Insufficient knowledge, understanding and protective equipment can be a deadly mix when working at height.
Let’s start with the basics. Unlike fall restraint, which allows no access to the fall point, fall arrest is fundamentally a system that allows you to fall from height.
This goes against everything we teach, preach and argue as health and safety practitioners. We simply don’t want people falling. A fall becomes an incident, and incident, depending on our internal reporting structure, may become a near miss - and so the paperwork starts.
It’s much better to keep people nice and safe when working at height: don’t let them near the edge, don’t let them fall, don’t let them become a statistic.
So how and why does this happen?
• Lack of knowledge - unlikely in industry
• Lack of understanding - most likely
• Lack of correct equipment - most of the time
It is my experience that in most cases when falls from height occur there is a lack of correct equipment. The equipment supplied is often unsuitable for the task, poorly maintained, incorrectly used or just plain missing.
Lack of knowledge
During a recent position as a construction safety manager in Afghanistan, I picked up the reins from the previous incumbent. The local workforce had been trained in the safe use of harnesses when working at height, but when the previous manager left so too did their sense of obligation to wear the harnesses.
I witnessed first hand a worker walking along single width block walls. There was a two metre trench on one side, and an uncapped rebar on the other, above his head was a fairly taught steel wire rope secured to the side of the building. Upon talking with the interpreter and asking the man to come down, he jumped across the rebar and landed on the ground.
Upon questioning, it was revealed that this was a ‘mud man’ who spreads the mud like plaster on the outer walls of the buildings to weatherproof them. When asked why he was on the wall, he explained that he was checking the wall before starting work. He had jumped down because the nearest access point was more than 15m away in either direction.
When asked about the overhead line, his reply was, “We hook on there with the harness.” He then went on to explain that he had worked like this for more than 20 years and couldn’t see the need for the harness.
It transpired that the previous safety manager had purchased several new harnesses and delivered training on their safe use, safe fitting and why to ‘hook on’. The local workers just could not see anything wrong with the way they were doing their jobs. Needless to say, further education was delivered to the workers.
What is the difference between fall restraint and fall arrest?
To a safety practitioner, one allows no access to the fall point or one allows the fall but mitigates the circumstances. To the average worker there appears to be no difference at all, as seen in the following case study.
Workers were repairing the drive motors on top of electric revolving gates, 2.1m above the ground. There was no access for a platform, but a solid ‘perch’ on which to sit while fixing the motors.
Maintenance teams were provided with and trained in the safe use of harnesses and lanyards, but the lanyards supplied by stores were for fall arrest. The workers had no knowledge of the difference, but they were clipped on, 'so everything was fine'. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
During the maintenance work there was a failure to isolate the power to the gates and at one point the rotating arm in the head moved. This was such a shock to one of the workers that he slipped back and fell from his ‘perch’. The resounding thump as he hit the concrete suddenly focused everyone’s attention.
During the investigation that followed it was identified that the harness was properly used and the lanyards were attached, so why had it happened?
• The maximum length for a fall arrest lanyard is 2m (BS EN 354)
• The maximum length of the shock absorber pack when deployed is 1.75m (BS EN 355)
• Allowing for 0.5m stretch in the whole system under shock loading
• Allowing for an average worker height of 1.75m
We now have an operating distance approaching six metres before the fall arrest will fully deploy and mitigate a fall, and this assumes an anchor point above the user as recommended and a correct fitting between the shoulder blades of the personal anchor point.
The workers and storeman didn’t know the difference between fall arrest and fall restraint and because of this one man was seriously injured. He suffered heavy bruising to his back and shoulders, and internal bleeding.
Lack of equipment
Time and again in the trade press we read about people falling from or through roofs, normally with very serious or tragic consequences.
When challenged the answers vary, but the reason behind the fall and seriousness of the consequence is often a lack of proper equipment.
‘It was a five minute job, I didn’t think it would be a problem’; ‘If you do it properly you won’t fall - I’ve been doing it for years’; and as I once heard from a now paralysed, former roof worker, “We never bothered with harnesses - all that messing about trying to hook it on? You can’t on a roof.”
In the Middle East there is a perception that life is cheap. Labour comes from across the world to make money and there is never a shortage of people willing to do the job.
On the high rise buildings that adorn the horizons of many cities in the region, you will often find workers on or near an unprotected edge. Twenty storeys or more into the skyline, somehow having no barriers, harnesses, and fall arrest or restraint has become the accepted working practise - this isn’t a fall that will end well.
Even if the thought process was engaged, trying to convince these workers to change a cultural habit would be an enormous task. Many have lost friends or family on the construction sites. It’s a way of life and accidents happen.
We could try education, but cultural change takes a long time. We could try enforcement and hit the workers where it hurts, in their pocket, but is it really their fault? Many of the workers I have spoken with say they would use a fall arrest or restraint system if it was available.
There are large national and international companies working on projects around the world, many of which are based in America and Europe where there are guidelines and laws on the use of fall arrest systems. Even in this economic downturn these companies are making millions, yet somehow many still fail to provide the basic mitigation systems for their workers.
They subscribe to the ethos that life is cheap. If there is little or no legislation forcing them to adhere to existing standards, the attitude of many companies appears to be ‘why bother’?
To answer my initial question in more detail, fall arrest is a personal fall mitigation system, usually consisting of a full body harness and a pre-packed shock absorbing lanyard.
When worn correctly, anchored appropriately and allowed room to deploy effectively, in the event of a fall it will mitigate the injuries suffered by many workers and even save lives.
We now appreciate that it is used and abused due to:
• A lack of knowledge of the hazards and risks in the task
• A lack of understanding of the system's basic requirements
• A lack of commitment from employers to provide suitable and sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
As safety practitioners it is our job to educate the workforce and management on the hazards and risks that they take for granted. Elements to address include:
• Challenge the use of fall arrest over fall restraint
• Get workers to understand the difference and the hazards and risks involved in their use
• Educate management to influence the purchasers to buy in the correct equipment that will save lives and mitigate the devastating injuries caused by unprotected falls
Hot off the press
We have probably all seen the ‘expert’ on the roof doing the same job they have done for years.
Unfortunately complacency is a bigger killer than all three of the examples mentioned previously and it seems to affect one trade more than any other.
The following case study shows potentially:
• A lack of knowledge - the deceased was a labourer not a scaffolder
• A lack of understanding - either from the deceased, the company or both
• Missing equipment - if the scaffold was there then there was no excuse to not wear appropriate fall arrest PPE because the perfect tie off points were available
A scaffolding firm was ordered to pay more than £100,000 in fines and costs following the death of an employee who plunged 13 metres through the roof of a Skelmersdale warehouse.
Married father of one, Tony Causby, 42, from Leigh, was helping to dismantle scaffolding when he stepped onto a fragile skylight and fell to the floor below.
Atherton based S&S Scaffolding Ltd was prosecuted by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) over serious safety breaches following an investigation into the incident which occurred on December 14, 2010.
Liverpool Crown Court heard that Mr Causby had helped to erect the scaffolding at the end of October ahead of work to replace damaged cladding and guttering on the roof. He returned to the site on December 14, 2010 as part of the dismantling team, although he was employed by S&S Scaffolding as a labourer rather than a scaffolder.
Mr Causby had just returned to the roof with another labourer after his lunch break when he stepped on a skylight, which broke and gave way. He was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The court was told there were around 80 fragile skylights on one half of the roof, with each one measuring about one metre by two metres. The company failed, however, to arrange for covers to be put over the skylights nearest to where its employees were working to prevent them falling through.
S&S Scaffolding Ltd pleaded guilty to single breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, was fined £75,000 and ordered to pay £31,517 in prosecution costs.
After the hearing, HSE inspector Jacqueline Western said: "Mr Causby died because S&S Scaffolding didn’t do enough to protect him from the risks of working at height, despite being a specialist scaffolding firm and being fully aware of the dangers of falls.
"It would have been relatively easy to cover the fragile skylights near to where the employees were working to prevent anyone from falling through if they accidently stepped on one. "Alternatively, netting or crash mats could have been provided under the skylights to reduce the chance of a worker being injured if they fell. “Sadly, none of these options were chosen by S&S Scaffolding and Mr Causby lost his life as a result." Source - Health and Safety Executive
A throwaway culture is sweeping the world. In the West, it’s endless consumerism; in the East it appears to be human lives. Despite living in a society in which workers lives are considered by some to be as worthless as last season’s smart phone, every worker has the right to return home safely at the end of each day. They cannot do this, however, without the right training and equipment.
We all know that without the right tools, it’s much harder to complete any job. You can all too easily find yourself ‘making do’ and improvising - because after all, the job has to get done, right? Wrong.
Don’t improvise or compromise when it comes to safety, or you may not see tomorrow.
Published: 22nd Jul 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East