Ian Fyall, a member of IOSH Middle East Branch covers the important steps any company can take to improving work at height safety.
Preventing injuries from work at height requires a practical approach, based on sound knowledge of regulations that are designed to keep people safe and healthy in the workplace.
Working at height is defined as work in any place from which, if measures were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. Accidents typically happen where people don’t recognise the risks they face, or are stuck in a behavioural rut and need re-educating, or adopt an 'It’ll never happen to me' attitude.
UK and European companies and employers must comply with the Work at Height Directive, which says they must assess the risks associated with working at height, including the possibility of people and objects falling. To mitigate against those risks, methods of protection that rely on mechanical and physical processes, rather than personal protective equipment (PPE), such as safety harnesses, should be used. Regulations also state that training for operatives working at height should be carried out, materials and machinery inspected, PPE provided and scaffolding and platforms put in place where work at height takes place.
One fundamental area in the regulations is rescue of people from falling, and it’s this section that is most misunderstood and the least adhered to across the UK and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Two of the sectors that carry out a vast amount of working at height are the construction industry and the industrial sector for maintenance. Over the last eight years, most fatal falls in the construction industry have resulted from roof work and falls from scaffolding - of the latter type, very few have in fact been scaffolders.
In the UK, industry body National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) represents the scaffolding sector. Its members include more than 200 companies, representing 15,000 workers and around 40 percent of the total UK scaffolders. It’s important to note that at the time of writing there have been no scaffolding fatalities across NASC members for eight years - part of which must be down to the membership criteria regarding training, regular auditing of member companies and production of industry guidance notes to make the job safer. They have also reduced recorded falls over a ten year period from 93 to 20.
Work carried out at Simian Risk Management shows that the people most at risk from working at height are construction and maintenance teams. Problems often stem from the design phase, however, where an architect designs a building without explaining clearly enough how it is to be built in a way that minimises risk. The main contractor takes over the building from the design and commissions other trades to carry out various roles.
With the pressure on to stick to tight budgets, main contractors are inclined to use the companies who tender work offering the cheapest price - the flip side of this being that modern safety methods can often end up an afterthought, leaving protection for work at height reliant on older methods such as ladders, harnesses, or in the worst cases, nothing. During this global recession prices are being squeezed on all projects and while clients are trying to work to gold standards, margins are so tight that it’s mostly health, safety and training that gets put on hold.
Furthermore, in the UAE there are so many high buildings that cleaning windows and maintaining building facades is a fundamental issue under construction and design. Instead, we should be looking at completely avoiding work at height altogether, using revolving windows or self cleaning glass to save having to use cradles and rope for access. It was only on January 4 when two operatives were killed in the UAE following a scaffold platform collapse, and, just last year a scaffolder in Dundee fell and died from a scaffold.
In the UK, fatalities from falls from height have recently reduced, but this could well be because less work is being undertaken. Once out of our recession, figures are likely to creep up again and coupled with the cuts to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) personnel and proactive inspections, contractors will have less incentive to employ best practice techniques to improve safety in this area.
The UK and UAE have excellent contractors, but in my experience, the larger the contractor, the more safety is taken seriously as a poor record seriously affects reputation. In the UAE it appears that the larger contractors are more safety conscious. We see scaffolders working on sites for major oil and gas companies such as Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations (ADCO), Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Ltd (GASCO) in full PPE and safety harnesses, all carried out under a permit system. There are others where people put up scaffolding by the side of the road wearing no PPE. Many large UK companies also enforce the highest standards, such as Shell, BP, National Grid, and British Gas/Centrica.
How can we improve?
Our advice to our clients and main contracts is to assess the risk, plan correctly, have competent, trained staff on site to manage and carry out work at height. We tell them not to just jump to what they think is the easiest option, or attempt a task in a certain way just because that’s the way it’s always been done. We encourage people to think outside of the box.
Design is a major factor, as a key part of that role is asking how it can be designed in a way that is safe to build and safe to maintain when complete. The architect should be working to the hierarchy of controls, which is always to try to eliminate risk in the first instance, rather than build in a need to wear PPE. They should be trying to avoid the need for people to work at height, rather than going straight to the bottom and involving harnesses to enable maintenance work to go ahead. As stated earlier, the UAE is a world leader in the construction of high buildings and pushing the envelope in design - such as Al Dar HQ in Abu Dhabi, or the Burj Khalifa. Careful design isn’t just about buildings, but scaffolding and framework. We advise companies not just to design scaffolds, but design them in a way that is safer for people to use.
The main contractor must make sure it has trained supervision and operatives in place to carry out work. We get enquiries for one day scaffold courses to enable operatives to build tube and fitting scaffolding - in the UK it takes 18 months as a minimum, including 21 training days, to become a competent scaffolder. Not only that, we get companies from the developing world reporting that they are all scaffolders and have been trade tested in their country, yet on site they do not know how to distinguish between components. Trade testing in countries prior to exporting workers to the UAE should be standardised, with all companies carrying out the same standards of assessment before staff are brought in.
Both clients and main contractors have to select contractors and as part of this they should be asking, ‘Are they competent? Are their operatives trained? Do they have certificates?’. They need to employ contractors with method statements, risk assessments and rescue plans for working at height - not only that, but people who understand them. All contractors need to be monitored, with their service appraised and given feedback, with toolbox talks included as part of the mix.
Supervisors need to be leaders with proper training that enables them to do the job - this is no different whether working in the UK, the UAE and the rest of the world. There are international supervisor courses such as Construction Skills, IOSH, Scaffold Supervisor and Nebosh that will help to make an operative a more knowledgeable, well-rounded employee, who understands the bigger picture.
In the Work at Height Regulations 2005, much attention is paid to preventing falls and mitigating against those accidents. In particular, there is much on the use of powered access, such as the use of cherry pickers and scissor lifts to reach heights. Scaffolding companies used to think this equipment was a threat to their businesses survival, but they have now embraced them, so much so that many operatives are trained under the International Powered Access Federation, which is also available in the UAE.
This equipment is invaluable when installing edge protection or working on the outside of a building where scaffolding cannot be provided. As for scaffolding equipment itself, companies in the UAE use a lot of system scaffolding such as cuplok and Kwikstage, but they need to make sure their operatives are well trained on using these systems.
Manufacturers' instructions for the system scaffold should always be used, as they state where it should be braced, tied, stabilised and how high it can be built before design. Organisations should be checking whether the material they are using in scaffolding is fit for purpose and can withstand the loads. Rescue equipment is required where complex work at height is being undertaken requiring rope access, slung scaffolds, cradle work and powered access. Employers need to be able to answer how an operative could rescue one of their colleagues should he fall and what equipment there is in place to do that. Employers must prepare a suitable rescue plan.
Companies need to ensure their inspector is qualified and has a certificate to prove this. Scaffolds should be inspected every seven days - this may increase if it has been significantly altered or exposed to adverse weather conditions. If the scaffold is complex and designed, the design should also be available on site for inspectors to view. Inspections need to be registered, with the record kept on site for the lifespan of the scaffold, rather than in the company office or the inspector’s car.
A scafftag is only a visual method of showing the scaffold is safe, but nevertheless it should be displayed and the number on it should match what is written in the register. It’s surprising how many people on our UAE courses believe the scafftag is the same thing as the register. Safety harnesses can be the difference between life and death. Any frequent use equipment must be inspected prior to use, but it also needs to be formally inspected and recorded every three months by a competent person.
Companies shouldn’t just make sure their own equipment is inspected by a competent inspector with a certificate to prove he is qualified, they should also check the inspection records of their contractors. Ladders also need inspecting before use, with a ladder register on site covering all stepladders and normal ladders. Thorough inspection must take place of lifting equipment on hoists, mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) and mast climbers.
Medically fit to work at height
Staff need to be medically fit to work at height, with records showing whether they have conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy, including information on whether they are prone to blackouts. If employees carry out physical work, employers need to be sure they are fit to be lifting and carrying. There are a host of things to think about when it comes to people being fit for the role they are employed to do. For instance, if a member of staff has just come from a sub continent country where they are accustomed to hot temperatures, if they work at the top of a high building within the first seven days, the employer needs to make sure they have the right clothing until their body adjusts. Companies should be giving their staff medicals and keeping a log of their health using records such as medical checklist forms.
We place training near the top of the hierarchy of importance for working at height. If people are to work at height, they must be trained, whether in building scaffold, alloy towers, or working off a scaffold or in powered access. If an operative has been seriously injured or killed at work, it’s important to take a look at the training they had, including the trainer and the course syllabus.
Courses need to be evaluated. If people are learning in one day what takes 18 months in the UK, it’s likely that the person won’t be qualified and competent. Language is a key part in effective training. Trainers might need interpreters if they are teaching a course in the UAE to make sure the training is understood. Inspectors, supervisors and designers must all be trained to do their respective roles. After all, if you surround yourself with a good team it pays off.
Working in line with all of the points discussed will have a big impact on a company’s ability to improve working at height on their site, making it a safer and healthier place. We’d urge employers to remember that the cheapest price is not always the best - pushing the price down may not produce the right quality of work or workers they seek. Technology that exists in the UK is available in the UAE and the same safe systems of work for erecting scaffolding can also be put in place.
We can increase safety in working at height by effective monitoring of sites by safety teams and supervision that challenges poor practice. A major factor in current failures is poor safety behaviour, but training can help to improve operatives’ perception of risk. Falls from height continue to kill, maim and stop people from working for the rest of their lives. In a recent presentation, a gentlemen called Jason Anker talked about how a fall from height left him paralysed from the waist down - it hits home the importance of safe work from height as a way of avoiding a life changing injury that can affect someone in so many ways.
We all want all of our staff to leave home in the morning and return in the same state that they left. Proper risk management and training seems a small price to pay to make sure that happens. To find out about IOSH Middle East Branch’s next events visit www.iosh.co.uk and select the Branch website from the drop down menu.
Published: 01st Mar 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East