Understanding height access systems

Di Beauchamp outlines the steps necessary to protect staff working at height.

hile standards, workplace codes and government legislations exist to protect workers who operate at heights, the reality is that falls, both minor and major, continue to occur.

The costs associated with a workplace accident are considerable and far reaching. There is risk associated with work in any elevated position, regardless of the actual height in metres, or centimetres for that matter.

Awareness campaigns to heighten workers’ attention about risks associated with lifting and manual handling are run regularly but falls remain a significant contributor to workplace accidents.

Serious injury can result from a fall is low as 300mm and falls from height remain the most frequent cause of fatality and major injury at work.

Falls are very common during routine activities such as reaching items, during maintenance (particularly window cleaning) or if temporary access equipment is being utilised.

Ladders are implicated in many falls as users over-reach or slip off the rungs or the ladder is unstable or used on a surface that is not level.

So significant are the impacts of falls from heights, the NSW Health and Safety Strategy 2005 — 2008 has an objective to reduce the incidence of falls from heights by 40% by 2012.

The strategy states targets will be achieved through the implementation of effective fall prevention strategies, the adoption of a “hierarchy of controls”, falls prevention safety training, ensuring safety information is readily available, and finally the use of correctly installed and certified safety mesh.

The decision making process starts with the reasons why it is important to complete a risk assessment for safe working conditions at height.

Employers are becoming increasingly aware of requirements of the Occupation Health and Safety Act for the provision of a safe working environment for their employees, and most importantly the “Duty of Care” component of the legislation.

Failure to comply with this legislation can result in significant fines and prosecution. In the event of a serious injury or a death that could have been prevented through the implementation of the controls, prosecution occurs at the highest level of the courts.

It is therefore mandatory that every new building has provision for safe working environments during both construction and maintenance at project completion. This requirement fails to specifically address the thousands of existing structures requiring work and regular maintenance be performed in areas with little or no protection.

Ideally, the risk of a fall from a building or structure should be designed or engineered out of the equation, even before a project is constructed. This can involve the provision of walkways, stairs with handrails, guards or even using a parapet wall built to 1m height above the building roof top.

In the event that risk cannot be eliminated through engineering and planning, a height safety solution using personal protective equipment (PPE) is required. The height fall prevention system requires four key components to be effective:

• It must have an anchorage point, a point to which a person can be tethered and capable of withstanding fall arrest forces.

• It must have a full body harness, manufactured to Australian Standards and capable of being fitted correctly to all users.

• The system must have a connector to link the body harness to the anchorage point and be fitted with a decelerator, a shock absorbing device designed to limit the fall forces on the body to less than 6kN.

• The final component of a height fall prevention system is an emergency rescue plan. This is the most important element of the system, ensuring that a person can be rescued safely without risk or injury to others and within a timeframe that limits the potential risk of other medical conditions such as suspension trauma.

The choice of what kind of control is the most appropriate is dependent on such issues as: the nature of the work involved, the frequency with which the work is carried out, the time frame required to complete the work, the skill level of the person completing the work, the budget for the project, the design of the roof or structure and materials from which it is made, the height of the project and how many people are required to complete work at the same time.

Ultimately, regardless of how many rules and regulations are introduced, the major contributor to the eventual reduction of workplace falls and accidents will be a change in attitude.

Andrew Ferguson of Karabiner Access believes it’s the ‘occasional’ height worker who is most at risk.

“As I drive around the city every day I see people working at height – cleaning windows, undertaking menial repairs, not wearing harnesses.

“It’s no wonder falls occur, people are not mentally preparing for this work, they don’t even register they are at risk.”

He is also critical of the chain of command that allows inferior height safety systems to be installed on roof tops.

“Managers who should enforce the rules remain vague about the detail of S56. Building managers allow workers on to roofs and access to gear that hasn’t had regular height safety audits.

“Major developers hand over a building with inferior and unreliable height safety systems believing the systems will never be used! It’s criminal and not even on the same page as the NSW Health and Safety Strategy 2005 — 2008,” Ferguson said.

Karabiner Access 02 9318 2466.