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Fall protection in complex environments

07 October 2020

In the latest webinar, Sam Thomas explored the common, and sometimes overlooked, risks and challenges of working at height in the industrial sector. He was joined by Alan Murray of the BSIF.

ACCORDING TO Thomas, one of the first and most important things to understand about working at height in the industrial sector is that the stakes and the risks are very high. Of course, by its very nature working at height is risky, but in an industrial setting factors such as the size of the facility, the amount of machinery present, hazards both above and below the working area, and sometimes even noise levels, can all serve to exacerbate the danger. And as different industrial sites are so varied, when it comes to height safety, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – all work at height challenges need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

For example, at traditional steelworks the vast structures may have been extensively altered over the years and are often subject to huge differences in temperature. The general condition of sometimes ageing plant and equipment can be a risk and lighting levels can be variable. “The operation of things such as cranes, rollers, and coolant systems all make a lot of loud noise that can really increase the risk when you are working at height, and contribute to even some of the most experienced individuals making a mistake,” says Thomas.

On the other hand, a modern car manufacturing plant will generally be a much cleaner environment with newer, more high-tech equipment. However, such plants are also risky when it comes to working at height, often featuring complex conveyor systems, with production taking place on various levels, at different heights. “Often you are relying on short, high pressure maintenance windows that do not afford the time for access measures such as scaffolding. Quick decisions need to be made, which can sometimes be down to the individual worker,” says Thomas.

While the need to look at each site individually cannot be over emphasised, there are some recurring issues. “One common theme, whether you are running a power plant, manufacturing modular buildings, or operating a waste processing plant is that you will have roofs requiring regular cleaning and maintenance,” says Thomas. “It sounds really obvious, but in this day and age, individuals should not - under any circumstances - be walking and working on roofs without robust fall protection in place. Regardless of whether the roof is a year old or twenty years old, it’s not worth the risk.”

Another common factor across many industrial sites is the presence of machinery; however as the type and configuration of machinery tends to be unique to each application, it actually makes implementing a suitable fall protection measure even more of a challenge. “For example,” says Thomas, “you could design a bespoke overhead harness lifeline for use in the maintenance of an automated picking and storage system in a logistics centre; but when you try to implement the same solution for accessing, say, an inclined conveyor at that same facility, it just wouldn’t work - because the incline system needs a built-in braking mechanism to stop the user falling not just off the side, but also back down, the slope of the conveyor.”

In addition, machinery is often not particularly high off the ground, so designing a system that is capable of actually stopping and arresting a fall can be particularly testing.


Thomas identifies ladders as being incorrectly perceived as low risk; in reality just a small slip can have serious, even fatal, consequences. Addressing the risks associated with hooped or cages ladders, regulatory bodies are taking a more stringent view than in the past and legislation is changing. In the US cages are no longer considered compliant fall protection and to meet OSHA 1910, the latest standards, a personal fall arrest system or ladder safety system is now required. And things are developing in the UK too. Thomas refers to a 2012 HSE safety bulletin on hoop ladders which basically concludes that they do not provide positive fall arrest capability, stating that BS 4211 gives a false impression that hoops offer superior protection to that of fall arrest systems.

“A vertical cable lifeline system fixed to the ladder allows the user to be harnessed and it gives assurance that if the user does slip, they will be safe from falling and prevented from hitting the ground,” says Thomas.

Gantry cranes

Central to many heavy industrial facilities, gantry cranes require regular access for both regular inspection and reactive repairs. This requires maintenance engineers to physically traverse the crane walkways and sometimes climb onto the cranes themselves, which can be narrow and contain trip awards in the form of track and pipework.

“Horizontal lifelines running the length of the track are a great solution which allow engineers to be connected at all times,” says Thomas. “As an example, we have a system that can do a single span of 60m without any intermediate fixings, which is a great solution if there aren’t any steel columns available for fixing the system onto.”

Roof access

Almost everyone in a health and safety role will be presented with the task of risk assessing roof access at some time. Leaking roofs are a widespread issue and can cause damage to both stock and machinery, even leading to production downtime. While carrying out patch repairs can sometimes offer a quick fix, it should not be undertaken without the necessary safety measures in place. Thomas also points out that ad hoc use of scaffolding can result in hefty bills if the work needs to be carried out on a large structure or over an extended period of time, and setting up and dismantling the scaffolding is not without its own height safety risks.

To negate these risks, Thomas recommends a proactive approach that includes regular inspections to identify and prevent leaks before they become a problem, and of course, a comprehensive roof access strategy. “This typically would include things such as hand rails, walk ways, horizontal lifelines for harness connection,” he says. “If the roof access strategy is planned in advance before the work takes place, reactive repairs can be carried out on a safe basis and the duty of care for contractors on site is accounted for.”

Hierarchy of risk

Within the HSE Working at Height regulations is guidance for hierarchy-based control measures when carrying out a risk assessment. The first point to consider is whether the work can be avoided altogether, for example, could windows be cleaned from ground level, or drones be used to carry out inspection work? Thomas cites a case at Network Rail where signal lights can be dropped down to ground level for maintenance. The next step is to evaluate whether it is possible to rely on ‘collective’ fall protection – this is fall protection that doesn’t require specialist user training, for example handrails or skylight covers.

Once the two above options have been considered, the third tier involves protection of the individual worker – this is the point at which a harness needs to be introduced to provide safe connection of the user to an anchor point.

“So to translate the hierarchy into site based guidance for the industrial sector, first of all avoid the risk if you can,” says Thomas. “Then look at what measures, tools and technology can be undertaken, used and deployed to prevent operatives getting to a place where they have to work at height.

“Next is understanding the risks onsite, which would be different for different job roles, sometimes even if using the same equipment. Really take time to understand all approaches and stakeholders.

“Make sure you select the right fall protection equipment, use a specialist company to understand best practice from different industries, and the innovative solutions that are bespoke designed to solve a problem. There are so many different options out there now when it comes to fall protection, it really is worth speaking to individual manufacturers and installers to find out what they have done in the past.”

PPE regulation

The webinar also sees Alan Murray speak about the standards of products and services in the safety market. As Murray points out, PPE was not really widely talked about until this March. The disruption of supply chains and increased demand has, says Murray, drawn in huge amounts of unsafe and non-compliant PPE. Indeed, BSIF has reported over 300 traders and products to the relevant authorities, and Murray urges everyone involved in occupational health to help ensure none of these products end up in use.

As the post-lockdown return to work continues, the principles remain the same – safety and good safety management in industry is vital, asserts Murray. HSE figures published this July showed that of the 111 fatal accidents in the workplace that occurred in 2019/2020, 29 involved falls from height, and over 50,000 fall from height injuries were recorded.

Addressing regulatory changes that will be brought about by Brexit, Murray says: “Negotiations are currently underway and they are officially described as ‘challenging’. The UK negation team has just tabled a mutual recognition agreement, which is modelled very closely on the Canadian agreement called CITA, which is a Comprehensive Economic and Trade agreement.”

The MRA proposed by the UK covers all sectors that currently exist under the EU’s New Legislative Framework, where there is mandatory conformity assessment in at least some cases. PPE Legislation (EU2016/425) would be included in the scope of the UK proposal.

“The UK will introduce its own Regulatory Regime under the UK CA mark,’ says Murray. “How that dovetails or conflicts with the CE marking is yet to be fully negotiated and understood.”

Sam Thomas is Fall Protection Systems and Solutions Leader UK & Ireland at MSA Safety. For more information, visit www.msasafety.com

Alan Murray is CEO at BSIF. For more information, visit www.bsif.co.uk

Charlotte Stonestreet is managing editor of IPE.

To find out more detail about the issues covered here and further information on fall protection in industrial environments including current standards, training requirements and more, make sure you view the complete webinar at https://events.streamgo.co.uk/Fall-Protection-Complex-environments