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Workplace Safety – Advice for Working at Extreme Heights

Work at heights has become a topic in recent times with most nations and laws slowly changing in how they define a height – but most publicity has surrounded the use of ladders and whether they are suitable for work at heights.

Traditionally we could assume a height was in the region of 2 metres – legislation usually setting this as the height at which injuries would occur and should be controlled. Obviously as we increase from 2 metres the potential risks increase until somewhere around 15-30 metres after which the end results don’t change much.

However in recent times there’s been a move to say anything that could harm by falls etc. should be deemed a height. I wouldn’t disagree that any possible risk should be assessed and evaluated but equally we know that risk increases with height in most cases and the care needed thus increases too. But obviously take account of other factors – what will be fallen onto, what are they carrying/holding all of which can increase the risks.

So what are the risks – the obvious ones are people falling and items falling onto those below – but also consider the safety isolator or equipment used to get people to height and the general means of access to the height.

Preventing Falls:

In truth there are three core methods for preventing falls supported by an over reaching need for a stable work platform/area. The three methods are in order of effectiveness:

Safety Barriers and Edge Protection – A wall or barrier of more than 1.1 metres in height is the ideal means of ensuring safety at heights. Its the only method for large populations working at heights or where public are allowed into an area.

Safety Harnesses and Restraint Lines – These when used properly by trained people are the nest best method. They need to be used or at least set up by competent people and will only protect the user. Depending on the work and the requirements the ideal restraint system is one that actually prevents a fall – so a tether line that prevents you falling off the edge is better than one that allows you to step off the “edge” but prevents you falling more than 2 metres.

Safe Distance – in theory – on flat roofs with limited numbers of people you can reduce risks by ensuring no one enters an area within 3 metres of the edge. Its limited in that it requires workers to remember the distance when occupied with other things – but for short term work it can be a simple solution when other solutions aren’t practical.

Preventing Items Falling

To prevent items falling good housekeeping is essential at all times – but equally ensuring things can’t fall by means of physical barriers, kick boards on scaffolds/platforms or lanyards attaching tools to the workers all help reduce the risks.

If risks remain then exclusion zones below the work area are required – areas that the public and staff don’t/can’t enter. Obviously this may also be a hard hat zone to help mitigate risks for staff required to work in such areas.

When looking at heights with regards to storage areas such as mezzanine storage ensure items are not stacked higher than the safety isolator or if they are some means of preventing falling items is in place.

Access Equipment:

Obviously when a height can be reached by means of steps or doors then the issue is resolved – but when you need to use access equipment, the use of scaffolds, elevating work platforms (EWP) such as cherry pickers or scissor lifts are better than ladders. They typically provide edge protection and kickboards to reduce the risks from tools and equipment falling too.

When such are used it is important to ensure the scaffold is properly constructed and signed off as required by competent people and that work platforms are maintained, inspected and checked by competent people to ensure their continued safety.

Ladders have not been outlawed as claimed by some – there’s merely been questions raised as to whether they’re suitable for prolonged work. It as always boils down to risk assessment. We have to accept scaffolds or EWP are safer than ladders – however for short term work or work in inaccessible areas a ladder may be the only realistic option. As general access the same rules for safety as ever apply – position it right, make sure its stable, ensure its in good order and the user is competent and knows the basics of ladder safety. Also there are options to make use of safety harness and anchor points for work on ladders that will last more than 15 minutes or involve less than ideal tasks for a ladder.

When using ladders and step ladders think about the user and what they’re doing – plus the frequency of use. Standard ladders and step ladders are fine for occasional simple jobs – but in warehousing, archive arears where people will be loading/unloading items at height then invest in step ladders with handrails and good working platforms.

Specialist Height Working:

When we consider the use of rope access systems the same principles apply its just a more extreme case and relies utterly on the competence of those setting up the work. When looking at rope access you need access to specialist riggers – now that means specialist qualifications – typically IRATA but there are other bodies that certify trained personnel depending on the country or industry. But competent people are the key.