Falls from working at height are one of the biggest causes of workplace fatalities and major injuries. Therefore, ensuring safe work at height is of paramount importance for any company involved in these activities.
What do we mean by working at height? The definition is any activity conducted at, above, or below ground level – where there is a risk of a person being injured falling from a height. So, in addition to the commonly thought of falling from height to a ground level, we must also ensure that consideration has been given to falling into holes, pits, tanks or machinery.
In addition to the harm caused by hitting a surface from a height, harm may also be caused by hazards associated with working at height, such as falling objects, contact with overhead electrical services, a platform collapse, falling into a hazardous substance, and falling into machinery or the path of a moving vehicle.
“to work safely, carefully plan in advance”
Plan your working at height activity
To work safely, carefully plan in advance. Give consideration to the selection and use of work equipment. Establish a plan and means of escape in the event of an emergency. Consider the below as a minimum:
Can the work at height be avoided? Examples include undertaking the task at ground level. Such as installing cables at ground level or using extendable tools instead of working at height:
- If avoidance is not possible, ensure that it will be adequately planned, risk assessed, organised and supervised.
- Ensure the proper selection, provision, inspection and maintenance of the most appropriate equipment, to both prevent a fall and minimise the distance and consequences of a potential fall.
- Ensure that adequate training for the activity has been given and that the worker is competent as regards the activities.
- Ensure that adequate information, instruction and supervision is provided.
- Ensure that the emergency procedures in place include a working at height rescue plan.
This planning phase must include risk assessments, in which the working at height activity and the hazards arising from said activity have been identified. Then effective control measures can be implemented to reduce the exposure to risk.
In addition to the required training and competence to conduct the working at height activity, the company must ensure that no person engages in organising, planning and/or supervising working at height activities without the required levels of knowledge and skill. If not, they must be supervised by a competent person.
Start your working at height activity
If you’ve ascertained that working at height cannot be avoided, an existing safe place of work should be used.
This workplace and its means of access or egress should:
- Be stable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for the purpose
- Rest on surfaces that are stable and of sufficient strength and rigidity
- Be of a sufficient size to allow the safe use of persons, plant and material
- Be constructed, used and maintained in a manner to prevent slipping, tripping or any person being trapped between it and an adjacent structure
- Have suitable means for preventing a fall in place
If there is no suitable existing safe place to work from, other measures to prevent falls should be provided.
Select the right equipment
Include all equipment that allows a person to work at height safely. The company must ensure that working platforms are stable, suitable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for the purpose.
When determining the type of equipment to choose, consider factors including:
- The nature, frequency and duration that the work equipment will be used for
- The height of the job
- The load on the equipment
- Whether there is level ground available to use at the work site
- Any obstructions
- Available space
- Working conditions
- The potential distance of a fall and the potential nature of an injury
- Training required on the work equipment
Consider all types of working at height equipment. These include:
Temporary structure or a working platform, used to support an employee and materials. Widely used on site to give access to heights and areas that would be otherwise hard to access.
Mobile scaffold or tower scaffold
Temporary structure or working platform which is quick to erect, light, can be moved into place and secured. Provides vertical access, usually at a fixed height once erected with a steady platform and protective guardrails.
Mobile Elevated Working Platform (MEWP)
Powered working platform, designed to help people carry out working at height activities in a safe manner.
Many types and sizes of ladders are available including portable, suspended, step, interlocking, extension, mobile and fixed. They should only be used for activities of a short duration where work is light and low risk.
A ladder with wide, flat steps and two pairs of legs connected at the top, that opens at the bottom so it can stand independently without being attached to or supported by something else.
Suspended access cradles and platforms
Includes a working platform or cradle and a means of raising and lowering it to and from a roof rig.
Allows workers to access difficult to reach locations without the use of scaffolding, cradles or an aerial work platform.
Personal fall protection systems
Where the risk of falls cannot be prevented, measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall must be provided. Personal fall protection systems comprise of either fall restraint/prevention or fall arrest systems. They do not stop people from falling, but minimise potential injuries should a fall occur.
Fall restraint/prevention systems
These use a body holding device connected to a reliable anchor. An example of a fall restraint system is a lanyard tied off at a set length from a weighted tie off point.
“fall restraint is preferable to fall arrest”
Fall arrest system
These also use a body holding device connected to a reliable anchor. They arrest and restrict a fall by preventing the user from hitting the ground, structure or surface. An example is a safety harness.
In the hierarchy of controls, fall restraint is preferable to fall arrest. There are concerns to be mindful of when using personal fall protection system, these include:
- Ensure adequate training must be provided.
- The emergency response plan must include the deployment of a rapid and effective trained rescue team also trained in first aid response, who can utilise the suitable rescue equipment necessary to retrieve persons for whom a delay in rescue may have severe consequences.
- Persons using fall arrest systems may experience suspension trauma. This effect occurs when the human body is held upright without any movement for a period of time. It may lead to a state of unconsciousness or even death.
Guard rail systems
These may be required to make safe a work platform or other place of work. Guard rails may be a permanent structure or work equipment. The company must ensure that guard rails are used on the edge of:
- Openings in floors or edges of roof structures
- Shafts or excavations
- Fragile surfaces
- Working platforms, walkways, landings, stairs or ramps
Where persons are working at height in a place that is protected by guard rails, the rails should not be able to fall over, under or between them.
In certain circumstances, it may be necessary to remove guard rails or other means of protection for short periods. This should only occur:
- When another safeguard is in place, for example, a safety net
- For necessary period of time for the work activity only, before the barrier is immediately replaced
Collective safeguards for arresting falls include nets, mats and inflatable devices designed to catch a falling person.
Safeguards may need to be anchored to prevent movement as per the manufacturer’s manual. If there are gaps in the supports for collective safeguards which could compromise safety, these should be filled or covered. Specific consideration of rescue procedures and the effects of landing should be considered before work activities start.
Collective safeguards can only be used where:
- A risk assessment has taken place and demonstrated that the work activity can be performed safely while using it
- The use of other, safer, work equipment is not practical
- The safeguard is suitable as regards to the work being conducted and is also of a sufficient strength to safely arrest the fall of a person and their subsequent rescue
- The safeguard to be used is stable
- Any safeguard designed to be attached, is securely attached to all requited anchors. And that those means of attachment are suitably stable with sufficient strength to support the foreseeable loading of arresting any fall and their subsequent rescue
- The safeguard used gives sufficient clearance space
- An adequate number of employees are available to assist with all aspects of the safeguard operation and have received training, including on rescue procedures
- Suitable and sufficient steps have been taken to ensure that the safeguard itself does not cause injury to any person
Where a collective safeguard is designed to be suspended and requires a clear zone in which to deflect, that zone should be kept clear of all obstructions to allow the safeguard to operate properly.
Where the design of a collective safeguard requires an external power source, such as a pump for an air bag or restraints such as brickwork to enclose the air bag to make it effective, these power sources or restraints must be sufficient to maintain the effectiveness of the equipment in the event of a fall and rescue.
Consideration must be given to the safety of people who could be underneath the working at height activity. Particularly in respect of falling objects that could cause injury, such as toe boards or sheeting on scaffolding. Chutes may be used to control the transport of materials and waste from a height to a safe location.
Measures must also be taken to fence off or barricade areas to prevent unauthorised access. The effectiveness of these measures will depend on the material and tools that are being used and any effects that weather, wind or other factors may have in creating a more widespread hazard.
The risk of falling materials causing injury can be minimised by keeping workplaces at height clear of loose materials. Stack or store materials away from edges and in a manner likely to prevent their falls, such as via a suitable racking system. Sheets of plywood, insulation and decking should be secured and ways of preventing objects rolling or being kicked off the edge utilised. These may include toe boards or solid barriers.
“if a risk of falls remains, fall protection equipment is required”
There should be awareness of the additional risk of persons or objects falling through fragile roofs, ceilings and skylights. These surfaces may be close to or part of the structure on which work activities are being conducted. They may also include vertical or inclined surfaces.
Any surface from which a working at height activity is being carried out must be strong and stable enough so that any foreseeable loads placed on it will not lead to its collapse.
It is also vital to consider the dynamic forces of the person falling from height onto the surface. Additionally, the effect of ageing on the surface material and possible deterioration caused by weather, environment, impact and structural alterations.
Where there is a fragile surface requiring regular or even just occasional access, permanent fencing, guards or other measures to prevent falls must be in place. If a risk of falls remains, fall protection equipment is required.
Personal Protective Equipment
Suitable Personal Protective Equipment should be provided by the company. This would include:
- Safety head protection including chin straps to prevent the head protection from falling off.
- Safety footwear which will protect feet and provide good grip.
The risk assessment undertaken at the very start should identify any other necessary personal protective equipment requirement.
Inspection and maintenance of equipment
The nature, frequency and extent of inspections should be determined. This will take into account factors such as the type of equipment, how and where it is used, and the likelihood of deterioration.
Periods between inspections should be decided based on the risk assessment, the type of equipment and the manufacturer’s manual specifications.
At a minimum though, all work at height equipment including accessories and personal protective equipment should all be inspected:
- Before each use
- After each re-installation
- After any event that could affect equipment, such as adverse weather
- At specific pre-determined intervals which will include a very thorough examination
Records must be kept and retained of all inspection and maintenance of working at height equipment.
Training for working at height activities
Companies should ensure that all persons involved in working at height activities are adequately trained in both the language and the format that they will understand. This should include:
- Those responsible for working at height risk assessments
- Those responsible for the selection of working at height equipment
- Those undertaking working at height activities
- Those supervising persons working at height
- Those who may be involved in working at height rescue operations and respond to emergencies
- Operators of working at height equipment
“it is essential that any potential emergency is fully prepared for”
Specific training must also be provided as regards safe working at height equipment, dependent on the type of equipment. This should include:
- The use of fall protection systems
- The use of scaffolding, mobile elevating work platforms, mobile towers, ladders, etc.
- Awareness training on specific working at height hazards identified during the risk assessment
Periodic refresher training should also be conducted to ensure employee competency is maintained. This would include:
- Where previous training certification has expired
- Where identified via a training needs analysis
- Where the risk assessment findings identify training as a measure to aid the control of risks
- Where there is a change in legal requirements
- Where any incident investigation recommends refresher training
Records must be kept and retained of all working at height training.
Emergency preparedness and response
Companies should be prepared for all emergencies that may occur during working at height activities.
Due to the increased risks arising from working at height activities, the company must have a plan in place which details what to do in the event of an emergency occurring and how to respond to that emergency.
Considerations to include when developing the emergency plan include:
- Details on how to undertake a rapid and effective rescue in the event of persons working at height activating fall protection systems.
- The availability of rescue equipment to retrieve any fallen persons without delay.
- The provision of first aid response to persons who may have been rescued from height to prevent suspension trauma.
- The appointment of emergency personnel who can take charge, make decisions on behalf of the company and liaise with emergency services.
- That employees are trained in emergency response which includes first aid arrangements and the locations of first aiders and first aid equipment.
- That employees appointed as first-aiders are available at each location and on each working shift.
The above outlines that there is much to be considered, as well as the importance of the planning prior to the commencement of working at height activities.
Risk assessments, identification of additional hazards, the selection of appropriate equipment and fall protection systems, guardrails and safeguards, the methods in which they are to be utilised and how the equipment will be maintained.
Employee training and personal protective equipment must be considered along with other hazards which may arise from the working at height activity, such as falling objects or working on fragile surfaces. Further consideration must also be made of working conditions such as the weather and the nature, frequency and duration of the work.
In addition to the consideration of the safety of the employee, risks to the safety of everyone around where the working at height activities will take place must also be taken into account. Lastly, it is essential that any potential emergency is fully prepared for, and a suitable response plan is in place.