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Taking safety to new heights

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Working at height is considered one of the biggest causes of fatalities and major injuries in the UK. Falls account for over a quarter of all fatal occupational injuries, half of which occur in construction.


Falls from ladders and through fragile surfaces are common causes but incidents can happen in virtually any industrial setting if companies fail to properly assess the risks and plan accordingly.

Whereas many accidents could be easily avoided, falls continue to occur, often at heights of up to six metres. The reason is that workers tend to underestimate the risks associated with working at relatively low heights and consequently fail to take the necessary precautions. Also, workers may set up equipment in an area that is not secure or appropriate. Consequently, the equipment or the worker slips.

One of the biggest influences on the way employees behave when they work at height is the level of maturity of a company’s safety culture. Many organisations are compliance-driven. They ensure workers have the correct equipment and sometimes provide them with basic training, but that’s as far as it goes. The thinking behind this is: the worker has received the equipment and they should know how to use it correctly.

Other organisations take a more progressive approach and actively seek to reduce risks, albeit in the short-to-medium term. Driven by data such as key performance indicators (KPIs), they take training very seriously. They will inspect personal protective equipment (PPE) frequently and managers will attend the site to monitor workers to make sure they are using it correctly.

The third group, and one to which all employers should aspire, is employers with a strong safety culture. These organisations take a long-term approach and recognise that good safety management is an enabler for business rather than a burden. Companies that demonstrate they care about the health, safety and wellbeing of workers can go a long way to retaining staff.

Another approach that can enhance safety is developing tailored-made solutions to improve working at height. For example, a major challenge that manufacturers face is how to assess effectively the ageing of materials used in products such as harnesses. A simple visual inspection is often insufficient to determine if the webbing is still resistant after enduring two or three years of very harsh conditions. A priority for the health and safety industry is to develop an ageing detector enabling safety managers to rule if the resistance of a material is strong enough.

Tailor-made solutions could also reinforce safety in the area of confined spaces, where manufacturers are developing a new generation of tripod systems to meet the growing demand for electrical installations underground.

New regulations will also have a vital role to play in driving safety at height. The EU’s new PPE Regulation is a particularly important development that will improve safety standards, especially in countries that traditionally have had a poor safety record.

A key area where this will make a noticeable difference is in the use of self-retractable lifelines (SRLs). Until now, companies could use SRLs for horizontal and vertical applications, even when workers were carrying out work close to the edge of a roof. All they had to do was add a steel sling at the end of the SLR to ensure that it didn’t break on the roof edge. The new regulation, however, will enforce stricter controls.

A new standard regulating SRLs will come into force in 2018, and consequently additional tests will need to be carried out before working on a roof with an edge. The new PPE regulation will oblige manufacturers to comply with this latest standard, mandating that any new product has to be recertified every five years and comply with the latest standards.

By making sure that the products are compliant with the latest analysis of the risks, companies can guarantee that the product being used is much more suitable to the application.

HSE guide on working at height http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg401.pdf

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