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What steps are being taken to reduce the risk posed by working at height?

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Working at height is a common scenario on worksites. It can include anything from using a ladder to working on a flat roof.  Anywhere where there’s the possibility of falling through a fragile surface or stumbling into a hole in the ground is classed as working at height.

While many falls will result in only minor injuries – a twisted ankle or a few bruises – the consequences can be much more serious.

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) annual data for 2017-18 shows that of the 144 worker fatalities recorded during that period, 35 were caused by a fall from height – it was one of the three most common causes of fatal injuries.

Working at height is an everyday occurrence on the railway, whether it be OLE engineers working on mobile elevated working platforms (MEWPs) or rolling stock technicians working on raised platforms in depots. The railway also brings its own distinctive set of challenges.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said it has put a greater emphasis on the risk of working at height on bridges and viaducts over the past few years and is working with the industry to identify and assess hundreds of locations around the country where measures, such as handrails and barriers, are needed to reduce that risk.

Dr Richard Peters, who is Network Rail’s chief medical officer, explained the kind of injuries that could be sustained from a fall at work.

He said: “Falls from height often result in injury, whether it be temporary or permanent. These injuries can include anything from minor grazes to more severe conditions such as fractures of the spine, upper and lower limbs. Neurological complications can also result if the spine is damaged or the individual sustains a head injury.

“It is important to remember that a fall from height can also lead to death. Factors such as the height of a fall, type of impact and associated medical ill-health such as osteoporosis, to say a few, can also directly contribute to the severity of an injury and outcome.

“It is always important to ensure appropriate first aid and medical follow-up after a fall from height due to the risks involved.”

Photo: FourByThree.
Photo: FourByThree.

Fall protection and safe by design

The best method of protecting staff from harm when working at height is always to remove the risk entirely, and technology is helping to do just that.

Drones are increasingly being launched around the network to complete assignments that would have traditionally required working at height – tasks such as bridge inspections.

Progress is also being made in another area which is highlighted as a common risk for rail infrastructure staff: flat beds and container wagons. One of the main issues is that they often require staff to clamber up to see what is inside and, for the sake of speed and convenience, workers could be tempted to climb onto the buffer stops without having the full protective measures in place. It illustrates the wider risk posed by falls from plant and equipment on railway sites.

But this risk is now being mitigated at the design stage by manufacturers who are looking at ways to reduce, or remove, the need for staff to climb onto equipment. This has been achieved in some cases by automating various controls and removing the need for operators to access the roof of machinery in day-to-day operation.

Sometimes working at height is unavoidable and safety equipment is required. Network Rail’s Lifesaving Rule related to working at height specifies that staff must use a harness unless other systems are in place. Guard rails on steps, walkways or elevated platforms – known as collective safety systems – are preferred as they protect all workers on a site and reduce the risk of human error. Things like safety nets and air bags would also fall under this category.

If it is not possible to employ a collective safety system, personal protective equipment must be used.

Tethered fall protection systems come in two different varieties: fall restraint and fall arrest. Fall restraint systems physically restrict the worker from the risk – a short tether will prevent them from reaching the edge of a platform. Conversely, while a worker could still fall using a harness arrest system, the tether would break the fall by either slowing their descent or stopping it entirely. Some products also have an inbuilt rescue winch that can then safely lower the individual to the ground.

Room for improvement?

While new technology and working practices are beginning to remove staff from dangerous areas, there is still a long way to go before the risk is eliminated completely, with falls from height accounting for around a quarter of worker fatalities last year.

In 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Working at Height was established to look at the dangers and put forward proposals that could reduce the risk to workers in the UK. Evidence has been submitted and a report is on its way.

Balfour Beatty was one of the companies to submit evidence to help drive the debate. The company believes that current working at height regulations are too vague and that creating an Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) would give companies a clear set of rules and standards to follow. This could then be the central tool for developing training/competency standards for site operatives.

Balfour Beatty’s submission was led by the company’s health, safety, environment and sustainability director, Heather Bryant.

“There are some areas where there are very clear competencies such as scaffolding but there are other general areas for working at height where there isn’t a clearly defined standard and that is the one where it’s open to interpretation,” said Heather.

Using a Working at Height Permit-to-Work, Balfour Beatty has been able to apply more controls during the planning and delivery phase. The formal written process requires all potential hazards to be considered before work begins.

The company also said it would support enhanced reporting of falls from height, suggesting that arrested falls from height should also be reported.

“We don’t actually feel that it captures everything that it could usefully capture,” said Heather, referring to RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations).

She added: “We capture an awful lot more and we use those statistics in our business to set our strategy and our agenda for the future, so we can proactively deal with things.“

Balfour Beatty identified several examples of good practice within the group that could merit a wider application across the construction and engineering sectors. Tool tethering is used to prevent items from falling and injuring someone. The company also widely uses catch nets and safety nets, believing that they should be made mandatory in some situations.

Heather said the APPG was a particularly good forum to demonstrate to government how technological advances were aiding safety.

Balfour Beatty now utilises licensed drone operators to conduct inspections at height. The company is also providing safe training environments with virtual reality and is reducing the amount of work completed on site by engaging in more offsite fabrication and modularisation.

These methods once again illustrate the central objective to remove risk entirely and Balfour Beatty has rolled out its own ‘safe by design’ training to embed this philosophy within its engineering staff.

How do I stay safe?

The responsibility doesn’t just fall on employers; employees also have legal and moral obligations to keep themselves and their colleagues safe. It is important that staff use the equipment supplied in the manner it was designed and that any hazards are reported.

If you have any concerns about  a particular working practice within your organisation then it’s important you tell someone. It could just save your life.

Photo: FourByThree.
Photo: FourByThree.

Hold the handrail

Did you hold the handrail as you walked downstairs this morning? Network Rail was asking this very question of its employees throughout July as part of a company-wide safety stand down.

Network Rail staff around the country were being challenged to think about even the most basic safety behaviours, starting with always holding the handrail when using stairs and escalators.

Network Rail’s chief executive, Mark Carne, believes it will make rail staff around the country better at spotting small failings and give them more confidence to intervene when they do.

Mark said: “In the first place, it’s a good thing to do. I mean, a thousand people a year die falling down the stairs at home, so it’s the number one cause of domestic accidents. So at one level it’s just a sensible thing to do.

“But the more subliminal message is that this is an organisation where if there is a safe system you should use it, and the safe system for walking down the stairs or walking upstairs is holding the handrail.”

He added: “This campaign is also about giving people the encouragement to intervene if they see anything that isn’t quite right and giving them the opportunity to practice so that they become more skilled and confident in their ability to do it.”

Mark has led safety stand downs for the Network Rail board and the exec committee, as well as attending several across the routes. With the majority of close calls reported to Network Rail relating to physical conditions, the aim of the stand down is to overcome the barriers that can deter people from pointing out their colleagues’ mistakes.

“What this stand down also marks is quite a significant shift from the way we would normally address safety issues,” said Mark. “Normally the railway addresses a safety issue with either an engineering fix or a change to a work process – a new standard, a new way of doing things or a new piece of technology.”

He added: “It’s not about processes, it’s about personal behaviour; that is at the heart of the culture of the industry.”

What the law says

By law, employers are required to ensure a number of things:

  • All work at height is properly planned and organised;
  • Those involved in work at height are competent;
  • The risks from work at height are assessed and appropriate work equipment is selected and used;
  • The risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled; and
  • Equipment for work at height is properly inspected and maintained.
  • When carrying out assessments for managing and selecting equipment for work at height there is a simple hierarchy employers should use as follows:
  • Where possible, avoid work at height;
  • Where it is not possible to avoid work at height use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls. E.g. providing permanent or temporary access platforms; and
  • Where they cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences, e.g. fall arrest/ restraint equipment etc Information courtesy of HSE.

Credit HSE/Crown Copyright

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