The only way is up!

Working at heights

Steve Burke,

British Safety Services

British Safety Services (BSS) is an international consultancy offering advice and training on health and safety issues.

As the Middle East continues its fast growth programme, safety measures for Working at Heights become more important than ever, says Steve Burke of BSS.

As Dubai celebrated Eid 2010, Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise quietly went where no man has gone before – and perched on top of Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world.

During a scene being shot for Mission Impossible IV in Dubai in November, a figure was clearly seen on top of the famous skyscraper, which stands at 2,717 feet. Reports are it was Cruise himself, known for shooting his own stunts.

Of course, Tom was backed by a full safety team, complete with harnesses. He was as safe as possible in his Mission Impossible quest. However, we are not all film stars, and falling from a height continues to remain the major cause of accidents in construction sites in United Arab Emirates.
This is true across the world and it is recognised that extra efforts and initiatives need to be implemented to avoid such accidents.
According to researchers, about 50 per cent of all construction site accidents are a result of falls from height with crane mishaps contributing to another 20 per cent. Institution of Occupational Safety and Health former President Ray Hurst had said around 2.3 million work-related deaths occur worldwide annually, with the construction industry accounting for about 60,000 of these fatalities.

With some of the fastest growing cities, and many high rise buildings, the UAE is working to come up with a uniform safety code across the country, according to a senior chartered safety and health practitioner.

Its excellent track record during the past five years will get an additional boost if a single code is adopted throughout the country, said Peter Barnett Schuster of Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (Iosh).

Speaking to Emirates Business, Schuster said the municipalities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have an impressive set of guidelines and safety code that are mandatory at all work sites. “The legislation in the UAE does not go into any details. There are usually a lot of grey areas within the legislation. Whereas the codes that are being implemented by the two municipalities are quite descriptive, clear and explanatory.
“It would be a lot easier for companies to be under one safety body. At the moment, for example in Dubai, there are several regulatory authorities. Legislative requirements vary from project to project – what applies on one project does not for another,” he said. In Dubai alone, there are several practices being adopted by different agencies.

Growth rate in construction in Saudi

 (As at November 2010)

Saudi Arabia, which currently has a 38 percent share of the total construction projects in the region, is expected to award contracts worth $86 billion in 2011, according to a newly-released “GCC Gulf Cooperation Council Powers of Construction 2010” by Deloitte Middle East.

Currently the Kingdom has $624 billion worth of projects planned or underway, it said.
Saudi, Abu Dhabi and Qatar continue to be the GCC markets with greatest potential for the construction industry, the report noted.
“The UAE has 36 percent of total construction projects, worth $958 billion, and is expected to see its construction industry grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.6 per cent from 2010 to 2014.”
Qatar, with a smaller 15 percent of total construction projects, is estimated to see its construction industry grow by a CAGR of 12 per cent over the same period, the Deloitte report said. This will almost certainly be an underestimate since they have now been awaarded the world cup in 2022, which will require considerable additional construction activity – funded by both public and private investment.
In a separate report by UAE-based Proleads Global market research company, it said demand for construction in the Middle East is set to soar as the industry recovers from the economic downturn and the region forges ahead with major development.
The report noted that nearly 1,300 projects valued at more than $418 billion are under construction in the UAE alone, with an additional 303 projects worth $143 billion in the design, planning or bidding stage.
A study released by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry in August noted that the UAE is still the largest construction market in the GCC with $714.8 billion worth of projects in progress or in the planning stages.

Calls for joined up thinking and an overall single body for safety in the Middle East prompted eighteen construction firms to form Dubai-based Build Safe UAE. The safety group was formed in January 2008  to report their own accidents and issue their own safety alerts to other group members – 21 months later, the Build Safe UAE group had 31 corporate members.

Accidents down

The fact is that as membership numbers of Build Safe go up, death and accident numbers are going down on 283 construction project sites in the country being self-monitored by Build Safe UAE member firms.

Statistics, for example, provided by the companies reveal there has been a significant drop in workplace fatalities from 20 deaths in 2008 to four deaths in the first eight months of 2009.

Worker deaths from falling from heights at construction sites dropped from eight incidents last year to one incident on record this year as of August 2009, according to what’s called the Shared Safety Statistics Database collected by Build Safe UAE.

With some firm numbers in hand, Build Safe UAE realised there was a problem with workers plunging to their deaths while working at serious heights.

Build Safe UAE issued a new paper, Best Practices Guidelines for Working at Heights, and member companies have since installed everything from minimum guard rails to screened-in floors during construction which appear to have reduced deaths due to workers falling from heights. Making swift construction progress at height is a tough job, managing to do it safely is even harder.

Eliminating the opportunity for error and accident is what safe working is all about. Whether it’s having toe boards on a scaffold, personal equipment on lanyards, or operating an effective exclusion zone, each and every precaution taken reduces risk.

Workers must be trained to know what’s safe and what’s not. It’s about making labourers sense fear, so they realise when they are in danger. Untrained staff can be a danger to themselves, and others. Bad planning by contractors and developers could endanger an entire workforce by allowing works to be carried out in an area where work at heights is proceeding above.

If you are going to send someone out to work on an open edge with the risk of losing a spanner, bolts and brackets and then multiply that by how many brackets and bolts are used and how many times the worker goes out to the edge, you can calculate how many near-misses you will have, how many injuries you have and how many fatalities you have – it’s all predictable by numbers.

An unsafe construction site can also be a costly construction site; an LTI will cost a developer from US $13,600 to $27,200 (AED50,000 to AED100,000) in Dubai and a fatality can come with a hefty price tag of up to $136,000.

It is much cheaper for contractors to prevent accidents from happening by giving labourers the security and the safety plus the training that they need.

In June this year (2010) four men fell to their deaths on a site in Sharjah.

This major incident lead to an investigation into what happened, with an eye toward seeing if all the safety protocols were being followed.  It appeared the men were not wearing safety harnesses, a flagrant violation of the basic safety standards of a construction site.

The central issue is that these falls from height should not be allowed to happen as long as all the safety precautions are followed.

In Britain the Health and Safety Executive’s key messages to duty holders regarding working at height are:

  • Follow the risk assessments you have carried out for work at height activities and make sure all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by competent persons;
  • Follow the hierarchy for managing risks from work at height – take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce risks; and
  • Choose the right work equipment and select collective measures to prevent falls (such as guardrails and working platforms) before other measures which may only mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall (such as nets or airbags) or which may only provide personal protection from a fall.

British Safety Services, a main provider of safety training in the Middle East, recommend that when either your staff, or contractors 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’- you should consider the following;

The first question to ask ourselves is, do we need to work at height? If the answer is yes, then consider the following:

  • Follow the risk assessments you have carried out for work at height activities and make sure all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by trained and competent persons.
  • If you can’t avoid working at heights, follow the hierarchy for managing risks, and take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce risks.

1. Provide a safe place of work

• Scaffolding: A correctly designed and built scaffold should be as safe to work on as standing on the ground.
• Mobile elevating work platform (MEWP): As with a scaffold, a correctly positioned and used MEWP should be as safe as working with our feet on the ground.
• Suspended access platform: When correctly installed and operated, these too should be as safe as standing on the ground.

2. Provide collective protection

• Safety nets: These protect all workers without the need for restrictive working lines, harnesses etc.
• Air filled ‘fall bags’: In case someone does fall from a height can help to minimise the consequences of that fall.

3. Provide individual protection

• Safety lines and harnesses: Fall prevention, using a suitable anchor point and retention line/harness.
• Fall arrest: Such as inertia reel equipment.
• Rope access systems: Using abseil techniques.

4. If all the above fails

Use a ladder or ‘hop up’ but only if the work is low risk and 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 are really to be seen as a last resort as a means of access and then only when used correctly by competent persons.
Training: The above will only work if ALL workers are trained and suitably supervised against the assessed risks and in the safe systems of work.
In order to illustrate what can be achieved, and still be productive and profitable, let us consider that there is no alternative to working at height.
As an example, let’s use the activity of curtain walling. This is a very dangerous activity, which by using simple, but very effective methods, and training all staff can be made a lot safer.

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.
Health and Safety best practice advises: Choose the right work equipment and select collective measures to prevent falls (such as guardrails and working platforms) before other measures which may only mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall (such as nets or airbags) or which may only provide personal protection from a fall.

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, 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).

Providing a 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 you do decide to use PPE, 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.

Also consider the provision of suitable quality and sufficient numbers of, anchor points for the area of work, which will allow the required range of movement. We 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.

Designing a safe place of work

Below, 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.
Additionally, if we consider 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.
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.
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 for our workers – who of course we have ensured are all properly trained in working at heights and use of the safety equipment.
As you can see from the above very brief description of works, we can create magnificent looking and exciting buildings, with imaginative designs and do it safely, with planning, thought and competent workers.

Goal Setting

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:
o Can work at height be avoided? i.e. is it reasonably practicable to introduce a system where the work can be done from ground level, that is there is now no risk of a fall from height?
o Where you must work at height, what can be put in place that would prevent a person falling? I.e. could guard rails or a movement restraint system be used?
o If it is not reasonably practicable to put measures in place that will prevent a fall occurring, think about what you can do to reduce the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur; mats, air bags and fall arrest harnesses for example.
o If the risk of a fall remains, think about other measures that will stop a person being injured, such as extra training.
If you review your procedures and risk assessment, you should be able to decide what suitable, sensible measures need to be put in place to make sure the people who are doing the job can do it safely. This may include further training.

If you conclude that guard rails, tower scaffolds or mobile elevating work platforms cannot be used, any work restraint system chosen should be set up so that the user is prevented from reaching a position from where a 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 and sufficient fall distance to safely arrest the fall.

Tips for safe working

• Plan what you will do in an emergency, or if someone falls.
• Make sure the people who will be doing the job have the right skills, experience and training to use the equipment safely and have been consulted about the right equipment to use.
• Take frequent breaks, especially when working from a ladder – do not work from a ladder for longer than 30 minutes at a time.
• If you have to use a ladder make sure you re-position it before you clean another window, to reduce the risk of an accident from over-reaching.
• If you use a ladder keep three points of contact wherever possible.
• 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.

Next time you are tasked to put people to work at height, consider:

Do they need to do it?

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

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