Working at height refers to any work that takes place where a person could fall a distance that can cause personal injury. This includes working on a ladder or flat roof, falling through a fragile surface or even falling into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground. The key point is that workers don’t need to fall far to be seriously injured or even killed.
Work at height takes place across a diverse range of industries and many hazards will be specific to each working environment. However, a common cause of many accidents is a failure to take sufficient precautions, especially when carrying out work at relatively low heights (from zero to six metres). This is because workers sometimes fail to plan properly and underestimate the risks involved in working at this height. They don’t secure themselves or the equipment properly or they may use equipment in inappropriate areas where the ground isn’t secure.
A company’s safety culture strongly influences the way workers behave when they work at height and therefore the likelihood of accidents. Many organisations are entirely compliance-driven. They will provide workers with the correct PPE and sometimes deliver basic training, but – if they comply with the basic legal requirements – their efforts end there. Employees are provided the equipment for the job and are expected to know how to use it correctly. In other words, if an accident happens, it is the employee’s fault.
Yet, regulatory compliance alone is clearly not enough to ensure workers are kept safe and to avoid serious accidents and fatalities. More progressive companies with strong safety cultures can dramatically improve safety practices. Training and supervision will be taken seriously and management will regularly inspect equipment and practices on-site, encouraging feedback from workers and disseminating best practices. Demonstrating that you care about the health, safety and wellbeing of workers will help instil positive safety behaviour and increase staff retention, especially in competitive industries – such as oil and gas and the utilities – where specialist skills are in demand.
Whereas a strong safety culture can go a long way to ensuring that those working at height are protected, regulations also have a vital role to play in improving safety practices. The PPE Regulation (EU) 2016/425 is a case in point. The new regulation, which replaces the existing 25-year-old PPE Directive and is due to come into force in April 2018, is expected to have a significant and positive impact on the future PPE market.
To start with, all new products must be recertified every five years to be compliant with the latest standards. Understandably, the standards have evolved considerably over the lifetime of the PPE Directive and the stricter conditions required by the new PPE Regulation means that products will comply with the latest risk analysis and consequently be more suitable for use.
Another important change is that importers and distributors will share the responsibility with manufacturers to ensure that only products that comply with the latest (and improved) requirements will be made available for users.
This is all part of a general shift to drive up the quality and standards of PPE. One particularly important area related to this concerns the lifespan of products. Something that is very difficult to assess is the ageing of materials used in the manufacture of products. Harnesses are a good example.
After exposure to ultra-violet light and extreme weather conditions over time, the ability of harnesses to withstand a break can vary considerably. Manufacturers will say that a harness can be used for 10 years if it is inspected correctly every year. However, a visual inspection of the webbing is not a fool-proof safeguard.
Working at height is a risky business. Risks need to be properly assessed and work carefully planned, even at relatively low heights. Regulation is an important driver for raising standards but compliance alone is not enough. A mature safety culture instils a positive safety behaviour while tailor-made product solutions can provide another invaluable line of defence.