Demystifying the myths behind working at height

Test your knowledge and make sure you know what the real threats are, says Stuart Linnitt, global engineered systems manager at Capital Safety, a 3M company.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) describes working at height as a leading cause of industrial injuries and death. Employers and employees are legally bound to take reasonable care to protect themselves and others from the dangers, and the HSE requires all employers to follow a hierarchy of control measures.

The first of these is to avoid working at height wherever possible. If that is impossible, the employer must use equipment and/or other measures to eliminate or minimise risk.

However, it can be difficult for an employer to know that their precautions are effective. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are many myths associated with working at height, some of which can actually reduce, rather than enhance, safety.

Myth one: It’s CE marked, so it must be safe

One of the greatest myths prevalent within the world of working at height is the belief that if your personal protective equipment is CE marked then it must be safe to use. This can stem from a lack of knowledge and a desire to procure the cheapest solution. Too often, companies may focus on meeting minimum legislative or site requirements, without understanding the requirement of the task in detail. Really focused manufacturers will make sure they go well beyond this to improve performance, longevity, comfort and functionality, using parameters that exceed the compliance minimums.

Myth two: All PFPS suit all jobs

Too few purchasers of personal fall protection systems (PFPS) actually understand how the equipment works, its capabilities and limitations. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and when PFPS is used incorrectly, the level of risk to those working at height can actually increase.

The increase in risk does not only stem from the equipment being inappropriate. For example, a worker using PFPS that he believes to be suitable, may be less vigilant around risks than he would be, if he knew the actual (low or non-existent) extent of protection.

In fact, while various systems are available, none is sufficient alone. The key systems are:

  • Restraint — this holds the worker in place, leaving hands free, but is not designed to arrest a fall
  • Suspension — suspension equipment lowers and supports the worker. Like restraint, however, it is not designed to arrest a fall, so additional measures are needed
  • Fall arrest — this is absolutely required if there is any risk of a fall from height. Fall arrest systems only work when a fall actually occurs; most consist of a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point and a means of rescue
  • Rescue/retrieval — this system is used to rescue a worker in the event of an arrested fall. Rescue/retrieval equipment can either facilitate self-rescue or permit rescue by co-workers or a rescue team. Devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive rescue systems

Choosing the correct PFPS is, however, merely the first step. The PFPS must also suit the person using it; they must feel comfortable with the equipment, able to use it easily and it must not interfere with their work.

Myth three: It’s not necessary to inspect equipment before every use

PFPS must be stringently inspected and maintained; this is as important as choosing the right equipment in the first place. Regulation 12 of the Work at Height (WAH) regulations sets out duties for equipment inspection, and additional inspection duties apply under BS EN 365:2004, with recommendations given in BS 8437:2005 and the HSE’s publication INDG367.

PFPS can degrade over time and suffer damage through impact, cuts, abrasions and so forth. Any equipment showing signs of wear and any that have suffered a high shock load should be discarded. Equipment should be checked before every use, ideally by the person using it. The few minutes it takes may save a life.

Myth four: There’s no need for specific training

Lack of training and/or operative understanding causes falls. The best PFPS in the world may not keep workers safe unless they are trained to use it. All employers should provide training tailored to specific tasks, and which goes beyond single pieces of equipment to encompass:

  • Identification, elimination and control of potential fall hazards
  • Regular inspection, use and maintenance of PFPS
  • Carrying out the routine of a fall protection plan
  • Compliance with applicable industry standards

The WAH regulations require anybody using personal PFPS to be properly trained by a ‘competent person’, so every company should identify competent persons to oversee its fall protection plan, conduct appropriate training and ensure all employees are properly prepared before starting work.

Specialist PFPS equipment manufacturers offer training programmes that combine classroom or e-learning with hands-on training.

The breadth of fall risk mitigation solutions is ever expanding, through technological and material advancement. The effectiveness of PFPS in mitigating the specific risk identified must always be very carefully considered. Falling is seriously unpleasant at best, catastrophic at worst and generally, in many work environments, foreseeable. In light of this, research into the correct equipment, and investment in training to ensure its correct deployment, is crucial.