TT Talk - Safe maintenance at height – reporting on an ICHCA debate

  • Date: 07/04/2015
  • Source: TT Talk 199

Working at height remains one of the biggest causes of fatalities and major injuries. A common fallacy is that ‘working at height’ is confined to activities several meters from the ground. However, ‘working at height’ is defined as work completed at any height above ground level where a hazard might present itself.

One of the debates at ICHCA’s 73rd Technical Panel meeting concentrated on the issues relating to safe working at height practices. Safety for working at height effectively starts with management processes and stringent authorisation controls, ensuring that individuals carrying out such tasks are competent, supervised and sufficiently trained to do so. At its best, a robust permit system is employed to ensure that individuals do not undertake such work without authorisation and full consideration of the risks. In the event that working at height is unexpectedly a necessity, an emergency protocol should be in place and communicated effectively to ensure that actions and roles are clearly defined in the event of a fall or incident.

Part of an early risk assessment concerning work at height should be to determine the need and whether there are alternative means of completing the task. Such a risk assessment should also consider the urgency of the activity; incidents are more likely where well-intentioned, but expedient decisions are taken, without fully considering the associated risks. Often a culture of pausing for assessment and consideration will allow individuals to make appropriate decisions as to what is required to perform a task safely. 

‘A culture of pausing for assessment and consideration will allow individuals to make appropriate decisions as to what is required to perform a task safely’

If, following the early risk assessment process, there remains the necessity to work at height – and therefore the risk of a fall from height – then sufficient measures must be taken to minimise the distance and/or consequences of a fall. Thereafter, a full risk assessment should be completed in relation to the task, identifying the potential risks and hazards as well as the safety equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) required. Whilst not an exhaustive list, consideration should be given to weather conditions, the safety and security of the planned working area, isolation of the area beneath the planned activity, any mobile equipment in the area, what PPE is required, including whether it is available and in sound condition, and the locking/disabling of any machinery or equipment with moving parts during the planned works.

Finally, immediately prior to the commencement of the task, a quick risk prediction should be completed by the person who is actually completing the task as a final ‘catch all’ check that all is in good order and as expected.

Supervision during the work is of paramount importance. A second person in place to monitor the operation throughout provides an additional safety element. In the event of a fall or emergency, this second person can raise the alarm and potentially assist in the recovery, subject to an appropriate emergency plan.

It remains an obligation of an employer to provide the required safety equipment to complete the task. A regular program of checks and visual inspections of fall arrest equipment should be undertaken, supplemented by validation immediately prior to use. Straps should be free of visual damage, such as fraying, tears, burns, cuts or exposure to liquids that may be corrosive to the material. Buckles and metal components should be free of pitting, rust, distortion of any kind and cracks.

It should be highlighted that installation and even effective enforcement of the use of fall arrest equipment whilst working at height does not eliminate the risk. Using fall arrest equipment will not prevent a fall; it can only reduce the risk of injury if there is a fall and can actually increase the likelihood of a fall as the wearer feels ‘safer’. Furthermore, where the use of such equipment is implemented, it is also important to consider and plan for the rescue of a fallen individual. Suspension trauma is a condition which can occur in as little as five minutes after being held in a suspended position. The hazards of suspension trauma range from faintness and loss of vision to loss of life in extreme cases.

Where the person remains conscious following a fall, not only may the alarm be raised more quickly but also there may be an extended time frame in which to effect a recovery. In the event that the person is unconscious following the fall, the urgency of the recovery becomes ever more critical.  Defining emergency protocols and then providing training and carrying out rescue drills are all key. These will all assist in ensuring that the emergency services are notified, and the casualty can be reached and rescued in a timely manner, in the event of a person falling and/or being saved by fall arrest equipment.

Finally, where an individual has spent a period being suspended, be aware that it may not be advisable to lie them down, even in the recovery position. In general, the body should remain upright and all straps and equipment loosened. Lying a casualty down horizontally can be life threatening; the accumulation of blood in the legs during the period of suspension flows immediately back to the heart, causing strain and potential failure. However, each situation needs to be considered on its merits, taking account of all factors. 

In summary:
• Working at height remains a major risk in all operations
• Take steps to assess and minimise the need to work at height
• Where work at height is necessary, take all available steps to minimise the height at which the work must take place
• Perform detailed risk assessments of the planned task
• Ensure all fall arrest equipment is regularly checked and in sound condition
• Employ a robust permit process to prevent unplanned or unprepared work taking place
• Training and communication are key in mitigating the potential risks


We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox
Risk Management Director, TT Club

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+44 7000 882582

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