With so much happening in the safety space, WAHA has decided to take the opportunity to step back and have a fresh look at today’s fall protection landscape.
Regulators have been actively campaigning about safe working at heights, so looking at their target audiences and their messaging, we have identified some key areas that we think can be addressed quickly, and potentially with immediate impact.
Helping people who work at height to get home safely each night is a big responsibility for those accountable for their health and safety on the work site, be they facilities and project managers, supervisors or safety professionals.
Between 2016 and 2020, of the 194 workplace fatalities, 60 can be attributed to a fall from height or from dropped objects. Considering these statistics represent multiple industries, from construction to agriculture, there is a need to review the fundamentals in how we address working at height as a high profile risk and how we change our collective approach to managing it.
A fatality in the workplace has an effect on multiple levels; there are the psychological repercussions to the workforce, the stress of an investigation and of course significant financial costs including compensation and lost productivity. Based on the SafeWork statistics, in the 2012-13 period Australian businesses paid out over $68 million in compensation payments to the families of those suffering fatal injuries in the workplace. So as a PCBU, the outcomes from not addressing safety can have far reaching consequences beyond the incredibly unfortunate and distressing death of an employee.
WAHA has taken a strong position on, and continues to advocate for changes in training requirements and competency definitions for those working at height, but there is also a need to address PPE selection criteria and the quality of the equipment being used. It’s therefore vitally important that those responsible for the safety of people working at height are aware of the risks associated with the usage of non-standard, low-quality or inappropriate fall protection equipment and a lack of essential training, particularly as the profile and need for fall protection increases.
Despite PPE being the lowest position in the hierarchy of controls, on face value it appears to be the simplest solution so is often adopted as the primary response from employers in addressing the risk. But what is very clear is employing this methodology without a very clear selection criteria based on relevant risk assessments can often place workers at a heightened risk, rather than offering a genuinely safe solution.
Sub-standard equipment – the risks
When using low-quality or non-compliant fall protection equipment, the potential risk is, quite simply, unknown performance. Working at height is challenging enough, the quality of your equipment shouldn’t add to the risk. Using low-quality or non-compliant fall protection equipment not only compromises workers’ abilities to do their job properly, but also undermines their safety at a fundamental level.
Sub-standard equipment is likely to be made from lower-quality materials which degrade faster than one would expect, shortening the usable life of the product and in turn, exposing users to unnecessary risk. Taking short-cuts on cost can be false-economy, with the need for more frequent replacements and also an increased likelihood of equipment failure and potential injury to the user. Sub-par products may have only undergone the very minimum standards of safety testing and designed to only account for an isolated incident where only one person falls during a single event.
Diligence is crucial when sourcing your fall protection equipment, ensuring that it has been tested to the very highest of standards, is fully compliant and fit for purpose (considering application and environment). Confidence that rigorous testing is applied comes from confirming that the manufacturer subjects their products to dynamic testing under a wide range of anticipated operating conditions.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Correct equipment specification is just one part of a robust safe working at heights solution. One of the most important aspects of helping to keep people safe whilst working at height occurs before anyone has even stepped on site: the planning stage.
Correct planning starts with the selection of the very best fall protection regime for the type of work being performed. This involves asking a series of key questions, such as:
- Do we have people in the organisation properly trained at all levels?
- Do we have a policy in place that addresses how we’re going to deal with potential fall hazards?
- Are we systematically reducing those potential hazards in a prioritised way?
- Do we have a clearly defined and robust risk assessment and SWMS process
Once you’ve answered these questions, your next step should be to thoroughly assess the hazards, document and implement appropriate protective measures, including procedures, protocols and equipment, and schedule a regular review by applying the hierarchy of controls as the primary reference.
And finally, it’s vital to talk with those employees who will be working at height and make sure they are as aware of what’s at stake as you are. Involve all stakeholders in identifying the best safety solutions, ensuring they are engaged with the process, are supportive of the solution decided and are better prepared to recognise and respond to potential fall hazards.
Innovation for performance, comfort and rescue
For decades, the primary focus of fall protection was to simply protect workers from falls, or capturing them in the event of one. Now, with the most recent industry innovations, personal protective equipment is more intuitive, comfortable and easy to use , allowing workers to focus on getting the job done without compromising safety. Take self-retracting lifelines, for example, where new materials and energy absorption technologies have allowed for lighter, more compact and easier-to-wear designs. Similarly, tailored comfort-wear harnesses with fully adjustable straps, contoured padding and moisture-wicking materials help workers remain comfortable – even when working at height all day. Even head protection solutions have evolved to meet the high-risk activities workers at height are often subjected to. These crucial innovations help lessen fatigue, simplify use and product maintenance, and increase worker productivity.
To better protect workers at height, they must be provided with the correct equipment and adequate information, instruction, training and supervision by relevant, fully qualified people responsible for the safety of those working at height.
Operators need to be trained well enough to be able to properly assess the risk, and be competent and confident enough to address changes to the worksite and accommodate that in the updating of SWMS and equipment selection.
In turn, they should only work at height if they are on a suitable platform, landing or scaffolding, and using the correct PPE.
When PPE is required, there is a need to consider compatibility with the other systems in use, as well as the different PPE types being used as part of a PFAS (Personal Fall Arrest System). The specification needs to take into account the parallel engineered solutions, be they single point anchors, vertical or horizontal lifelines or rails, working on platforms, scaffolds or even EWPs for access. Applying proper selection processes takes into consideration the application, environment, type of works to be carried out and the location of the work. Underestimating the importance of correct specification can create a significant exposure for not only the operator, but also the employer and PCBU as the responsible parties.
We understand the risk, do you?
The equipment you choose, the time you take to plan your fall protection regime, and the work you put in to ensure those responsible for implementing it are fully trained – these are all vital steps. You need to keep in mind what’s at stake at all times. Are you doing enough to avoid you or someone in your workforce becoming another statistic? And are you accessing the best industry advice to help minimise risk?
Applying the Hierarchy of Controls
By its very nature, working at heights exposes operators to a risk of a fall that is reasonably likely to cause injury or death.
In determining the best solution, there will be situations where fall hazards can be eliminated completely or at least minimised by accounting for the needs and introducing systems specifications in the initial design phase of a project. This is in an ideal situation, but often we a confronted with projects and work locations where workers will need to be protected via other means as the risk of a fall could not be reduced or removed.
Removing or eliminating the hazard is considered the best method of protecting workers from falls, whilst applying a collective fall protection approach is often more practicable as far as instituting changes to existing structures. This means drawing solutions from the different tiers of the Hierarchy of Controls to determine how best to address the unique problems of the work needing to be carried out.
Scott Barber – CEO, Australian Working at Height Association (WAHA)
Scott is a professional marketer, copywriter and safety specialist with over 20 years’ experience designing, driving and facilitating communication and education as a fundamental engagement tool.
Specialising in safety and rescue, both operationally and as a consultant, he uses his experience across multiple industries to deliver solutions targeting specific stakeholders using communication as the critical driver for change.