Reducing H&S risks with fall protection systems

Risks are inherent in many occupations, but for those working at height, the stakes are significantly higher. Berenice Northcott, Managing Director of rope access specialist Access North Structures, explores why fall protection systems are invaluable for enhancing safety standards.

Health and safety is of utmost importance within any industry. But for those employed within the construction and maintenance sector, elevated working is often unavoidable – meaning workplace hazards are inevitably heightened too. Safeguarding those within these occupational environments is therefore imperative.

In the UK, falls from height continue to be amongst the most common causes of serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace. Having effective measures in place to prevent these therefore needs to be a priority – and not just on a one-off basis, but either as an ongoing long-term procedure or throughout all phases of a short-term project.

Roles, rules and responsibilities

When considering the security of those working at height, it is essential to be aware that the current safety legislation (Work At Height Regulations 2005) doesn’t exclusively refer to tasks carried out on roofs, cranes, skyscrapers or other notably tall structures.

Importantly, any job conducted above ground level and/or that poses the potential for a fall through an opening, hole, fragile surface or from an edge constitutes ‘working at height’. Similarly, for an accident to count as a ‘fall from height’, it must involve falling from one level to a lower one.

Whilst individuals are responsible for their own wellbeing to a certain extent – and should always follow safety guidelines and exercise due care with regard to their environment – this duty does not reside with workers alone. Site, building, construction, maintenance and facilities managers, as well as employers, must also ensure appropriate measures are implemented to mitigate the risks of a fall.

And this is where fall protection systems come in. If elevated work cannot be avoided, then installing appropriate equipment to prevent falls is a legal requirement. The instances that require such fittings are covered in the Work At Height Regulations 2005 – as are the obligations surrounding risk assessment and the planning, design, installation, maintenance and inspection of these systems.

Restraint vs arrest

When it comes to protection systems, there are two main categories – restraint and arrest.

Where work is being conducted at a significant elevation, but poses no direct risk of a fall, restraint systems are used. These are usually set 2.3m or more back from a roof perimeter or open edge and work by restricting the user’s path, keeping them away from hazardous precipices. Minimal personal protective equipment (PPE) and basic training are required by those using this type of solution.

In instances where the chance of a fall cannot be wholly removed, arrest systems are implemented instead. Rather than removing the risk entirely, this equipment mitigates the impact of a fall and must be designed according to the individual specifications of the site. In the planning stages, the type of roof substrate, building height and fall clearances are all taken into account in order to ensure the system works as effectively as possible. In addition, specialist training, PPE and a rescue plan are required prior to any work at height commencing.

Protection options

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to fall protection – all equipment must be specified on a case-by-case basis. This begins with a thorough site survey, in which key structural requirements and obstacles are identified, along with the level of access needed and any specific environmental risks. Then, once this detailed inspection has been thoroughly completed, the appropriate system can be deduced and the design process can begin.

The most popular types of equipment are:

  • Edge protection guardrail– Simple yet highly effective, these are used where roof access is required. They can be curved or straight in design, with a counterbalanced base. Permanent top-fix rails are long-lasting and demand very little maintenance, whilst freestanding ones are a high-performance alternative that are quick to fit and remove the need for drilling into the structure.
  • Horizontal safety lines– Suitable for most structures, and ideally suited to an industrial safety environment, these are a versatile solution for building maintenance, inspections and façade access. They can be modified for multiple users, helping to boost productivity as well as safety, and require annual testing.
  • GRP walkways– Glass Reinforced Plastic is lightweight yet durable, and offers a reliable anti-slip surface for roof access and other elevated fixtures. Essential for any underfoot incline of more than 15 degrees, the material is also corrosion and fire resistant. Although no maintenance is required, periodic inspections are advised.
  • Eyebolts – There are two types of eyebolt, one of which is used for fall arrest/restraint working, such as window cleaning, and must be tested annually. The second option is for rope access/work positioning, which is used for abseiling and requires checks every six months. If a fall from height occurs, the fall arrest/restraint eyebolts can save the individual on a singular occasion, but must then be replaced.

Choosing the right solution for the structure is paramount – not only where safety is concerned, but also functionality and cost. Enlisting a specialist supplier to carry out an in-depth survey, recommend and install a tailored system, deliver necessary user training and conduct ongoing testing and maintenance, is therefore highly advisable.

Access North Structures is an approved provider of QBM/SFS Soter2 fall protection solutions, specialising in the surveying, design, installation, inspection, certification, testing and maintenance of both temporary and permanent equipment. To find out more, visit www.accessnorth.co.uk or call 0333 006 2182.

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