Working Safely at Height – A problem, an opportunity or just everyday life?

Working at heights

By Pat McLoughlin, Managing Director, British Safety Services

Rumours abound – again – that us safety folk want to ban people working at height.  Well rest easy, because that’s all it is – rumours.

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 the first part of the 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.

How dangerous is it anyway?

 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 (a).  The number of major injuries caused by falls from heights, is around 75 times higher than the number of deaths – 1.33%. (a)

Around 10% of those accidents (and 1% of the fatal ones) are down to window cleaning. (a)

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.

An Example

The 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.

Why change?

So why change how we have always cleaned windows?  Well, there are generally 3 business motivators for doing anything, namely;

1               Saving money – the safer way is often the cheaper way in the long run

2               Keeping on the right side of the law – civil and criminal

3               Looking after the welfare and well-being of staff

So how can using a water-fed system help you?

It is generally accepted that using the water fed pole system: (b)

  • allows operators to work from the safety of the ground
  • eliminates the need for ladders and high access equipment
  • is twice as quick as conventional window cleaning
  • cleans more effectively using pure water and no detergents
  • allows a small company to bid for work on higher buildings, without the need for massive expenditure in costly access equipment
  • reduces disturbance to clients
  • reaches inaccessible windows

But what if you’re not a window cleaning company?

Even if you’re not directly involved in construction activities, window cleaning or similar, you probably do have occasions 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’. (c)

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.

So what should I do?

The first question 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 competent persons.
  • If we 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.
  1. 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 manage to fall from a height.
  1. 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.
  1. If all the above fails – use a ladder or ‘hop up’ (e) 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.

NOTE:  The above will only work if ALL workers are trained & suitably supervised against the assessed risks and in the safe systems of work. (d)

When there is no alternative…

In order to illustrate what can be achieved, and still be productive and profitable, I have considered 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 pound 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.

If you think safety is expensive – try having an accident!

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).

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 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.

Alos 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.  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

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, 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, above and below, 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.

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:

    • 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?
    • 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?
    • 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.
    • 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 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 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 (c)

  • 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, I would ask you to 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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