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Working at Height [May 2008]

Published: 01st May 2008

In my earlier article, (February 2008), I looked at the problem and some of the solutions of working at height.

The main thrust was don’t work at height – unless you really have to – and then use the working at height strategy indicated below:

Avoid working at heights if at all possible!

If we can’t avoid working at heights, follow the hierarchy for managing risks from work at height – take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce risks:

Provide a safe place of work:

  • Scaffold
  • Mobile elevating work platform (MEWP)
  • Suspended access platform

Provide collective protection:

  • Safety nets
  • Air filled ‘fall bags’

Provide individual protection:

  • Safety lines and harnesses
  • Fall arrest
  • Rope access systems

If all the above fails, use a ladder or ‘hop up’ (if the work is low risk and of short duration not requiring both hands at any time to complete the activity).

As this is a continuation of an earlier piece, I will briefly summarise the key facts concerning the dangers of working at height for those who perhaps missed it and to refresh others.

How dangerous is it anyway?

In most countries, falls from heights account for around 50% of all fatal accidents with half of those being in construction and related activities, with the majority falling from between 2 and 3 metres. Strangely, the figure for over 2 metres has halved in recent times. Incidentally, the number of occurrences where major injuries are sustained, due to falls from heights, is in the order of 75 times more than those that result in death.

You do not have to be a health and safety specialist to see the varying standards that operate within the UAE and wider GCC. Just drive past any construction site and observe the ‘goings on’ and you will see everything from excellent planning and controls to the downright stupidity of workers walking on steel at great heights with little or no regard for their own, or anyone else’s, welfare.

However, do we really believe that such practices are a result of their own wish to be hurt or even die? No! If we are honest, we have to admit, firstly to ourselves, then to our peers, that the average and typical reader of this article is probably in some way culpable for such sights. Shudders go through me when I ask why things are being done in a particular, usually unsafe way, and I hear ‘But that’s how we always do it’!

In order to illustrate what can be achieved, and still be productive and profitable, in this article, I have assumed that there is no alternative to working at height.

As an example, I will use the activity of curtain walling. This is a very dangerous activity, which by using simple, but very effective methods, can be made a lot safer.

As I am sure you are aware, the activity of glass curtain walling requires us to hoist a frame holding heavy-duty glass, sometimes of several tonnes, into place, usually at great height. Until recently, this work required us to have an exposed and usually, unguarded edge against which we positioned the heavy frame, with the resultant risk of falls to the workers.

However, with some strategic planning, forethought and very importantly, the will to change at all levels within the organisation – from top to bottom – 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. By way of example, a study was conducted across all industries by UK Government health and safety enforcing officers – the Health & Safety Executive, HSE, and 6 cooperating companies. The companies were given criteria against which to report and asked to cost the events themselves – so the figures are quite realistic. The study found, that for every one Dirham, Riyal or Dollar lost that we know about we lose between 8 and 36 that we are not aware of (lost productivity, down time, idle workers, etc).

In fact, the same study showed that in construction, for example, the losses on the average contract added up to around 8.5% of contract value! You can do the maths yourself for your own company.

Safety equipment versus safe systems of work?

Of course there is an excellent argument for providing good quality personal protective equipment (PPE), for working at height in the form fall prevention and arrest devices. However, I am certain we will all agree, it is far more effective and sensible to use our best endeavours to ensure that we design out hazards, making a safe place of work, rather than rely on workers to use PPE.

With this in mind, let us examine glass curtain walling a large multi-storey building, using both PPE (safe person approach) and safe systems (safe place of work approach).

Safe worker in an unsafe workplace – Use of PPE

Whereas there are many excellent PPE providers around the world, operating to the highest standards of production, we have to accept that there is one weak link in using PPE as our last line of defence – the worker! We have all seen excellent companies provide state-of the- art PPE, only to fail in accident prevention due to non-compliance by staff in the use of such equipment. If we look carefully at photo 3 (left), we will see the workers to the left of the picture, working correctly, using their fall prevention and arrest equipment (usually harnesses and inertia reel type to allow movement).

However, as in all good photographs, there is one person determined to ‘do it his way’. If we look to the bottom right of photo 3, we will see a worker working at an unprotected edge, with no PPE being used.

This perfectly illustrates one of the problems with this approach. An additional area of concern is the problem of restricting access to the area where edge protection is deliberately removed, as part of the system of work, and preventing access by unauthorised workers until the glass is in place to cover such gaps. All it takes is someone to take a ‘short cut’ through the area and they are potentially in mortal danger.

If you do decide to use personal protective equipment, harnesses, fall arrest/restraint/prevention etc., please consider the competence of the expected user in wearing/using such PPE. A recent survey on one of our client sites revealed that 18 out of 20 regular harness wearers could not correctly adjust their harness to ensure that, should they need it, it would protect them from any injury due to the fall and the use of the harness.

During a recent large construction project, I was privileged to see several trades using a range of fall arrest/prevention equipment, including the trusty ‘all use’ harness and lanyards with and without fall arrest mechanisms within them.

The problem arises with the workers. Those who are not used to using fall arrest/prevention equipment can be especially difficult to persuade to use? such equipment. Having won that battle, the last thing we need to do is to introduce any form of confusion. However, that is exactly what we do when we try to tell workers:

“You must use a harness and lanyard when working at height, it will protect you should you fall and, in order to prevent injury due to shock resulting from sudden deceleration, you must use this lanyard with a fall arrest device built in.

“If working below 3 metres then a fall arrest block mounted above head height should be used, or a physical safety barrier should be used. A nonshock absorbing lanyard should NEVER be used when any amount of fall is possible. They are RESTRAINT ONLY.

“This will require you to change your lanyard accordingly!”

Put yourself in their position, especially on a fast moving site where the same worker may ‘technically’ have to change their lanyard 6 or even 10 times a day, dependant upon where they are working and what they are doing. Also remember that 50% of all FATAL accidents resulting form falls are from 2 metres or less!

The obvious outcome will be either total confusion, with incorrect lanyards being used, or the worker either not bothering as it’s ‘too difficult’ or resorting to using the same one all the time.

Then consider the job of the poor supervisor, who has to monitor such workers. Potentially, they would be in total confusion as the workers migrate around the site doing their work!

Secondly, please consider provision of suitable quality, and sufficient numbers of, anchor points for the area of work, which will allow the required range of movement. I frequently see workers clipping on to inappropriate anchor points, risking failure of the anchor and in several cases, potential collapse of the platform they are working on.

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

So, overall, although we can’t completely do away with PPE as our solution, we must really think of it as a last resort.

Designing a safe place of work

Opposite, we will see the second, and safer, approach of providing edge protection throughout the activity, which is not only safer, but also saves time erecting edge protection in the first place, then removing it during the glass wailing installation, and potentially re-erecting it if the expected production rate is not achieved. Additionally, with the revised and safer method of work suggested, fewer workers are required to achieve far greater production levels, making the job not only safer, but also far more efficient.

Consider this as well. If we take into account the whole activity of glazing the building, the savings in manpower, time and potential damage to equipment/product alone, we will see massive savings. Couple this with the massive reduction in the likelihood for injury to workers and others, by edge protection being in place all the time, then perhaps you can see why I am such an enthusiast of the method illustrated.

If we examine construction sites that come in on time and budget, with few, if any snagging/rectification jobs and high customer satisfaction levels, we will see that they are fundamentally well organised and well-run sites. Of course, the reverse is also true – as I’m sure we all know!

The above method only really works, if we are able to plan everything well in advance, including space to work and store materials and, of course, to order our materials and specialised plant to arrive on time, removing the temptation that we might try and start the job before everything is ready.

As we can see here, the fact that we have safe access, both internally by use of the semi permanent edge protection and externally using platform hoists, we create a safe and productive working environment.

As you can see from the above very brief description of works and photographs, we can create magnificent looking and exciting buildings, with imaginative designs and do it safely, with planning, thought and competent workers.

  1. Conclusion

Next time you are tasked to put people to work at height, I would ask you to consider the following points:

Do they need to do it?

If the answer is yes, think “How can I plan it so that they are as safe as possible – and still achieve my production targets?”

Remember the hierarchy below:

Don’t do it.

If you must:

  • Provide a safe place of work, or if you can’t
  • Provide collective protection, or if you can’t
  • Provide individual protection
  • Published: 01st May 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East

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    Pat McLoughlin has more than 27 years experience in health and safety, developed after a practical grounding of 10 years in Engineering at Land Rover. He was with ROSPA for six years before forming British Safety Services in the Sultanate of Oman, with his business partner Steve Burke. Today, Pat is involved in providing H&S training and consultancy, from medium sized businesses through to multi national corporations. Pat has advised boards of Directors in the strategic direction of their health and safety policies and procedures.