Working at height is one of the leading causes of work-related injuries and fatalities worldwide. Standing on unstable surfaces, climbing ladders, and working at height are particularly common causes of falls, and there’s also the risk of equipment and materials being accidentally or negligently dropped. Safe to say that there’s a lot that can go wrong.
The Middle Eastern market is growing fast as the region continues to take advantage of globalisation. To survive in the competitive global marketplace, Middle Eastern firms must proactively manage a wide range of business risks, and occupational health and safety (OHS) is no exception.
The consequences of OHS failures can be devastating for firms, particularly in sectors such as construction and general industry where additional risks exist—working at height, heavy machinery, hazardous materials, and dangerous substances are just a few examples. In fact, working at height remains one of the biggest causes of fatalities and major injuries in the workplace.
In this article, we’re going to explore how employers can take ownership of and safeguard against the risks of working at height. We’ll also look at the useful role that OHS training and assurance can play in helping employers manage and maintain health and safety standards, such as through implementation of LRQA’s Health, Safety and Environment Services (HSES) management framework and an ISO 45001 (the international standard for health and safety) OHS management system.
What do we mean by working at height?
‘Working at height’ describes work that takes place where, if suitable precautions are not taken, workers could fall and potentially cause injury to themselves or others. Employees are working at height if they:
- Work above ground level, from as little as one metre high
- Could fall from an edge, through an opening, or through a fragile surface
- Could fall from ground level into an opening, such as a hole in the ground
- Could drop objects and cause injury to others
This might sound like we’re pointing out the obvious, but it’s crucial that employers are aware of what working at height means so that suitable risk assessment efforts and accident prevention controls can be implemented as per the international standard, ISO 45001.
“ISO 45001 training should be the foundation for all HSES managers in the Middle East”
What is ISO 45001?
ISO 45001 is the first international standard designed to provide a framework for OHS management systems by building on the principles of its predecessor, OHSAS 18001.
ISO 45001 is designed to place a proactive emphasis on OHS risk control factors through identifying and addressing the likelihood of workplace hazards. It also uses a high-level structure so that it has a common framework with other management systems, such as ISO 9001 for quality management, and can be integrated with any existing management systems you might have.
Various clauses within the standard define requirements that must be met to achieve ISO 45001 certification, such as understanding the needs and expectations of workers, identifying hazards, risks, and opportunities, and retaining evidence of workers’ competence in relation to OHS.
Due to its global reach and exhaustive coverage of OHS, ISO 45001 training should be the foundation for all HSES managers in the Middle East.
Your role as an employer
Taking ownership of the risks of working from height begins with assessment. Factors to account for include the height at which work is taking place, the duration and frequency of this work, and the condition of the surface that employees are working on.
When managing the risk of working from height, always consider collective measures that protect all employees involved, before considering personal measures that only provide protection on an individual basis. As you’ll see below, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be considered the last line of defence and should only be used where all other alternatives have been exhausted. This is because the use of PPE means employees are being exposed to the risk, whereas OHS best practice is to eliminate or minimise this exposure.
As an employer, it’s your duty to ensure that sufficient plans and processes are in place for the management of OHS risks identified during assessment. This is particularly important when employees are working at height. You must also ensure that employees are using the right safety equipment. Under ISO 45001, these plans, processes, and other safety procedures are governed by a hierarchy of controls.
“the approach to OHS in the workplace is changing rapidly”
This hierarchy begins with eliminating working at height entirely. If it cannot be eliminated, then it should be substituted with less hazardous processes (i.e. completing most of a task on the ground) and engineering controls (i.e. use of guard rails and scaffolds). Where neither of these are possible then administrative controls (i.e. suitable training) and PPE (i.e. harnesses, fall arrest systems) can be used as options of last resort.
When implementing this hierarchy of controls, ask questions such as:
- Can we bring some of the work to ground level and move it to height later?
- Could machinery be used at height and operated by an employee at ground level?
- What controls can we implement to make working at height safer?
- Who are our most experienced employees, and would they benefit from height training?
- What PPE can we access?
H&S training and assurance
The approach to OHS in the workplace is changing rapidly as new processes and opportunities shape global markets. Trends are being driven by the rising cost of failure, changing social norms that place more emphasis on management’s responsibility to implement a safety culture, and the relentless pace of change in the world of work as organisations become more agile and apply more pressure on workers.
As such, more of an emphasis is being placed on OHS training and assurance by employers. When implemented properly, international standards such as ISO 45001 have the potential to be transformative for firms operating in areas where OHS is a critical concern–construction being a prime example.
At LRQA, our mission is one of ‘zero harm’; we focus on the significant risks and seek to understand and address underlying behavioural triggers and harness technology to mitigate risk by implementing key controls for safety-critical activities.
At the heart of our HSES management framework, for example, are our ‘LifeSavers’ controls for working at height and fall prevention. These are four simple best practice tasks that set the foundation for better working practices:
- Define basic global requirements to establish local safety practices
- Provide a platform to discuss working methods for high-risk activities
- Establish a simple set of behaviours that will help to control significant risks
- Share knowledge of best practices across the organisation
Our LifeSavers controls were designed in response to repetitive incidents being reported within certain areas of industry. These controls are defined by dos and don’ts—best practice guidance that tells employers what ‘rules’ they need to follow to help prevent employees from falling when they’re working at height.
These rules are categorised into different areas, such as general principles for working at height and safe systems of work for working at height. They can easily be implemented alongside an OHS management system under ISO 45001, too. Let’s look at these in more detail.
General principles for working at height
General LifeSavers principles for working at height cover much of what we’ve already discussed. For example, working at height can only occur where other options are deemed unsuitable and therefore it cannot be avoided. Working at height can also only be performed by trained and competent employees.
Other principles include: Fall arrest and restraint systems must be used above five feet; employees must always be accompanied when working at height; portable access equipment such as lifts and platforms should be used for access; ladders must only be used where this equipment is not available; high-risk activities, such as working on platforms, operating mobile platforms, and using suspended access must only be carried out by employees who have been trained and certified to do so.
“full-body harnesses must be worn when using suspended work platforms”
Implementing a safety system
In addition to the above general principles, employees should look to implement an organisation-wide system that ensures safe working at height.
This system should include key requirements such as: Employees must comply with LifeSavers critical safety behaviours and best practices; personnel must visually inspect permanent structures and access equipment before use; scaffolding must be used where a permanent means of access is not available; scaffolding should be regularly inspected and maintained to ensure safety; full-body harnesses must be worn when using suspended work platforms or Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs); and employees must not ride MEWPs while the boom is extended.
When creating a safety system for working at height, employers must ensure the following:
- Hazards of working at height are identified, assessed, and documented in the HSES risk register, along with local requirements, processes, and control measures
- Task risk assessments are conducted by personnel before conducting work at height, and environmental conditions are considered
- A register of fall arrest equipment must be established, with any defective equipment taken out of service after a fall, or where there’s excessive wear or defects
- A competent person must assess fall arrest equipment at least annually, or more frequently where local compliance requirements mandate it
Guidance for employees
Employees should: Maintain three points of contact when climbing or working from a ladder and always hold on; plan their work and agree on appropriate safety measures with co-workers; raise concerns and intervene if others are working unsafely; check if a permit is required before commencing a task and always follow any requirements; and maintain situational awareness of other work being conducted around you as this could impact your safety.
Employees shouldn’t: Begin working without a risk assessment to identify risks and appropriate controls; begin working if it’s believed that conditions are unsafe; begin working if safety or emergency procedures are unclear; rely solely on PPE as this should be considered a final line of defence.
Employees should also be aware of hazards and developing risks by: Maintaining a safe distance from hazards, ensuring they’re outside the ‘line of fire’ and understanding the consequences of equipment failure; keeping away from suspended loads, unprotected equipment, and moving vehicles; being alert to blasting, welding, grinding, electrical work, and the risk of falling objects; and maintaining a safe distance from lines and loads under tension.
“stage 1 and stage 2 training must be refreshed every three years”
Training and competency
Prior to being authorised to work at height, personnel must successfully complete a two-stage training course:
- Stage 1: LRQA LifeSavers work at height training
- Stage 2: Practical work at height training as directed by the HSES Manager
Personnel can be exempt from the stage 2 training if they can demonstrate appropriate valid training and have recent experience of working at height. That said, stage 1 and stage 2 training must be refreshed every three years, or where there is either a significant change in a process or where there is evidence of deficiencies in an individual’s knowledge.