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Published: 02nd May 2013

Alwyn Mendonca introduces the initiatives, campaigns and regulations governing safe working at height.

In the UAE, as in many parts of the world, falls from height and falling objects are the leading cause of worksite injury and death. In the Middle East, according to statistics from the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (HAAD) for the period 2008 to 2010, 50 percent of the occupational fatalities in the entire emirate were caused by falls from height and falling objects.

In the Middle East, working at height is a common requirement in many occupations, especially in the construction sector in the UAE and the GCC region, where construction is taking place at a rapid rate. Working at height is also common across many other sectors, from agriculture on date farms, to oil and gas platforms, and it can even occur in the office environment.

Working at height remains one of the major hazards across the global construction industry. Statistics from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have revealed that since 2001, an average of 50 people in Great Britain have died each year as a result of falls from height - with many more seriously injured.

According to HSE statistics from 2010 to 2011, 26 percent of all fatal construction site accidents were the result of a fall from height. Most commonly, these cases included falls from ladders and workers falling through fragile roofs.

Moving into the following period, according to RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995) statistics, 2011 to 2012 saw falls from height as the most common cause of fatalities - accounting for 23 percent of reported fatal injuries to workers. This means that shockingly, of the total fatalities reported, almost a quarter of them were caused by falls from height.

One fifth of all major falls in 2011 to 2012 occurred in construction industry, followed by the next highest injury numbers in the transportation and storage, manufacturing, and wholesale and retail sectors. Other areas contributing to falls from height injuries were the water and wastewater, agriculture, and real estate industries.

Fatal error

A few years ago during my HSE practise with an engineering consultancy in Dubai, I was carrying out routine HSE performance monitoring of our contractors across various projects. At one of the project sites a fatal fall that resulted in the death of an employee was reported. The incident occurred when the two workers on a scissor lift engaged in fixing installations on a roof truss. both workers were equipped with safety harnesses.

While at height the need arose for a specific tool that they did not have to hand, meaning one worker was required to return to ground level. As the scissor lift descended, the worker who had opted to stay behind on the truss suddenly slipped and fell - striking his neck fatally against the hand rails of the scissor lift. This death could have been avoided if simple precautions were taken and strict HSE policies were enforced by the management.

Upon investigation, it was revealed that the workers were provided with neither specific training in height safety nor the correct use of fall protective equipment. Furthermore, there was no competent supervision available during the work, due to multiple job orders being assigned to supervisory staff.

Height regulations

Simply put, ‘at height’ can be any elevated position from which a person could be injured falling from, regardless of whether it is above, at, or below ground level; for example, in underground activities.

Specific regulations exist to control and regulate working at height. Previously these regulations applied to works that were carried out two metres or more from ground level; however, the introduction of the new Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR) which came into force on April 6, 2005, require that organisations must now take precautions regardless of the height at which the work is carried out.

The reason for the change is that, from past experience, there have been more injuries from low level falls of less than two metres than from high level falls. The WAHR 2005 replaces all earlier regulations concerning working at height, and implements the European Council Directive 2001/45/EC, which specifies minimum safety and health requirements for the use of equipment for work at height.

The Regulations specify duties on employers, the self employed and any person who controls the work of others. They apply to most work situations where people are required to work at height and are exposed to the risk of a fall that could cause personal injury, with the exception of most recreational activities, such as climbing or caving. Duty holders should check that workers are fit to use the equipment that they are provided with. Employees or contractors should report any issues, including health issues, that may affect their safety or the safety of others.

In the Middle East there are various codes of practise, standards, municipal regulations and technical guidelines in place to regulate occupational health and safety. Abu Dhabi EHS Centre, for example, has published a specific regulation on working at height: the Abu Dhabi Environment, Health and Safety Management System (ADEHSMS) Code of Practice number 23, which has jurisdiction within the Abu Dhabi Emirate.

The Working at Height Regulations set out three simple rules:

1. Avoid - If you don't need to go up there, don't.

2. Prevent - If work at height cannot be avoided then prevent falls by selecting and using the right access equipment.

3. Minimise - Where you cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other means to lessen the distance and consequences of a fall.

Education initiatives

The UK government inspectors belonging to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are continuously striving to educate and raise awareness about working at height by running various high profile campaigns. The HSE has published a useful advice toolkit called WAIT, which gives step by step information and is useful to those who occasionally work at height. It contains videos, case studies and other free to download material from the HSE, as well as advice and guidance from leading industry bodies in the field.

This toolkit can be used in any country and is an effective educational resource in how to safely conduct tasks at height. WAIT does not, however, give advice or guidance on specialised and more complex work at height; for example, for working on fragile roofs and rope access techniques, as these are complex areas of work where formal training and expert help and advice are required.

In recent years in the Middle East, especially in the UAE, authorities have successfully shown their commitment towards occupational health and safety (OHS). The HAAD has developed an awareness programme in association with the ADEHSMS, the Abu Dhabi EHS Centre and sector regulatory authorities, by providing free educational resources such as posters and toolbox talks to business owners, health and safety professionals and workers.

The Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments continuously strive to enhance the health and safety standards of the Emirate, by helping business owners and OHS professionals to implement the requirements of the EHSMS regulatory framework and protect those working at height from injury and death. The municipality inspectors proactively monitor construction projects and issue notices to violating contractors.

Window cleaning

Until recently the accepted method for cleaning third floor windows was to use ladders, abseiling and MEWPs. While using a MEWP is certainly better than using ladders, it still requires people to work at height, which is far from ideal and should be avoided if possible. Instead, a water-fed pole system allows cleaning activities at up to 30 metres, which is approximately six storeys above the ground. So why would anyone want to waste time, resources - and risk their workers’ lives - by using a MEWP or ladders?

Perhaps it’s a case of ‘this is how we have always done it’? Or perhaps people think that safety is expensive? Far greater is the cost of an accident, in terms of injury to staff, damage to plant and loss of your reputation and contracts. With some strategic planning, forethought and, very importantly, the will to change at all levels within the organisation, we can conduct this work in a very safe and yet productive manner. Safety does not have to cost money; rather, it can save money.

Fall protection

Although there are many excellent PPE providers around the world operating to the highest standards of production, we have to accept that there will always be one weak link in using PPE as our last line of defence - the worker. We have all seen companies provide state of the art PPE, only to fail in accident prevention due to noncompliance of staff in the use of such equipment.

If you do decide to use personal fall protective equipment such as harnesses, fall arrest and restraint devices then please consider the competence of the expected user. A study revealed that 18 out of 20 regular harness wearers could not correctly adjust their harness to ensure that it would protect them from any injury. Also consider the provision of suitable quality and quantity of anchor points for the area of work, which will allow the required range of movement. We frequently see workers clipping onto inappropriate anchor points, risking failure of the anchor and potential collapse of the platform they are working on.

All good PPE providers will be able to suggest suitable anchor designs and systems, and also provide training for your staff in competent use of any PPE that they provide.

Overall, although we cannot completely do away with PPE, we must really think of it as a last resort.

Ladder safety

Ladders remain one of the most common agents involved in a fall from height and account for more than a quarter of all falls. Common causes of falls from ladders are the overreaching or slipping of the user, or the wobbling, slipping and falling of the ladder itself along with the user. It is therefore contractors, designers and clients who should ensure from the very early stage of a project that the time workers need to use access equipment like ladders or scaffolding is reduced or, if used, make sure all necessary precautions are put in place in terms of providing safe equipment, sufficient resources and provision of competent training for working at height. This can be identified through a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for working at height.

Ladders should be:

• Prevented from slipping

• Prevented from moving before being stepped on

• Long enough to do the job safely

• Available with a handhold to allow the worker to maintain three points of contact where possible

• Used without overreaching

• Inspected and checked regularly where necessary

Ladders can be used if after assessing the risks the use of more suitable work equipment is not justified because of the low risk and short duration, as well as where a situation requires their usage. Generally, short duration is taken to mean between 15 and 30 minutes depending upon the task. If in doubt workers should always speak to their supervisors, employer or safety representatives if they think it is not right to use a ladder for the job they are going to do.

Health issues

Workers who suffer from various health issues may expose themselves to fall from height risks when they work at height. Employers should consider some of the following health issues that would prevent workers from working at height in order to eliminate a potential fatal fall:

• Recurring dizziness

• Epilepsy

• Psychiatric conditions, e.g. fear of heights

• Heart condition

• Severe lung conditions

• Alcohol and drug abuse

• Significant impaired joint function

• Medication that recommends you avoid operating machinery

Worker protection

If working at height is not your routine work or you are unsure about which type of access equipment to use, it is important that you assess the risks and select the right equipment for the job. If you are going to work at height you should be trained and competent, and be able to safely complete the task by erecting, using, dismantling or operating the selected access equipment as appropriate. If you are still being trained you should be supervised by a fully trained and competent person.

During the review of work at height procedures and risk assessments, one should be able to decide on which suitable and sensible measures should be put in place to ensure that workers can operate safely; this may include further training.

If guard rails, tower scaffolds or MEWPs cannot be used, the work restraint system chosen should be set up so that the user is prevented from reaching a position from where a fall could occur; in such a position a belt rather than a full body harness may be more appropriate. If a fall can occur, the system is not working restraint but fall arrest. In this case, the person will need a full body harness, energy absorbance and sufficient fall distance to safely arrest the fall.

Work at height must be:

• Properly planned, including managing fall emergencies

• Kept to a minimum

• Be appropriately supervised

• Suspended in unsuitable weather conditions, e.g. wind, rain or ice

In summary, to ensure working at height is safe, the person in charge of the activity should provide one or more of the following safety measures:

1. A safe place of work - Correctly installed and operated scaffolding, MEWPs and suspended access platforms should be as safe to work on as standing on the ground. If working on a fixed structure, proper edge protection should be provided.

2. Collective protection - Safety nets protect all workers without the need for restrictive working lines and harnesses. In the event that someone does fall, air filled fall bags should be provided.

3. Individual protection - Fall prevention, such as suitable anchor points, retention lines and harnesses; fall arrest, such as inertia reel equipment; and rope access systems, such as abseiling techniques.

If the above are not relevant, a ladder or hop up can be used, but only if the work is low risk, of short duration and does not require both hands at any time to complete the activity. Hop ups are a suitable and relatively safe method of gaining inches in height, not feet. Ladders should really be seen as a last resort as a means of access and even then, only when used correctly and by competent persons.

The above measures will only be effective if all workers involved in operating at height are trained and suitably supervised in the safe systems of work and against the assessed risks.

Ultimately, the final message is the same every time: don't let a fall shatter your life.

Published: 02nd May 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Alwyn Mendonca
Alwyn Mendonca is a practicing Health, Safety and Environment professional in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He is a member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) at graduate level, and has been in the field for 22 years.