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Updated Fall Protection Standards

Published: 18th Dec 2014

The world’s wicked problem of falls from height refuses resolution, but new protocols from Australia and South Africa released in the last 12 months may save lives.

Released in October 2013, Australian Standard AS1657 for fixed ladders, platforms and walkways plugs some serious holes. Guardrails made of rubber, for example, are now explicitly unacceptable for fall arrest.

While absurd, rubber guardrails technically complied with the 21-year-old standard AS1657, illustrating just how sorely an update was needed. Professionals designing and specifying products for global use will also breathe easier, knowing that AS1657 is now closely aligned to the ISO 14122 series entitled Safety of machinery - Permanent means of access to machinery .

Where do the new protocols fit?

The mining, oil and resource sector is important to the economies of both South Africa and Australia, which have led the way in mine safety.

Many mines are owned by multinationals like BHP, Gencor, Rio Tinto and Chevron, which must deal with international compliance regimes. Designers and engineers worldwide work on the plant for these major infrastructure developments, drawing on international and local standards together with company-specific design documentation.

South African regulation

In South Africa, unrelenting fall-related deaths and injuries statistics prompted the issue of Regulation 10133 in February 2014. While the new South African regulation deals with a number of hazards associated with construction work, a great deal of it is dedicated to the development of fall protection plans and the duties of designers.

Regulation 10133 imposes duties on designers who are defined as competent persons who prepare, check and approve designs, capturing engineers, architects, surveyors, contractors and even interior designers. These designers must ensure that the applicable safety standards are complied with in the design – not just the final product, but the construction process.

A key element of a fall protection plan is gaining access to and from the work area, and Regulation 10133 prescribes that a risk-based approach be used. The previous issues of AS1657, which date back to 1992, provided information on the manufacturing and installation requirements. Guidance material on selection and design was lacking.

Australian standard

The new issue plugs this hole and provides extensive design guidance for engineers and architects. The Standard provides detail to the designer on selection criteria for equipment using a risk-based approach. For example, a staircase is easier and safer to climb than a ladder since stair climbing relies on lower body strength, where as ladder climbers need to use their arms. A step ladder is easier to climb than an inclined rung ladder, due to the shapes of the treads. Step ladders also have handrails, which aid access and egress.

The design and selection criteria are based on ergonomic considerations, with these being an essential element for consideration since people are ultimately using the equipment. Considering the shapes, sizes and characteristics of people in design reduces the risk of them falling and provides for a safer environment.

Although a voluntary standard rather than a regulation, Australia's AS1657 is called up in the Building Code of Australia (2014) in a number of different sections.

The standard is referenced in state-based health and safety codes of practice, creating a benchmark for what a court might regard as a ‘reasonably practicable’ fall arrest system to implement in a workplace. In the Australian state of Victoria, exemptions to the fall prevention regulations are available for workplaces that meet AS1657.

Its status in codes of practice confers AS1657 to be of particularly high standing in the legal framework that takes precedence over an international standard.

AS1657 is also Australia’s highest selling safety standard. Copies are bought all over the world by companies that build equipment for Australia’s mining, power and oil and gas industries. Equipment coming into the country must meet the Australian Standard requirements unless it equals or betters them.

Its international equivalent, ISO14122-3, deals with stairs, stepladders and guardrails, and ISO14122-4 deals with fixed ladders.

The terminology for step ladders is particularly confusing. In Australia, these are called step-type ladders, while the ISO standard refers to step ladders, and in the USA, they are commonly known as ships’ ladders.

For the purpose of this paper, we have analysed the testing methodology outlined in the Australian Standard, since it drew on the ISO standards (the ISO standard for fixed ladders dates back to 2004).

Testing bodies

ILAC is the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation for both laboratory and inspection accreditation bodies formed to assist international trade.

The programme evaluates conformity assessments against internationally recognised standards, most commonly ISO/IEC 17025 Testing. Australia, South Africa and 34 other countries are signatories to the agreement. The South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) and Australia’s NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) are the local agencies accredited to certify laboratories locally within the ISO17025 scheme.

Using an accredited facility means that the testing has integrity, since there is independent oversight by a third party. In Australia, NATA audits a facility using a specialist technical assessor and an ISO17025 auditor. The technical assessor will verify the specific tests relating to a standard, and the auditor will verify overall compliance with the standard.

In Australia, laboratories are accredited to do a specific test. The NATA auditors and assessors check that the laboratory has the calibrated equipment, procedures, capability and skills particular to the individual tests.

What does it do for safety?

Given that slips, trips and falls cost the Australian economy alone around $6 billion in the cost of compensation claims and lost time injuries, it is easy to justify fall prevention equipment – provided it is truly effective.

A robust testing regime provides a sound mechanism for measuring the performance of the safety products it describes:

• Walkways provide safe access and egress to plant and equipment. Suspended walkways are used inside ceiling cavities for access to plant and equipment and over crushers

• Platforms are used for access to cooling towers and HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling) plant such as exhaust fans and chillers and to gain access to mobile plant and machinery

• Midway landing systems in a ladder system can limit the distance a person could fall when correctly positioned and are widely used to climb telecommunications towers

• Guardrail is used for edge protection on buildings, mezzanines and on working platforms

• Staircases, rung ladders and step-type ladders are used for maintenance access to machinery and to higher levels like roofs and mezzanines. They are widely used for access to and from other fall arrest equipment such as anchors and static lines

Rung or step-type fixed ladder testing

Testing for rung ladders and step-type ladders has been added to AS1657, adopting a more performance-based approach that opens the door for new materials. For many years, a similar testing protocol has applied to ladders through the EN 131 series of standards.

As detailed in the following sections, there are eight tests that ensure fixed ladders can sustain their loads.

Rung, step and tread test

The first of two tests, a strength test shows how much the tread or rung will deflect permanently and temporarily after a load is applied to the centre of the surface. This is intended to see how much the rung or tread deflects when a person stands on it.

The second test, a shear test, applies the load where the rung meets the stile to assess the strength of the connection and whether the weld or bolt fixing will fail under the load of a person’s weight.

Fixed ladder stile tests

Ladder stiles are tested for rigidity and strength:

1.  The ladder stile sway test checks how the ladder performs when a sideways force is applied. Rigid ladders do not sway from side to side during use. When someone climbs a ladder, their body weight shifts naturally from side to side as they climb. The rigidity test ensures that the ladder won’t sway sideways.

2.  The ladder stile strength test is applied vertically to ensure that the ladder doesn’t deflect more than 100mm under load and is used to determine the maximum distance between intermediate brackets. This tests that the ladder doesn’t flex and bounce excessively under a user’s weight.

The maximum deflection under load is 1% and the limits for permanent set are 0.5%. A 2m ladder, for example, must not deflect more than 20mm under load and must return to within 10mm of its original position.

The ladder stile deflection test checks that the hand grab rail at the top does not flex excessively inwards or forwards. As a person climbs up a ladder, they pull the hand grabs towards themselves and slightly inwards as they climb up and through. This test guarantees that there isn’t excessive flex at the top of the ladder.

Staircase testing

AS1657 tests both the strength of staircase treads and the whole assembly.

The tread tests involve applying a load of 1–1.5kN load to the tread via a 100mm by 100mm steel plate for three minutes. The 1kN load is applied to staircases narrower than 1.36m, and the 1.5kN test to those wider than 1.36m. The test ensures there isn’t excessive flex in the steps when a worker is climbing up and down the staircase.

The whole assembly needs to withstand a load of 2.5kPa, which is equivalent to around 250kg, representing two people and their equipment. The staircase cannot deflect more than 1% of the length with a maximum of 40mm deflection.

This ensures that the staircase remains rigid while being climbed and doesn’t deflect or move under load.

Slip resistance testing

The term ‘slip’ appears 34 times in the revised standard and while the old standard called for slip resistance, it was not quantified.

Pedestrian surfaces like rungs, treads, steps, platform floors, landing surfaces and walkways must now meet the minimum R10 requirement for outdoor surfaces under Australian Standard AS4586:2013 (Slip resistance classification of new pedestrian surface materials).

The slip resistance test comprises a wet oil ramp test, which simulates a person standing on a surface, to measure the incline and rate the surface. Originally developed in Germany, this test is now widely used in Australia to measure pedestrian surfaces.

Guardrail testing

While the old standard included dimensional requirements and testing for guardrails, there were no clearly defined parameters for determining the strength or flexibility of products.

For example, while guardrail system rails were tested, they could theoretically deflect all the way to the ground under load and still comply, provided they returned to their original position. The revised AS1657 includes a deflection limit, ensuring the devices are capable of saving a person in the event of a fall.

The new standard, AS1657-2013, aligns with AS/NZS 1170.1-2002, requiring more concentrated loads and live loads for guardrail systems. Importantly, it references standards to ensure the correct application of load factors and load combinations in the design and testing process.

The new requirements are for horizontal and point load testing of the upright post and the actual rails (mid and top). Deflection tests place a limit on how much they can bend, while other tests ensure they cannot fail under an ultimate load.

The posts need to be tested on the same substrate they will be attached to in the field. If a guardrail is to be fixed to a 0.40mm type roof, for example, it must pass the tests to meet AS1657 on that substrate. That may mean that guardrailing ladders face a multitude of tests for different applications.

Engineering

These requirements can also be confirmed with a structural engineer’s certificate for one-off installations. The engineer verifies by calculation that the different elements of the equipment can meet the loading requirements and performance limits of the standard, and then certifies it accordingly.

If the equipment is resold, the standard mandates that these performance requirements be certified by a structural engineer and proven with performance-based testing.

Labelling and certification requirements

A special section of AS1657 is dedicated to labelling and identification requirements that allow the user to identify the fabricator, design and installer of the equipment and its limitations. This requirement aligns the standard with other fall prevention standards like AS/NZS1891 (industrial fall arrest systems) and AS/NZS 5532 (single anchor points). The requirement for inspection and ongoing testing of the equipment is also to be included, along with compliance statements.

Test reports

Appendix E prescribes the elements of a test report. It details how to ensure visibility over the testing, such as test forces, testing devices and the methodology adopted to test the equipment.

Who should test?

In Australia, an agreement exists between ILAC and NATA.

NATA accredits laboratories in Australia and has memoranda of understanding with the Australian Government and various state and territory governments that recognise its key role in Australia's technical infrastructure. The Australian Government uses NATA-accredited facilities wherever possible and encourages state and territory governments and other instrumentalities to do likewise.

Ensure that a laboratory is accredited to do the AS1657 tests by checking NATA’s website.

How do you know it complies?

Third-party certification schemes offer consumers and businesses independent confidence that equipment actually complies with each country’s relevant standards.

With fall arrest apparatus being safety-critical equipment, the importance of consistency and reliability in manufacture can hardly be understated.

In Australia, companies are audited for AS1657 compliance and, if found to be compliant by an independent authority, will be licensed to use the highly recognised StandardsMark (5 Ticks) on their products. This mark demonstrates that an independent authority has audited the manufacturing processes, verifying its ability to consistently produce a product to standard, while maintaining complete traceability of every component all the way back to the source. This accreditation takes the product all the way to the factory door.

In addition, the ABCB (Australian Building Codes Board) developed and administers a separate accreditation programme called CodeMark to fill this need. A CodeMark product is guaranteed to meet all of the requirements of the Building Code of Australia, which includes the installed product.

CodeMark complements the StandardsMark scheme, pairing manufacturing with installation. This is particularly important for ladders, staircases and other fall prevention equipment that is heavily dependent on correct installation. When it comes to AS1657 equipment, it is very dependent on the installation. It is all very well that equipment leaves the factory compliant, but then it must also meet all the stringent on-site tolerances and fixing methods to remain AS1657 compliant and safe.

Conclusion

Irrespective of whether you’re an Australian, South African or Lithuanian worker, similar principals of ergonomics and safety apply. While regulations and standards differ between jurisdictions, workers have common physical characteristics and a common desire to go home to their families safely at the end of each day. Drawing on up to date standards and new regulations is one way the fall prevention community shares information to reduce fall statistics around the world.

AS1657:2013 has been a long time coming. It is one of the most widely read and referenced Australian safety standards of all time.

The new standard closes loopholes, makes the requirements clearer and provides greater guidance for designers, manufacturers and installers.

Most importantly, AS1657:2013 enables workplaces to determine whether equipment is truly safe for use rather than simply compliant with outdated benchmarks. Anyone who specifies a CodeMark and StandardsMark certified AS1657:2013 ladder can watch it in use with real confidence in the safety of their colleagues.

Published: 18th Dec 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Carl Sachs and Bertie Phillips