What goes up, must come down, as the adage goes. Working at height remains one of the biggest causes of occupational fatalities and major injuries. Cases commonly involve over-reaching, over-balancing or the failure of a fragile surface. It’s not just about what people fall off, but also what they can fall into, be it unguarded holes in floors such as hatchways, inspection holes and pits, and falls into process tanks and machinery. Additionally, falling objects and contact with other hazards, such as overhead electrical services, can be included in work at height.
Generally, work at height can be taken to mean any work where, if there are no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. It should be remembered that access and egress to a workplace could also constitute working at height, e.g. via a fixed ladder.
Workers in maintenance and construction are particularly at risk, but many other people in a variety of jobs could also be at risk of falling from height. Any job from retail to painters & decorators, window cleaners
Whatever the task, any work at height needs to be planned in advance, with careful consideration given to the selection and use of work equipment and means of escape in an emergency. The majority of falls from height happen to those who carry out ad hoc work without proper training, planning or equipment.
Hierarchy of control measures
When planning any activities which may involve working at height, the following hierarchy of control measures should be considered:
- Avoidance where possible, of working at height by carrying out tasks from the ground. Practical examples include using extendable tools, lowering a lighting rig to ground level or assembly of edge protection on the ground.
- Working from an existing place of work, such as a protected flat roof or using an existing means of access and egress, such as a fixed ladder.
- Provision of suitable work equipment to prevent a fall occurring, e.g. edge protection
- Provision of work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, e.g. fall arrest systems (harnesses and lanyards), and
- Instruction, training and/or other means.
An existing safe place of work
Where work at height cannot be avoided, an existing safe place of work should be used. These workplaces (and means of access/ egress) should:
- Be stable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for their purpose
- Rest on stable and suitably strong surfaces
- Be of sufficient size to allow safe use for persons, plant and material
- Have suitable means for preventing a fall
- Have a surface which has no gap through which a person or material could fall and cause injury
- Be constructed, used and maintained to prevent the risks of slipping, tripping or any person being trapped between them and any adjacent structure. For example, an existing flat roof with permanent edge protection may be used for work at height activities.
Equipment and method
Even before work at height begins, there is much to be considered – not least the selection of equipment and the method to be used. When selecting equipment for working at height, employers must provide the most suitable equipment appropriate for the work. They must also take account of working condition factors. Such as the weather and the nature, frequency and duration of the work, as well as the risks to the safety of everyone where the work equipment will be used.
It is vital that whatever equipment is selected for working at height, it is assembled and installed in line with manufacturers’ instructions. Equipment should also be inspected regularly for signs of deterioration.
Where the safety of work equipment depends on how it is installed or assembled, e.g. scaffolding, it should be inspected in place before it is used. Where it is exposed to conditions that could lead to a dangerous situation. Such as high winds, it should be inspected at suitable intervals and each time exceptional circumstances occur that could jeopardise its safety.
Where there is no suitable existing safe place to work from, work equipment or other measures to prevent falls should be provided, such as access equipment fitted with guard rails. Independent scaffolds, tower scaffolds and mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) for example.
When selecting work equipment to prevent falls, employers should give priority to collective measures over personal protection. Equipment should be strong enough for the work and any loads placed on it, considering:
- The working conditions and risks to safety at the place where the equipment is to be used
- In the case of work equipment for access and egress, the distance that has to be negotiated
- The distance and consequences of any potential fall
- The duration and frequency of use
- The need for easy and timely evacuation and rescue in an emergency
- Any additional risks posed by the use, installation or removal of the work equipment, e.g. the erection and dismantling of scaffold on a busy street
Consideration must be given to the safety of people who work or pass beneath the work at height activity. In particular, measures should be in place to protect them from falling objects. Firstly, steps should be taken to prevent the fall of objects or materials, e.g. toe boards and sheeting on scaffolding. Where this isn’t reasonable, measures should be implemented to ensure that persons are not struck by falling objects. E.g. barrier-off danger areas below and prevent unauthorised access. Chutes may be used to control the transport of materials and waste from a height to a safe location. Materials should not be thrown from height, e.g. into a skip.
If a fall from height does occur, the consequences will depend on many factors. Such as the distance fallen, the nature of the surface landed on, how the person lands and the age and health of the individual. The severity of the injury is increased for example, when the fall is into the path of a moving vehicle (or machinery) or into a tank which contains a hazardous substance.
When carrying out roof work, fragile surfaces present a significant risk – no person should pass or work on or near to a fragile surface unless it is not reasonable to carry out the work elsewhere. Where it isn’t reasonable, suitable protection, such as platforms, coverings, crawling boards or guardrails, must be provided. Where this is not practicable, measures should be taken to minimise the distance and consequence of any fall, e.g. fall arrest systems, safety nets and air bags. Prominent warning signs should be posted at any location where persons may pass near to or work on a fragile surface.
Fall Arrest Equipment
Where the risk of falls cannot be prevented, work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall (should one occur) need to be provided, e.g. fall arrest systems, safety netting or air mats.
This equipment does not stop people falling but minimises the potential injuries if they do.
Use of Ladders and Stepladders
Work at height should preferably be carried out from the safety of a platform with suitable edge protection in place, but sometimes this may not be possible. In such situations, a ladder may have to be used; however, ladders are best used only as a means of gaining access to and from a workplace. They should only be used at a workplace for low risk and light work of short duration or where the site features will not accommodate a working platform (provided that a safe system of work can be devised). Work that requires the use of both hands or is in itself inherently dangerous. E.g. hot work, should not be conducted from a ladder
Every year many people are killed using ladders. Many of the accidents occur because the ladder is not properly secured, usually because the work was of very short duration. Other typical accidents include falls as a consequence of over-reaching, overbalancing or losing hold of the ladder when carrying loads on it.
Safety during the use of ladders, as with all work equipment, can be achieved by ensuring:
- The suitability of the ladder for the operations and operating conditions under which it will be used
- That systems are in place to inspect and maintain the ladder in a safe condition
- That safe systems of work are devised for the ladder’s use
- That staff are informed, instructed, trained and supervised as necessary to be able to use the ladder safely
The length of the ladder has a significant bearing on its suitability, it must be long enough to allow an inspection or task to take place without over-reaching, and also to provide a safe means of egress if necessary at the top landing. The longer the ladder, the more difficult it is to carry around site and manoeuvre into position.
The material of construction may also be significant. As timber is nonconductive it will prove to be a more suitable material than aluminium where electrical equipment is being used. Aluminium ladders may be damaged in corrosive atmospheres, whereas timber ladders are prone to warp if left exposed to the elements.
Ladders and stepladders should be inspected before each use to ensure that they are suitable for the job, and in good condition. Damaged stiles, damaged or missing rungs or missing feet should exclude the ladder from use. Painted ladders should not be used as the paint coating may conceal faults. Systems are necessary to ensure all ladders can be individually identified, are properly stored, and are issued for use to identified personnel.
Although stepladders provide a freestanding means of access, they require careful use. Usually, stepladders aren’t designed for any side loading and therefore, can be easily overturned. Stepladders should be industrial grade, be used on a level surface and with the hinge fully extended and locked (or retaining cord fully extended). The workers’ knees should be below the top of the ladder when in the working position.
Fatal accidents have occurred when workers have stepped on to the top step of a stepladder, which has subsequently toppled over. Therefore, the top step of a stepladder should never be used at a workplace unless guidance from the manufacturer states that the equipment has been designed for this purpose.
In addition to the controls set out above, other measures to reduce the risk of a fall should be used. E.g. information and training, use of competent persons, demarcated areas to provide a warning, adequate lighting, good housekeeping measures, use of suitable footwear and checking weather conditions.
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