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We all know that nothing in life can be 100% safe. We strive to make things as safe as possible by doing a risk assessment, considering the dangers and applying suitable controls. However, sometimes we find it difficult to agree on just what constitutes ‘suitable controls’.
Articles like this tend to concentrate on legal duties (where laws exist) and have a nasty habit of going on about ‘International Standards and laws’ usually as a way of telling you how to manage your work.
In this article I have chosen an activity – cleaning windows to 4 storeys – as an example of a realistic job with its own problems. If we consider taller buildings, then the use of access cradles etc, changes our perspective entirely. I trust that you will agree that my suggested solution is practical as well as being short on ‘preaching’ and long on practicality and common sense.
In most countries, falls from heights account for around about 50% of all fatal accidents with half of those being in construction and related activities. The majority of falls are between 2 and 3 metres but, strangely, the figures for falls of over 2 metres have halved in recent times. The number of major injuries caused by falls from heights, is around 75 times higher than the number of deaths – 1.33%.
Around about 10% of those accidents (and 1% of the fatal ones) are down to window cleaning.
Do these statistics suggest that no one cares about people working at height? No! What they illustrate is that humans instinctively take more care when the danger is obvious. If the danger is less obvious we become complacent and more willing to take chances and short cuts. We must remember that taking care in these situations includes those in charge correctly assessing the danger and putting suitable controls in place. Safety is not an optional extra.
As more and more tall buildings are erected all over the world, the problem of not only building them but also maintaining them has to be addressed. It is with this in mind that I have chosen several activities (below) in order to provoke some thought and comment. Hopefully this will lead to action, and a reduction in the carnage.
Firstly I have selected a common task – window cleaning – and then several other tasks to illustrate an approach which, if followed, will assist in managing working at height more successfully.
So to our task: Window cleaning up to 4 storeys.
Until relatively recently the accepted method for such a task was to use ladders, abseiling and, for the more enlightened, aerial access platforms (also known as cherry pickers, scissor lifts, flying carpets and a variety of other local names). Whilst using aerial platforms is certainly better than using ladders, it still requires people to work at height, which is far from ideal and we should avoid it if we can.
The ‘water-fed pole system’ allows cleaning activities up to 30 metres (6 storeys) from the ground. So why would anyone want to waste time and resources, and risk their workers’ lives, by using access platforms or, heaven forbid, ladders?
I feel that the answer is simple; either they don’t possess the skills or the imagination to think outside the box or perhaps it’s a case of ‘this is how we have always done it’? Maybe they think that safety is expensive. Try costing an accident in terms of injury to staff, damage to plant and loss of your good reputation and contracts.
So why change how we have always cleaned windows? Well, there are generally 3 business motivators for doing anything, namely:
It is generally accepted that using the water fed pole system:
Even if you’re not directly involved in construction activities, window cleaning or similar, you probably do have occasions when either your staff, or contactors working on your behalf, have to work at a height – that is ‘work requiring them to… obtain access to or egress from such place while at work… where if measures… were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury’.
The above definition is fairly broad, and deliberately so – we need to start thinking more radically about this, or we will still be reporting terrible statistics like those above in ten years time.
The first question is do we need to work at height? If the answer is yes, then consider the following:
NOTE: The above will only work if ALL workers are trained & suitably supervised against the assessed risks and in the safe systems of work.
In order to illustrate the use and benefits of the above hierarchy and approach, I have shown below a few examples of varying activities across a wide range of workplace types and common activities such as…
This type of activity is usually undertaken using a set of step ladders, with the possible risk of overreaching, standing on the top step and of course, falling backwards. Far better to do this with a simple and inexpensive system that offers access and prevention of falls.
This activity has for years been ‘one of those things’ that just gets done and, if someone falls, everyone is surprised, but as every enlightened person in transport can testify, falls from the back of trailers is a major concern. There are several approaches to providing temporary and one-off solutions, without costing loads of money and slowing down the work activity. Two such examples are illustrated below, which I think you will agree are realistic and sensible solutions to prevent injury to drivers and helpers whilst tying down/ removing securing straps etc.
Any health and safety professional would be horrified if there were no measures in place to protect workers where there is the risk of a fall of between 3 and 5 metres. They would be interested to see the risk assessment and how the risk of a fall had been prevented or mitigated.
The good practice requires that all work at height is risk assessed. The assessment should really be based on a ‘goal setting’ approach, which means that there is no absolute right or wrong way to do the activity. Instead we follow a hierarchy of control. When planning an activity that may involve work at height the employer should consider the following:
If you review your procedures and risk assessment, you should be able to decide what suitable, sensible measures you need to have in place to make sure the people who are doing the job can do it safely.
If you conclude that guard rails, tower scaffolds or mobile elevating work platforms can’t be used, any work restraint system chosen should be set up so that the user is prevented from reaching a position from where fall can occur. A belt rather than full body harness may be appropriate where a person cannot reach a position from which a fall can occur. 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, sufficient fall distance to safely arrest the fall etc.
Work restraint systems have been devised for use on vehicle. These incorporate running cables.
If you are hiring access equipment, make sure you know how to install and dismantle it safely – ask the hirer for instructions or assistance if you need them.
British Safety Services
Linton House, Catherine Street
Aston, Birmingham B6 5RS UK
Tel: +44 (0) 121 328 8873
Published: 01st Nov 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East
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.
SAFETY AT WORK ON CONSTRUCTION SITES
An Article by Pat McLoughlin
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