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Published: 11th Mar 2013

Are today’s falls from heights only applicable to labourers? Are those who fall solely to blame for their fall - or are there other neglected issues? André Rabie investigates.

In today’s world where more safety legislation is available than ever before, it is alarming that falls from height are still one of the major contributors to workplace fatalities, disabilities and injuries. Where workers are concerned, the statistics speak for themselves.

According to an analysis of surgical admissions to the main Trauma Hospital in Al Ain, UAE (the second largest city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi), the period March 2003 to April 2005 showed 614 occupational injury hospitalisations. This is an incidence rate of 136 per 100,000 workers per year. Male migrant workers aged between 22 and 44 years (69%) originating from Pakistan (27%), India (24%), and Bangladesh (19%) accounted for the majority of incidents. More than half of the occupational injuries were due to falls (51%), followed by falling objects (15%).

The statistics validate that fall related injuries are still a challenge that needs constant focus. Although a fair portion of these falls could be related to the construction industry, falling from height is a major concern in any industry. In a more recent campaign from the Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD), known as the HAAD Height Awareness Programme, the records from 2008 to 2010 provide more or less the same grim picture of fatal occupational injuries in Abu Dhabi. The question that needs to be asked, is what measure of implementation and understanding of fall protection was executed in these incidents? Possibly one major point to be addressed is the attitude and understanding of senior management in implementing effective fall protection measures, of which a safety harness is one option.

Management’s opinions

The management’s opinion in terms of cost savings for a project is a major issue that can increase the possibility of fall injuries in the industry. Too often companies will resort to using safety harnesses for any work at height activity, neglecting other hierarchy of controls for preventing incidents. A good example of this is assembling structures at height, which has its own challenges in terms of safe access and extended working positions. One possible option to minimise exposure is to consider what can be assembled at ground level and then lifted into position once nearly completed. This would save time and eliminate issues of access, overreaching and dropping of tools and spares.

With the opinion of management influencing a lot of outcomes in construction and industry, could it be that they are exposing themselves to injuries or even fatalities? The answer, unfortunately, cannot be clearly defined. In cases where supervisors, engineers and quality controllers are performing their work, they too are exposed. I know of a few cases where these categories of workers were walking - totally unsuspecting - on a scaffold, only to fall to the level below due to a loose scaffold board, or into a hole. With the number of management personnel on site, the possibility of them being exposed to a fall is greatly reduced compared to labourer numbers, but they are still at risk.

From my personal experience in the construction industry, an air conditioning unit was lifted into position several stories high, only to then fit handrails to the unit while workers were exposed to dangerous heights. The corrective measure for this was to discuss the project with the engineer in charge and fit the handrails while the unit was at ground level, then lift the complete assembly into position.

The outcome of the meeting was that the rest of the units were in place quicker than anticipated, without the need for safety harnesses. This may sound like logic for some, but we as safety professionals need to continuously influence the current practises, especially where time strapped engineers may not see a better way to perform a task.

Training

When you consider that 70 percent of the workers injured in fall incidents were foreign, the first question that arises is as to the type of training they previously received. With a multicultural workforce that has its own challenges in the Middle East, the implementation of training programmes is a challenge - language selection has the greatest influence. Too many companies rely solely on training through PowerPoint based presentations, where workers have to sit for a couple of hours in cramped classrooms, at the mercy of a trainer or translator who himself may not have received the best of training.

The safety harness is the first resort of protection for most companies, yet very little is actually understood about this important device. There have been instances where safety harnesses were donned upside down, back to front or with vital parts missing – yet oblivious to this the workers wore them and proceeded to work at height. Even when this was discovered, the supervisor’s reaction demonstrated his disapproval to the worker, without understanding management’s failure in the infant stage of employment – training.

Classroom training has its place in any industry, but with the language barriers faced in the Middle East it is more important to have practical demonstrations and practise sessions to ensure competence that will save lives. Appropriately planned training sessions for working at height should consider the following barriers: language, fears of losing a job and previous experience or no experience. This should form the basic approach of any training which intends to make a difference to behaviour and performance.

Today’s society boasts various professional training institutions which deliver reputable training, which takes into consideration the workforce they will be dealing with. Companies need to invest in professional training; it is worth every dollar spent as it brings new insight into preparation and planning, and can change the views of management. One model of training used in various companies relies on one hour of theory and three hours of practical training. Translators are preselected based on proven capability to demonstrate concepts during the theoretical part of the training. This ranges from calculating and understanding forces involved in a fall, to basic requirements of a working at height risk assessment.

When the practical session starts it covers how a harness needs to be donned, and participants must demonstrate this, as well as inspecting each other’s harnesses. The practical session not only enforces correct donning, but may even result in workers confirming the status of their fellow workers, thereby preventing injuries from wrongly fitted harnesses.

Workers’ health

Another factor that will influence falls from height is the workers’ medical conditions. With experience gained through working on various projects, older workers are often hired as they know what the clients will want. Workers are subject to medicals where blood tests, X-rays and blood pressure are checked to obtain a working visa. For some workers this will serve as a medical check before going into the construction field, but as no one will discuss these results with them or follow up with annual medicals, health issues often go unnoticed.

As an example, when hypertension starts to affect a worker’s health, it may be disregarded as the worker being overworked or tired. Workers often do not take time to go to the doctor unless illness becomes an issue, for fear of losing much needed money. With illness left unattended, the medical condition can cause the worker to end up as merely another injury statistic.

Economic safety

The true cost of a safety harness is seldom realised. It is one thing to consider the invoiced price when harnesses are purchased, but all too often people fail to factor in the additional cost of training workers and inspectors, performing inspections, and wear and tear on PPE.

For this reason, companies should look long term at how they can eliminate bulk buying safety harnesses when fewer of them are needed, which will result in financial savings. As best practise guidelines suggest that harnesses should be replaced every five years from the date of manufacturing, this entails a huge expense roughly every five years. In today’s economy, budgets are getting tighter every year and companies are seeking ways to cut costs. This may be one area where immediate savings could be achieved if the correct alternatives and ways of thinking are implemented.

Improving standards

With some of these issues addressed, the next question will be, ‘What is the best standard to follow for fall protection?’ The answer is not found in one country’s legislation, nor a specific standard, but rather a combination of several. As a basis for fall protection, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the British Standard European Norm (BS EN) standards will provide guidelines to implement the basic standards needed to ensure the safety of the workforce when working at height. BS EN standards, such as BS EN 363:2008 Personal Fall Protection Equipment come to mind.

For more technical explanations and guidance, the Australian and New Zealand Standards (ASNZS) are more elaborate in showing the complexities that are involved in fall protection, fall arrest systems and life lines. ASNZS 1891 parts 1-4 provide basic working at height knowledge along with new insight into control measures that will make working at height jobs safer. This standard also sheds light onto minimum and maximum sag in life lines, and static and dynamic tests. Best practises from the Work at Height Safety Association are also of value as they provide guidelines for roof work and steel work.

Although most of this article focuses on general failings in the industry, there are reputable companies who are proactive in addressing identified flaws. In implementing comprehensive safety and contractor management to close these gaps, new workers entering the sites have to conform to specific standards which in turn ensures a proactive approach. For the sake of clear communication, certain language restrictions are placed on workers entering the site to ensure safety is understood and that interaction is possible. As accidents occur worldwide, companies often take notice of lessons learned from these events, and internalise the accident as if it was their own. By taking this approach to the accident, learning is communicated and feedback is sought from various departments in the organisation on how they will prevent a similar accident.

Similarly, with the development of new fall protection equipment, philosophies and standards, companies gain new insight into how accidents can be prevented and can adapt to these practises instead of accepting what they have. The mindset of challenging the systems in existence is therefore cultivated in the workforce, ensuring participation on all levels.

Conclusion

As a result of fall protection equipment being used incorrectly and best practises not being understood, on a daily basis workers of various nationalities are admitted to hospital with injuries - some lucky enough to narrowly survive their fall, while others are less fortunate. Worker safety should never be left in the hands of fate.

There should be more emphasis in the Middle East on applying the hierarchy of controls for working at height to ensure the safety of workers. If controls according to the model are implemented individually or in combination with other controls, the possibility of workers falling from height can be reduced. In following the model, a safety harness is considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which is clearly the least desired option, but in certain cases is essential.

All workers entering worksites should first be assessed for competence and any medical conditions, before the employer accepts that they are fit for the task at hand. Where medical conditions are identified, not only will it assist the company in ensuring zero harm to the worker, but the worker also stands a better chance of good health, as often the earlier sickness is identified the more doctors can offer in terms of treatment. In most cases when issues are noticed, retraining is given to ensure the safety of the worker, as well as to ensure the client’s safety standard is maintained.

Purposefully constructed training materials that encompass a combination of theory and practical modules are the best way to ensure the competence of a multinational workforce that works on the company’s premises. Through a practical demonstration of skills, the trainer can assess whether the worker comprehends and can demonstrate what is expected, after which he can be certified as being competent for that specific site.

Published: 11th Mar 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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