harness and lanyard webbing to sunlight, UV light, ingress of grit, edge damage, abrasion and weathering, in isolation and in combination.  All of these effects are likely to affect the performance of harnesses and lanyards, many of which are used outdoors, on construction sites or in industrial environments.  Exposure of the webbing to these effects in a controlled manner caused reductions in strength of the webbing.

The greatest reductions in strength were caused by exposure to UV light, the second greatest were caused by ingress of dirt.  UV light is known to be a major detrimental factor to polymers, so it was perhaps no surprise that harness and lanyard webbings, which are all made from woven polymer fibres would be affected in the same way, however the rate of this deterioration was the surprising factor.  Ingress of grit into the woven materials was found to be more significant than surface abrasion, as the particles penetrate the outer layers of fibres, becoming trapped within the material.  As the webbing flexes, each particle acts like a tiny knife-edge, sawing away at the fibres, damaging the webbing from within.

"UV light is known to be a major detrimental factor to polymers"

Currently work is being carried out to formalise two of these tests, UV exposure and ingress of grit, so that they can be incorporated into the European Standards for harnesses and lanyards, EN 361 and EN 354.  This should help to improve the performance of the webbings used to manufacture harnesses and lanyards, giving the end users more confidence that, in the event of a fall the harness and lanyard will save their lives.

http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl/hsl02-16.htm

http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2007/hsl0712.pdf

http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/hsl_pdf/2007/hsl0734.pdf

Incident investigation

HSL have supported HSE and Local Authorities during many fall from height incident investigations.  The majority of the fall accidents I have investigated have resulted in the deaths of young men who were carrying out ordinary, routine jobs where the risks were well understood and could have been removed by use of simple measures.  The falls were all preventable, the majority as a result of not following the Work at Height Regulations.  Falls through fragile roof lights for example, are still surprisingly common, despite the wealth of information and guidance available.

"The majority of the fall accidents I have investigated have resulted in the deaths of young men who were carrying out ordinary, routine jobs where the risks were well understood and could have been removed by use of simple measures.  The falls were all preventable, the majority as a result of not following the Work at Height Regulations."

My role in the investigation of a fall from height accidents involves a detailed inspection of the equipment being used to assess whether it was suitable for use, and to identify whether it had functioned correctly.  This involves a thorough visual inspection to assess its condition, functionality testing of any devices such as retractable type fall arresters.  If there is no obvious fault with the equipment, testing can be carried out to recreate the fall and assess whether, as a result of misuse of the equipment, or interaction with the surroundings, a condition may have arisen that may have prevented the equipment from functioning correctly.

"Even stored correctly, (in a cool, dry, dark place) polymer products can degrade, and after 10 years they are considered to be significantly weakened and may no longer be relied upon."

Many of the harnesses and lanyards I have examined during the course of these investigations had been in use for longer than the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan for the products.  Harness and lanyard manufacturers recommend a maximum lifespan for their products, combining a ‘shelf-life’ prior to use, and a ‘service-life’.  Most manufacturers recommend disposal of their webbing based products 10 years after the date of manufacture, whether or not they have been used.  Even stored correctly, (in a cool, dry, dark place) polymer products can degrade, and after 10 years they are considered to be significantly weakened and may no longer be relied upon.

"Sadly, in the majority of cases I have been involved in, it was evident that, despite wearing full body harnesses and lanyards, the wearers had not been clipped onto an anchor point at the time of the fall."

Once a harness or lanyard is removed from the packaging and worn for the first time, its service-life begins.  The majority of webbing based products have a service-life of 5 years, however I have examined harnesses after fall accidents that have been up to 12 years old, and still in service.  Clearly, had these harnesses been inspected on a regular basis, they would have been removed from service before passing the end of their lifespan.

"All too often, fall arrest had been chosen as the first resort instead of the last, where other means such as use of collective systems or work restraint could have been used."

Sadly, in the majority of cases I have been involved in, it was evident that, despite wearing full body harnesses and lanyards, the wearers had not been clipped onto an anchor point at the time of the fall.   All too often, fall arrest had been chosen as the first resort instead of the last, where other means such as use of collective systems or work restraint could have been used.

Published: 10th Apr 2010 in Health and Safety International

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