Preventing Falls using Risk Management

Falling from height is the leading cause of fatal injuries in the workplace in the UK (Health & Safety Executive). In the 2019/20 reporting period, there were 29 fatalities in the UK as a result of falling from a height. In terms of nonfatal occupational injuries in the UK falling from height caused 8% of such incidents being the 5 th leading causal factor of such incidents in 2019/20.

The nature of the risk of working at height is such that the consequences of a fall from height are more likely to be more severe even if the height is considered to be relatively low.

The Process of risk management and control tends to focus more on reducing the likelihood of the manifestation of the risk rather than the potential consequences of the event. As for safety
practitioners, we may seek to reduce the level of risk of working at height through a comprehensive suite of control measures however the nature of the risk is such that the failure of these controls can be life changing or life-ending. As soon as we put ourselves in a position where we are working at height we are exposing ourselves to the potentially fatal consequences of acceleration at 9.8 m/s 2 due to gravity. Gravity cannot be eliminated or isolated and to risk managers, we must ensure that the activity is appropriately assessed, planned, managed, and controlled to prevent falls from height occurring.

Working at height covers an array of activities from the use of stepladders, ladders, or scaffolds for decorating or to undertake maintenance for example through to some of the more extreme
occupational activities such as high-rise construction or even cleaning skyscraper windows using abseiling equipment. Of course, the risk management process shall consider each activity on its merits and implement specific control measures accordingly.

Before considering the control measures we must understand that the risk of working at height has potentially fatal consequences. There is perhaps a paradox in play with how we view work at height. The risk of high-rise construction work may be starkly obvious yet we may be tempted to underestimate the severity of 10 minutes of non-routine repair work 3 meters up a ladder. Moreover, as work at height activities are often short and may be unplanned or nonroutine we may get lured into complacency when considering the risk of the activity. The likelihood of the risk of working 3m up a ladder for 10 minutes compared to 8 hours on the 20 th floor of a construction site is certainly reduced due to the limited time exposure to the risk nevertheless the potential consequence of the risk remains severe.

The severity of the risk does not mean that the process of control needs to be overly complex or prohibitive to the activity. The key to success with risk management is often simply as overly complex requirements are more likely to be subject to circumvention and violation. There are simple, practical measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of falling from a height. The work must be properly planned and supervised; those undertaking the work must be properly trained and competent, and the correct tools and equipment for working at height must be available.

It is essential to take a sensible approach when considering control measures. When selecting our control measures we must consider the hierarchy of control. Gravity cannot be eliminated but if it is reasonably practicable to eliminate the need to work at height to complete the activity then we should do so. Beyond this for activities that demand working at height falls from height should be prevented through a suite of control measures.

If we cannot eliminate the activity perhaps the substitution of the equipment may provide better protection. This might mean using a step ladder instead of a ladder or a MEWP instead of a scaffold. Of course, when substituting equipment we need to consider if we are also substituting risks for new ones – working with a MEWP brings its own set of requirements and controls different from working on a scaffold.

The working environment should be engineered to ensure it is safe. For example, ensuring that scaffolding is constructed to the required standards, or appropriate edge protection is provided at exposed edges.

There is a suite of administrative control measures available to manage and control working at height. The organization should establish appropriate Standard Operating Procedures for the activity and may seek to implement a Permit To Work process dependent on the work at height activity and exposure. The activity can be managed to further reduce exposure and thus likelihood through job timing and job rotation. Essential to and underpinning all of these measures is to ensure that the people undertaking the activity have been appropriately and effectively trained and are competent to do the work and use the equipment.

Finally, we shall consider and implement the necessary PPE to prevent falls (e.g. footwear, gloves, etc) and consider the application of a Fall Arrest System if there is a fall from height. Careful consideration should be given when selecting the Fall Arrest System considering the activity and environment as well as the rescue plan to avoid suspension trauma.

Considering the risks associated with work at height and putting in place sensible and proportionate measures to manage them is an important part of working safely and preventing falls. A systematic and considered approach in recognizing the severity of the consequences of work at height and establishing a set of effective control measures should ensure that your organization effectively manages these activities and does not suffer the severe potential outcomes.

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