The statistics regarding injuries caused by falls from height at work are alarming, with nearly all countries naming it as their first, or at least top five, realised hazard in the workplace.
Due to the constant effect of gravity around the globe we can say with some certainty that if a person falls from a height above two metres the likelihood is that they will sustain serious injury.
Many work activities involve working at height. Working from ladders, scaffolds and platforms are obvious examples, but there are many more activities where people are required to work at height. Examples include working on rooftops, over tanks and pits, at the edges of elevated structures, or on the tops of vehicles or trailers.
The main hazards associated with working at height are people falling and objects falling onto people below. These may occur as a result of inadequate edge protection, or from objects in storage being poorly secured.
Workers in maintenance and construction and many other people in a variety of jobs could be at risk of falling from height at work. Examples include: painters, decorators, window cleaners, exhibition erectors and those who undertake one-off jobs without proper training, planning and equipment. Another area of concern is the road transport industry.
Falls from height can be the result of:
• Working at height without appropriate equipment
• Using equipment or practices not suitable for the task
• Using work at height equipment incorrectly, e.g. not in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions, design or load capabilities
• The failure of equipment or anchor points
• Collapse of structure
• Poor planning, supervision, training or lack of competency
• Adverse weather conditions
• Complex natural environmental conditions
• Rough and uneven ground
• Complex built environmental conditions
• Unpredictable behaviour of persons
The nature and extent of an injury resulting from a fall from height may be influenced by the:
• Height from which the person fell
• Angle of impact
• Suitability/weight of personal protective equipment (PPE)
• Any equipment carried
• Landing surface
• Impact with protrusions/objects during a fall
Significant injuries can occur if persons are struck by falling objects. Due to the risk from falling objects, persons working at height or in areas below such work need to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Inclement weather, especially high winds, can cause overloading and damage that result in objects becoming dislodged and falling. It can also cause sheet materials such as glass and plywood to plane a considerable distance.
Fragile surfaces are another major area of concern. A fragile surface is one that will not support the weight of an imposed load. Typical examples of fragile materials are:
• Plastic / perspex roof light sheets
• Asbestos / fibre cement sheets
• Metal sheets – particularly if corroded
• Woodwool slabs and stramit board
• Fire damaged roofs
• Materials weakened by structural collapse, the effects of heat or water
With the increased use of harnesses and rope systems for recreation and in the workplace, a medical condition associated with prolonged suspension has been identified. Known as suspension syncope, orthostatic shock or suspension trauma, the condition occurs where an immobile person is suspended from a rope system restricting normal blood flow.
There has been well conducted research (with a low risk of bias) to support the following statements:
• Motionless head-up suspension trauma can lead to presyncope in most normal subjects within one hour, and within 10 minutes in a fifth of subjects
• Factors that may affect casualties in suspension and lead to presyncope, syncope and/or unconsciousness include dehydration, alcohol and prescribed medication
Outside the scope of this review, other research has concluded that the following factors may also affect casualties in suspension and lead to presyncope, syncope and/or unconsciousness, including: exhaustion, hypothermia, hypoglycemia, head trauma, shock, inclination of the body, hypovolemia and time delays in rescuing the casualty.
Hierarchy of controls
The most effective risk control measure to prevent falls is to avoid working at height in the first instance. This principle needs to be built into the planning processes at all levels. Where working at height cannot be avoided, consideration must be given to the following hierarchy of controls:
• Carrying out the task from an existing place of work that does not need additional controls e.g. ground level, mezzanine floors, staircases
• Carrying out the task from a safe working platform
• Collective fall prevention – barriers and guard rails
• Collective fall protection – nets, air bags and soft landing systems
• Individual fall prevention – work restraint (sometimes known as travel restrictor) is a system consisting of the equipment used to keep a person from reaching a fall point such as the edge of a roof, or the edge of an elevated work platform
• Individual fall protection – full body harnesses and fall arrest systems are used to reduce the consequences should a fall occur; the entire system must be capable of withstanding the impact forces involved in a fall (including any additional weight being carried) and must be capable of minimising those forces to an acceptable level.
An essential element of managing risk is pre-planning. The integrated risk management plan will identify standards in terms of equipment and operational personnel required for safe systems of work to be employed.
Information should be collated on the risks in the appropriate area and make site specific risk information available to all relevant personnel, prior to and upon arrival to the task. This approach will help to ensure that work at height activity is planned, supervised and carried out safely.
All managers with a responsibility for organising and planning for work at height must be competent. Specific work at height responsibilities such as training and equipment procurement should be included in health and safety policies, and where appropriate, job descriptions.
All personnel operating at height must receive appropriate training before undertaking those duties. No personnel should work at height without proper equipment or training.
All relevant national guidance should be utilised in the development of work at height training courses.
The training programme should include:
• Knowledge, understanding and/or the ability to apply the hierarchy of control measures in respect of working at height
• Knowledge and understanding of the working at height procedures
• Refresher training enabling personnel to achieve and maintain the required levels with the national competency framework
Training records should be kept to provide an effective audit trail.
The person nominated to take overall management responsibility for work at height activities must receive such training as is necessary to provide the level of knowledge, skills and understanding required by the role.
It is essential that all operational personnel are suitably trained and assessed for competency in the use of their personal fall protection systems and work at height equipment, as well as the pre-checking of that equipment. These personnel must also have an appropriate aptitude for working at height, along with sufficient professional and technical training, knowledge and actual experience to enable them to:
• Carry out their assigned duties at the level of responsibility allocated to them
• Understand fully any potential hazards related to the work and the equipment to be used
• Detect any technical defects or omissions in that work and equipment, recognise any implications for health and safety from those defects or omissions, and be able to take remedial action to deal with these
All equipment must be fit for purpose and all operators should be trained and assessed for competence. All work at height equipment should be subjected to a formal procedure for examination, inspection and maintenance before and after use and at defined periods (in line with legislation). The level of use and any contamination of equipment should inform the frequency of detailed inspections and any interim inspections. Records of use and inspection should be kept throughout the life of the equipment.
It is essential that all load-bearing elements of work at height equipment are given a visual and tactile inspection before each use to ensure they are in a safe condition and operating correctly. Advice should be obtained from the manufacturer. Formal inspection procedures should be put in place to ensure that personal fall protection equipment is given a detailed inspection by a competent person before first use and at intervals not exceeding six months (or three months where the equipment is used in arduous conditions), and after circumstances liable to jeopardise safety have occurred.
Interim inspections of work at height might be needed between programmed, detailed inspections. For example, where the risk assessment has identified that work at height equipment has, or may have been exposed to a hazard that could cause significant deterioration in the equipment, it should be inspected and appropriate records made.
Examples of such hazards include paint, chemicals, acidic or alkaline environment. The need for and frequency of interim inspections will depend on the particular circumstances in which the equipment is to be used.
A record should be kept of all inspections of work at height equipment, with the exception of the pre-use inspection carried out prior to use at operational incidents or during training.
All equipment that is being hauled aloft or being lowered is to be adequately secured. Where equipment is being used to cut or dismantle plant or machinery at height, suitable precautions must be taken to prevent injury from any material that falls.
For the purpose of this article and to afford clarification over the term ‘hazard zone’, this can be defined in two distinct ways.
A hazard zone is one which is established:
• Above or below any area where work at height is being undertaken, this would include acts such as hauling equipment aloft
• When working near any unprotected edge or slope leading to any unprotected edge within three metres, which is also known as the danger area
To minimise the risk of injury to personnel, hazard zones must be established, cordoned off and operated using strict control procedures where the following occurs:
• Individuals are working at height and there is a risk of a fall likely to cause injury
• Individuals are at risk of being struck by falling objects
• There is a risk of dislodging unstable materials
The stability of a surface must be determined before work begins. It can be difficult to distinguish between roof lights, roofing sheets and metal sheets particularly under certain environmental conditions; this has been a significant factor in past major accidents. All roofing sheets should be treated as fragile and should not be directly walked upon unless it can be determined that they are of adequate strength to support the load. Work must be arranged to ensure that personnel do not walk on or work near fragile surfaces.
With a measure of competence, good planning and proactive safety management, employees can work at height safely. Here are 10 tips to safe working at height:
1. Identify all working at height activities undertaken by your employees and others, such as contractors, within your business.
2. Make an initial assessment of all these working at height activities to determine if there is a risk of injury to those who are working at height, or who may be affected by those working at height, e.g. potential to be struck by falling objects.
3. Remove the need for working at height activities wherever possible.
4. Where work at height cannot be avoided, undertake a full risk assessment of those remaining activities that have a significant level of risk.
5. Consider possible control measures based upon the hierarchy to minimise the risk as far as is reasonably practicable. Consult widely on proposed control measures.
6. Implement the necessary control measures.
7. Develop and implement a monitoring and maintenance strategy, i.e. how will you check to see that the control measures are being used and maintained?
8. Make sure you keep a record.
9. Review all assessments regularly and particularly if there is any change in personnel or work at height operations, or if an accident or injury occurs.
10. Ensure that you have a policy covering working at height and that it is communicated to everyone who might reasonably need to know. This will always include your employees and will also include contractors and co-occupiers where applicable.
As has been outlined above there remains a clear set of principles and standards that can be utilised for the management of working at height. However, it still remains one of our largest injury creators and even killers within all industries worldwide. This indicates that not only should we continue with standards and approaches such as those outlined above, but we must also continue to innovate different approaches to managing safety in this regard.
The discourse among safety professionals, manufacturers, governments and business management needs to be expanded, and in some cases started, to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged. Until something changes many people will not have access to the correct equipment, or the best equipment, will not be trained and will not have knowledge of the risk, and thus will ultimately suffer the consequences of one of our most well-known and deadly risks.
Published: 2nd Mar 2016 in Health and Safety Middle East