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Personal Fall Protection

Published: 10th Nov 2011

Simon Hughes from IOSH’s Middle East Branch talks about the importance of personal fall protection equipment (PFPE) in the Middle East.

Planning for a fall

As with any occupation, good planning with a suitable risk assessment are cornerstones of good health and safety management and an essential part of any work at height task or trade. Any person involved in planning or organising a work at height activity should be competent and have a good knowledge of the task to be performed, potential hazards and risks arising from the work, and an understanding of the appropriate controls that need to be considered and implemented to prevent falls. This will enable them to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

In considering the control measures to prevent or protect against falls from height, the following hierarchy of controls should be looked at:

1. Avoid work at height - Where possible, consider alternative means to carry out the work without having to expose people to the risk. This can be achieved through good design and innovative planning. A good example of this is where a pole system is used for window cleaning to avoid working off ladders.

2. Prevent falls - Use suitable work equipment and systems of work to prevent a fall in the first place. Consider collective protection, such as safe working platforms with physical guardrails, before resorting to personal protection provided by harnesses and fall restraint (restraint lanyards which prevent a person accessing a position where they could fall), or work positioning equipment (rope access).

3. Arrest falls - Utilise fall protection equipment that arrests a fall but doesn’t prevent a fall. Fall arrest equipment should be selected that minimises both the distance and consequences (potential severity of injury) of a fall. Again, collective fall arrest equipment such as safety nets or soft landing systems should be used before resorting to personal protection in the form of safety harnesses and fall arrest lanyards.

Priority should be given to collective protection such as handrails over personal protection (harnesses). Some refer to collective protection as passive protection; for example, a guardrail will remain in place and provide protection should someone fall against it. On the other hand, personal fall protection equipment is ‘personal’ or ‘active’ protection that must be attached to afford any benefit to the user. Therefore, personal fall arrest equipment requires a high degree of personal discipline to ensure that it is attached to a suitable anchor point.

Effectively, personal fall arrest equipment should be a last resort. For many who work at height, however, there is often a residual risk of a fall that cannot be completely eliminated. In this case, operatives need to resort to personal fall protection equipment at some point in the work process to reduce the risk.

Performance standards

Employers in the Middle East must consider all local regulations, management systems, codes of practice, standards and guidance for the country, state or client they are working for when it comes to working at height. In the absence of any explicit standards or specifications for manufacturing and use of PFPE, reference should be made to recognised and established standards from overseas.

Typically, organisations look towards British, European or American standards as a measure of good practice. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has a good fall protection code. ANSI Z359 as it is known provides an umbrella for 17 fall protection standards. Also, there are specific ANSI standards that apply to construction in respect of fall prevention and protection.

In the European Union it is illegal to use any personal protective equipment (PPE) unless it complies with the relevant European Standards for manufacturing, testing and instructions for use, under the PPE Directive (89/686/EEC).

There are also British Standards which act as voluntary codes of practice and guidance to best practice for the use of PFPE. These include:

• BS 8437: 2005 Code of practice for selection, use and maintenance of personal fall protection systems and equipment for use in the workplace (British Standards Institute)

• BS 7883: 2005 - Code of practice for the design, selection, installation, use and maintenance of anchor devices conforming to BS EN 795 (British Standards Institute)

Selecting PFPE

Employers have to consider a number of factors when choosing personal fall protection equipment and must ensure it is suitable for the task. Often decisions are based on what equipment is available in the company or on site, and not what is the best solution for the task and the risks involved.

Sometimes specification or quality is compromised when the employer is influenced by the price of equipment. This can be a false economy. Some low specification or poor quality equipment may not be robust enough for the rigours of certain tasks, and may need replacing more often or increase the risk of failing if defects go undetected. The quality of the equipment can have a significant effect on the user and his or her attitude towards using the equipment properly. For example, a budget safety harness will have minimal adjustment and therefore may have fit problems and be uncomfortable for the user, compared with a higher specification harness (see figure 1).

Some manufacturers and suppliers provide basic PFPE that is designed and produced to the minimum standards, which needs to be considered by employers when choosing equipment. A typical fall arrest harness (EN 361) is designed and tested using a 100kg mass, whereas some users are heavier than 100kg (220lbs), thus employers need to ensure they provide equipment especially designed and tested for the heavier user.

A basic fall arrest harness will typically only have one attachment point (usually a rear dorsal) whereas more comprehensive harnesses will have multiple connection points. This needs to be considered when designing a safe system of work and specifying PFPE. It is worth noting that in some rescue scenarios additional connection points may be required on the harness, e.g. front and rear.

Another consideration is the fabric used on a harness and whether it is suitable for the working environment. If there is a risk of a fall over a sharp or abrasive edge which could cut through a lanyard, it is worth investing in cut resistant materials.

Training, instruction and supervision

Once a suitable fall protection system has been chosen, it is important that the operatives using the equipment and those responsible for supervising the task receive suitable information, training and instruction. Just handing over the equipment and expecting operatives to simply read the instructions or guidance is clearly not adequate.

Employers need to ensure that any formal training courses are provided by suitably competent training providers and courses are designed and delivered to a recognised standard (ideally in accordance with BS 8454: 2006 code of practice for the delivery of training and education for work at height and rescue).

Employers should also check on local requirements for approved training for the country, state or client. Adequate training should be provided for any person responsible for the inspection of PFPE and similarly for operatives in the use of any specialist rescue equipment necessary.

In addition to training for the users, management should ensure that operatives using PFPE receive a proper task briefing.

Anchor points

For any PFPE system to provide appropriate protection it needs to be attached to a suitable anchor point. Anchor points must be capable of sustaining the forces imposed in a fall, which can be significant. For example, a fall arrest lanyard with an energy absorber is designed to reduce the forces to below 6kN.

Proprietary anchor devices should be designed and tested in accordance with BS EN 795: 1997 Protection Against Falls from a Height - anchor devices. For further guidance reference should be made to BS 7883: 2005 - code of practice for the design, selection, installation, use and maintenance of anchor devices conforming to BS EN 795: 1997. As a general recommendation, when choosing an anchor point it should be capable of withstanding 10kN or the maximum load specified by the PFPE manufacturer (note that some PFPE has potential imposed loadings in excess of 10kN).

Clearance distances

When choosing PFPE and selecting suitable anchor points, consideration needs to be given to the clearance distance required should a fall occur. In accordance with the hierarchy of controls, PFPE and anchor points should be used that minimise the fall distance and potential injury. Operatives should utilise anchor points above their work position, where possible, and use equipment that has a minimum fall distance (e.g. a short lanyard or inertia reel).

If an operative uses a maximum length two metre fall arrest lanyard attached to an anchor point at foot level (in a fall factor two scenario - where the operative can fall a distance above, to a position below the anchor point) then, in the worst case, they could require around six metres clearance to fully arrest a fall. In some occupations, such as scaffolding, where standard PFPE is routinely used, the industry guidance recommends that anchor points start to become effect in reducing the potential severity from a fall at four metres.

Lanyards

Fall arrest lanyards must incorporate an energy absorbing device (BS EN 355: 2002) that reduces the forces imposed into the harness and anchor point to below 6kN. The maximum length of a fixed length lanyard is two metres, which also includes the connectors and anchor devices used. Lanyards should not be extended beyond two metres and should certainly not be joined together - this can significantly increase the risk of injury from a fall, and the forces generated over a greater fall distance could cause the equipment to fail.

A system of work using fall arrest lanyards will rely upon being attached to a suitable anchor point(s) at all times. When a single fall arrest lanyard is used and the operative is required to reposition their anchor point then the system is undermined, as the operative will be exposed to a risk of falling while the lanyard is not attached. In such cases a double or twin-tailed system would be more appropriate, as this enables the operative to remain continually attached while traversing from one position to the next.

When a single lanyard is not in use, it should be stowed away to prevent it becoming a tripping or snagging hazard, by wrapping it around the body and fixing it to the harness. Particular consideration is required when using twin-tailed lanyards that share the same energy absorber, as users should not wrap the spare lanyard around their body when not in use. Instead, they should either attach it to the same anchor point, let it hang loose or stow it on the harness using a sacrificial parking point designed to break away in the event of a fall. If the spare lanyard is simply attached onto the harnesses then there is a risk that the energy absorber could be ineffective and increase the forces imposed in a fall.

Vertical fall arrest systems

For temporary work at height the use of inertia reels (or blocks) provides a practical solution in many situations. Inertia reels provide greater flexibility of movement for the user compared to a fixed length lanyard. Inertia reels are commonly misused, however, which can significantly increase the risk of injury.

Most inertia reels are designed to be fixed above the user and only have a limited scope for use horizontally from the vertical plane, so it is important to check the manufacturer’s instructions for the maximum specified angle that can be used from the vertical. This hazard is commonly referred to as the ‘pendulum effect’ or ‘swing fall risk’, where if an operative was to walk out horizontally and fall, they would swing like a pendulum, potentially striking objects as they swung (see figure 2). Guidance on the pendulum effect can be found in ANSI Z359, CAN/CSA Z259, EN 361 and ISO 10333.

Other vertical systems include ladder systems that protect users as they climb tall vertical ladders and would arrest their fall from the ladder. These systems can be permanently installed systems, or temporary systems using tensioned ropes and a rope grab device that grips the rope in the event of a fall. Both systems normally require the operative to use a fall body harness with a chest connector and typically use a short lanyard with an energy absorber.

Horizontal line systems

Again, horizontal line systems can be permanently installed systems to protect a worker accessing near a roof edge, say, for maintenance or inspection, and temporary lines commonly used in construction operations.

Special consideration needs to be made when using temporary horizontal line systems, which include:

• The maximum clearance required, as the defection in some systems can be quite significant

• The maximum number of operatives that can use the system at a time (as per the manufacturer’s instructions). For systems that allow more than one operative to be attached to the same line, a ‘V fall risk’ is introduced where all operatives could fall at the same time and collide together at the point of the ‘V’

• The end loads that can be generated may be significant depending upon the maximum span and number of users. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions for anchor load requirements

Rescue and recovery

It is vitally important that employers prepare a suitable rescue and recovery plan in the event of a fall using fall arrest equipment. There are physiological and psychological risks associated with a person suspended in a harness and therefore there must be a rescue plan that can be put into action in a timely manner.

There isn’t a maximum time a person can be suspended in a harness, but there is a risk that the casualty could faint in the harness after a period of time (suspension syncope). If they faint and their head falls forwards blocking the airway then they could suffer asphyxia in addition to any other injuries sustained in the fall.

There have been lots of myths and unproven theories associated with so called suspension trauma, which have largely been dismissed following a recent research study carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Birmingham University Hospital in the UK (HSE Research Report Number RR708).

The general advice, however, remains the same: (i) there must be a timely rescue plan and (ii) traditional first aid advice and medical treatment should be followed.

Measures to be considered when designing a rescue plan include:

• Is specialist rescue equipment required?

• Is the rescue equipment suitable for the task and the workplace? For example, descender only rescue kits may not be suitable for very tall structures due to the large amount of rope that would be required to lower a casualty to the ground

• Can site access equipment be utilised (e.g. mobile elevating work platform or crane with a man-riding basket)?

• Is the rescue equipment readily available at the workplace?

• Have all operatives who may be required to facilitate a rescue been trained in the use of the rescue equipment?

• Has the rescue equipment been inspected and maintained?

As a general principle, when choosing specialist rescue equipment preference should be given to remote rescue equipment over fully assisted rescue equipment that places the rescuer at additional risk; that is, rescue equipment that can be operated from a position of safety as opposed to abseiling type rescue equipment, where the rescuer lowers themselves down to the casualty.

Inspection and maintenance

All personal fall protection equipment requires inspection. The frequency and thoroughness of the inspections needs to consider the nature of use and workplace environment. All PFPE should be inspected before use and each shift by the user. It is recommended that harnesses and lanyards should be thoroughly inspected every six months by a competent person, and if they are used in arduous trades or conditions, then the maximum frequency should be increased to three monthly. These in depth inspections should be formally recorded. The need for interim inspections should be identified through risk assessment. For further reading refer to HSE guidance INDG 367.

Other PFPE equipment such as inertia reels and line systems should be inspected and maintained in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions by approved providers/agents. Records of inspection and maintenance should be kept.

This article highlights some of the main steps to be considered when designing and implementing a successful system of work using personal fall arrest equipment. Since the revision of the National Access and Scaffolding Confederations (NASC) Safety Guidance No. 4 Preventing Falls in Scaffolding, in the year 2000, the UK has seen an 84% reduction in the accident frequency rates recorded by the NASC.

The IOSH Middle East Branch is actively working alongside other organisations within the region to help reduce the number of accidents that take place in the workplace. Personal fall protection equipment is just one of the many ways in which employers can help to keep their workforce safe. ?

Author

Simon Hughes is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (CMIOSH) and actively involved in the Middle East Branch of the Institution.

For more than 15 years he has been employed as a health and safety professional, specialising in work at height, particularly scaffolding, access equipment and personal fall protection systems. Simon is now Managing Director of the Simian Risk Group, an international occupational health and safety consultancy and training provider specialising in scaffolding and working at height. Simian Skill is the training branch of the group which has dedicated scaffolding training facilities in the UK and Dubai.

Simon has been an active member of the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation’s (NASC) Safety Committee since 1997 and has been involved in the production and development of many industry guidance notes. As a health and safety professional, he has investigated many scaffolding related accidents such as collapses, falling objects and fall from height accidents including several fatalities, assisting clients through Health and Safety Executive and police investigations, prosecutions and civil litigation.

Further information

The IOSH Middle East Branch is holding a ‘working at height’ seminar in Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday 16 November. For more information contact laurence.dufour@iosh.co.uk or visit www.iosh.co.uk/branches/middle_east.aspx

Published: 10th Nov 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East

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