The construction industry poses a number of inherent risks to its workers, the number one being a fall from height. Fatal falls are often the result of a lack of proper safety equipment or its misunderstanding or misuse. Here, Mike Horrocks, Country Sales Manager – UK & Eire of Capital Safety looks at what the law requires employers to do to protect workers and offers advice on the correct use of fall protection equipment.
According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) report Health & Safety in Great Britain 2014, construction accounted for about 5 per cent of total employees in Britain in 2013/14, but saw 31 per cent of the total number of fatal injuries, 10 per cent of reported major/specified injuries and 6 per cent of over 7-day injuries across all sectors. Out of 42 fatal injuries in the construction industry over that period, 19 of them were caused by a fall from height, with that number accounting for 45 per cent of total fatal workplace injuries. Falls from height also headed the list of kind of injury leading to major/specified injuries, with 581 being reported.
As with everything, there is a cost attached to these statistics. The most significant, of course, is the trauma caused to individuals and their families. There are also costs to the employer such as penalties, HSE prosecutions and fines and loss of reputation and to the national economy in terms of working days lost, healthcare provision, welfare benefits and so on.
The legal position
Employers and employees have a general range of duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act but since April 2005, specific Work at Height Regulations (WAH) have been in force. A key part of the WAH regulations is the requirement to assess risks where “a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury”. This covers any height and also applies to situations where a worker could fall from ground level into hazards like trenches, lift shafts and manholes.
The WAH regulations require employers to have a health and safety management system that:
– Enables all work at height to be planned
– Applies the “hierarchy of control measures”
– Selects the right people and equipment for the task
– Trains people doing the work
– Inspects and maintains the equipment used
– Ensures supervision and monitoring of work as per method statements, work instructions and tool box talks.
In its approach to risk management, the HSE requires all employers to follow the hierarchy of control measures. In relation to working at height, this involves avoiding the need to work at height where possible, where it cannot be avoided to use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls and ultimately, where the risk of a fall cannot be eliminated, to use work equipment or other measures that minimise the distance and consequences of a fall.
Fall protection measures
Fall protection can essentially be divided into three categories: fall prevention, fall restraint and fall arrest. Fall prevention methods are generally what the HSE terms ‘collective’ measures, which prevent any worker from being exposed to a fall hazard with the use of correctly positioned guard rails and toeboards. Restraint and arrest systems involve the use of specific personal fall protection systems (PFPS) for which the worker is individually fitted and trained to use.
Fatal falls are often the result of a lack of proper safety equipment or the absence of training and/or understanding of how to use it and why it is important. For equipment to be effective it must be properly specified in the first instance and there is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding what particular types of system are designed to do is essential and these fit into four basic categories:
Restraint: restraint equipment involves a positioning system that holds the worker in place while keeping his or her hands free to work. While restraint or positioning equipment may be used to prevent a worker from reaching a fall hazard position, it is not specifically designed to arrest a fall.
Suspension: suspension equipment, such as a cradle, lowers and supports the worker while providing a hands-free work environment. Again, a suspension system’s components are not designed to arrest a free fall, so using a back-up fall arrest system is critical.
Fall arrest: if there is any risk that a worker may fall from an elevated position, a fall arrest system is required. Fall arrest systems activate only when the actual fall occurs and would typically consist of a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point and a means of rescue.
Rescue/retrieval: in the event of an arrested fall, retrieval equipment is needed to rescue or remove a worker so that he or she can be brought to a safe level. This equipment could either allow for self-rescue or rescue by a co-worker or rescue team, depending on the particular situation. Devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive rescue systems.
Making sure that the PFPS chosen is right for the task is, however, only part of the equation. It is also essential to ensure that it is acceptable to the person using it. If the user finds the equipment uncomfortable, difficult to use or feels that it hinders work, there will be the temptation to avoid using it or to use it in a way that compromises its performance.
Judging the distance
A fall arrest system will be of no use if the deployment distance is greater than the available clearance and this is a factor that WAH regulations require to be calculated. Fall clearance is the minimum distance a worker needs so that a fall is arrested before striking the ground or objects below the working area. This is more than a simple measurement from worker to the nearest obstruction and its correct calculation could mean the difference between a safely arrested fall and serious injury.
There are multiple factors to consider when calculating fall clearance accurately. For example, the calculation formula for energy absorbing lanyards is the length of the lanyard plus the deceleration distance of the energy absorber plus the height of the worker plus a safety factor (commonly 1.5ft). If the distance between the anchor point and the nearest obstruction is less than the calculated fall clearance distance, the fall arrest system cannot provide effective protection. If the anchor point is not directly above the worker, swing fall distance must also be taken into account. Charts and formulae for making these calculations for individual items of PFPS are supplied by equipment manufacturers.
Training a vital tool
The best PFPS in the world may not keep workers safe unless they are trained to use it. All employers in the construction industry should provide training programmes tailored to specific job tasks and the environment they are carried out in. Training sessions should not be confined solely to the individual piece of PFPS but should encompass:
– Identification, elimination and control of potential fall hazards
– Inspection, use and maintenance of PFPS on a regular basis
– Carrying out the routine of a fall protection plan
– Compliance with applicable industry standards.
WAH regulations require that anyone using personal PFPS should be properly trained by a ‘competent person’. The regulations do not mandate specific qualifications for a competent person, but this should be someone capable of identifying risks and with the authority to carry out measures to eliminate them. Every company should identify competent persons to oversee their fall protection plan, conduct fall protection training and ensure that all employees are properly prepared before they begin work.
Major PFPS equipment manufacturers like Capital Safety can offer training programmes that combine classroom or e-learning training backed up by hands-on training. Whilst the former can ensure full understanding of the demands of legislation, the need for the right type of equipment and the importance of maintaining equipment, the latter allows workers to experience equipment in a controlled environment. There is no substitute for donning a harness and having it adjusted properly, connecting to an anchor and experiencing how it feels or for seeing first-hand what needs to be inspected before use. On site, hands-on training is to be recommended as this ensures that any theory covered in the classroom is applicable to a particular work environment in practice.
As with all personal protective equipment, stringent inspection and maintenance regimes for PFPS are as important to worker safety as choosing the right system in the first place. Regulation 12 of the WAH regulations set out duties for the inspection of equipment. While it does not give information about the criteria for individual products, it does offer general advice on inspection regimes and information on the frequency, procedure and level of detail of inspections, as well as the type of records that must be kept. In addition to what is required under the WAH regulations, there are also requirements for inspection in BS EN 365:2004 (the British Standard for personal protective equipment against falls from a height) and recommendations in BS 8437: 2005 (code of practice for selection, use and maintenance of PFPS) and Health & Safety Executive Publication INDG367 (inspecting fall arrest equipment made from webbing or rope). Product-specific inspection requirements are provided by equipment manufacturers and should be incorporated into the inspection regime.
There are practical reasons for ensuring that inspection is a routine part of PFPS use. Materials used in the equipment can degrade over time regardless of use, but a common cause of loss or strength is through abrasion or by damage such as cuts. Any equipment showing signs of this type of wear should be scrapped as should any that has suffered a high shock load.
Equipment should be checked before every use, preferably by the worker using it. The process need only take a few minutes, but should include a detailed visual check of webbing, rope or any other textile element and a check on the function of items such as connectors, anchor line devices, buckles on harnesses, descending and ascending devices and retractable-type fall arresters.
As well as pre-use checks by the user, all PFPS should be subject to interim checks by the company’s designated competent person. How often these should take place depends on the frequency of use of the equipment and the environment it is used in. Whatever the frequency, written records should be kept of these checks. In addition to this, BS EN 365: 2004 recommends detailed inspection at least every 12 months, while BS 8437 and INDG367 recommend intervals not exceeding six months or three months where the equipment is used in particularly demanding applications such as steel erection and scaffolding.
PFPS is designed to protect individuals working at height. However, another cause of injury in the construction industry – both to workers and to members of the public – is dropped tools and equipment. Part of the safety arsenal for anyone working at height should, therefore, include equipment that prevents tools and equipment from dropping, which can include tool belts and pouches, lanyards and tethers and attachment points.
Having a plan in place
Even with the very best fall protection system in place, it is still possible for a fall to occur so planning and training should always include having a written rescue plan in place that all workers are trained on and can access at any time. Many equipment manufacturers offer sample rescue plans as a starting point for developing your own.
With a plan in place, there are four crucial steps to follow: respond to the fall within a specified timescale; monitor the fallen worker, particularly if they are suspended for a period of time; follow the rescue plan ensuring that it avoids putting the rescuer in harm’s way; transport the worker to a safe area.
Fall protection can, at times, appear to be a daunting task, but it need not be. Proper equipment and ongoing training saves lives and makes construction sites safer for all personnel. PFPS manufacturers can offer advice and support on product selection, safety standards and regulations and training, all designed to increase site safety and minimise the risk of death or serious injury from a fall from height.
For more information on the range of products and support services from Capital Safety, the global leader in fall protection equipment and rescue solutions, visit www.capitalsafety.com.