In the first in a series of regular columns, the experts from NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) answer our readers’ HS&E questions.
We are making a concerted effort to improve our health and safety protocols, but do you have any advice for me when specifically looking after a team working at height?
Firstly, thank you for getting in touch. Implementing better health and safety practices is something that will benefit your organisation – and its staff – tremendously, positively impacting your brand reputation, investment, employer status and most importantly, employee wellbeing.
The consequences of falls from height can be severe. In the construction industry for example, falls are the leading cause of occupational injury; in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 29% of occupational injuries in the sector in 2011 were due to falling. Similarly, 33% of construction accidents were due to falling in Kuwait in 2007 and in Egypt, 33% of construction injuries were the result of falls in 2008. Further, the Health Authority – Abu Dhabi, reported that 53 of 71 occupational fatalities in 2011 were caused by falls or falling objects.
As two of the largest construction projects in the region – the Qatar 2022 World Cup and the Expo 2020 event in Dubai – are now well underway, safe working at height is as relevant as ever.
Preparing for working at height
One of the first things to consider is whether you can eliminate the need to work at height. Wherever possible this is the preferred option however, often this is not always possible. So where work at height cannot be avoided there are some key steps you can take to prevent falls and, in the event of a fall, minimise the distance and consequences of falling.
Planning is key. If all work at height is properly planned, appropriately supervised, and executed in a safe and controlled manner, then you are lessening the chance of anything going wrong. One thing that can sometimes be overlooked is the development of a rescue plan to use in case of emergency, so make sure there is a detailed rescue plan – and accompanying equipment – in place before starting any work.
When it comes to selecting equipment your teams will be using, think about the physical location and environmental conditions. Are there any risks posed by the use, installation or removal of the kit, and which equipment should be given priority? By that I mean, ‘collective protection measures’ should have precedence over ‘personal protection measures’. For example, equipment like nets and airbags should be given priority over individual harnesses. Kit should be kept in good condition and inspected before every use too.
It’s important to get out on site and inspect the working locations and the equipment you expect staff to use. Look out for areas of fragile surfaces and hazardous areas – does the work need to go ahead here? If the answer is yes, then look at installing appropriate platforms or rails.
Let’s not forget that working at height also presents a risk from falling objects. Make sure that there are appropriate processes in place for moving or disposing of objects at height.
As with many areas of health and safety management, you may spend a lot of time planning and developing processes and procedures but they can only truly be effective if staff – from the front line to the board room – are communicated too and trained to work in a safe manner.
Ensuring that effective training has been provided prior to workers commencing work at height is vitally important. Training should cover all the hazards and risks associated with a task that workers are undertaking
Additionally, playing close attention to communication is particularly important if you have several companies working on a project, or if your workforce is made up of a range of nationalities. Make sure that any communication regarding work at height is clear and mutually understood amongst all the teams/workers involved, and ensure you and your team are always approachable,
Joel Nedamo, Health and Safety Manager at the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC), and holder of a NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety, shares his experience on communicating to a diverse workforce: “Most of our workers are expats, which means that language is one of the main challenges we face. It can be difficult to get people to work to the same standards, simply because they have moved here from countries or organisations with different safety cultures. We educate these workers on our rules and regulations as they enter our premises and everyone attends a detailed ‘toolbox talk’ before they start working on anything. We have also found that posters and pictographs work well when it comes to establishing good lines of communication, which is essential for safe and efficient working.”
Before commencing work at height, you must first assess the hazard and risk involved. Things to consider include the height of the task, the duration and frequency, the condition of the surface being worked on and any overhead hazards such as electric cables. It’s important to note that the hazards listed here are only examples, many work tasks undertaken at height are unique, and need to be properly assessed.
Before working at height apply these simple steps:
- avoid work at height where it’s reasonably practicable to do so
- where work at height cannot be easily avoided, prevent falls using either an existing place of work that is already safe or the right type of equipment
- minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, by using the right type of equipment where the risk cannot be eliminated
For each step, always consider measures that protect everyone at risk (collective protection) before measures that only protect the individual (personal protection). Collective protection is equipment that does not require the person working at height to act for it to be effective. Examples are permanent or temporary guardrails, scissor lifts and tower scaffolds.
The information contained here is just an overview of some of the best practice associated with safe working at height. To be a successful health and safety practitioner, you need to be able to adapt your approach and the frameworks you use to suit the different people and environments you’re working in. Gaining a relevant qualification, such as the NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety or the NEBOSH International Certificate in Construction Health and Safety, can help you learn the skills needed to keep your workforce safe.
For further information about NEBOSH and the qualifications it offers, visit www.nebosh.org.uk.