Don't fall for the obvious when working at height
01 June 2016
Working at height is obviously a dangerous business, but it’s not just the obvious risks that lead to accidents. Jeremy Dugan, EMEAI training leader at Honeywell Safety Products, explores some of the more unusual risks that working at height can present, and how safety managers can prepare for and protect their workers accordingly.
With 10million people in the UK carrying out some form of work at height across many industries every year and falls from height still accounting for nearly three in 10 (29%) fatal injuries and causing an estimated 567,000 lost working days in 2013/142, understanding all of the possible challenges is essential.
Working outdoors poses significant safety risks, and these are amplified by the challenge of working at height. Lightning can arc up to 20km from its origin; strong winds can affect both equipment and working conditions; temperature variations and even bright sunny conditions can put workers at risk. As an example, those working on white-painted roof tops (or simply new concrete roof tops) may be exposed to exceptional glare caused by bright sunlight. In this situation, workers need to be provided with the appropriate safety eyewear, which includes UV protection to help reduce brightness levels, ensuring they can properly identify fall and trip hazards.
By contrast, when winter kicks in, workers who are exposed to cold temperatures without the right protective clothing will start losing body heat faster than they can produce it. Wind chill can account for as much as 80% of total body heat loss and prolonged exposure to cold can result in hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, affecting the brain. The sufferer may be unable to think clearly or move normally and may not even know it is happening, increasing the risk of accidents.
For outdoor workers and especially those working at height in exposed locations, the ‘feels like’ temperature is an important indicator of atmospheric effects on workers than temperature alone. It is measured by taking into combined account the air temperature, relative humidity and wind speed. The stronger the wind, the faster the cooling of the skin, which moves heat away from the body, making the surrounding air feel colder than it actually is. When the air is calm and air temperature approximately 1°C / about 34°F, the body will feel cool. Take the same temperature, add a 40km/h / 25 mph wind and the result will feel like bitter coldness, dramatically increasing risk.
With this in mind, providing appropriate work wear designed for use in the expected weather conditions to keep workers warm and dry at all times is essential.
Thermal, waterproof performance is vital and clothing should also be breathable and comfortable. Jackets with multiple layers and thermal linings that can be added to or taken away as necessary to suit the conditions are ideal.
Radio frequency (RF)
Another underestimated hazard to workers at height is exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF), meaning static electricity, magnetic and time-varying electricity, and magnetic and electromagnetic fields with frequencies up to 300GHz. Sources of radio frequency (RF) are commonly found on both commercial and domestic roof tops and include mobile phone base stations, taxi radio systems and other transmitting electronic equipment. Soft body tissue absorbs RF in this frequency range acting in a similar way to a microwave oven and over-heating soft body tissue and organs. Symptoms include headaches and/or nausea and anyone affected must stop work immediately, and be removed from the hazard area. Workers exhibiting the symptoms above should seek medical advice and tell the medical staff where they have been working and what they have potentially been exposed to.
It is important that workers undergo training to identify potential RF hazards and related risks. They should also recognise hazardous-area warning signs and know best practices for safe access to heights, confined spaces and other danger zones.
Many accidents at height occur from carelessness and poor execution of procedural controls, especially when it comes to access methods and surface conditions. Dropped objects may not affect a worker, or others around them, but their impact could damage flooring or structural supports. A dent in a wire grid floor section, for example, creates an uneven surface and increases the risk of a trip.
It is also essential to be aware of eye-level hazards, such as studding rods and plastic cable ties holding electrical wiring in place. These can cause injuries to workers who have not seen them.
Obstructed visibility and its associated risks can be caused by the style of PPE being worn. The peaks of standard safety helmets and bump caps, for example, can actually restrict upward visibility. With this in mind, it is vital to opt for short-peaked or zero peak helmets fitted with ‘Y’ chin straps that are EN397 or EN12492 compliant.
Perhaps not everyone knows that working on roof tops near water tanks or in water cooling facilities can put workers at risk of a range of potentially lethal biological hazards such as Legionnaires Disease and Leptospirosis. Wider respiratory problems while working at height can include Extrinsic Allergic Alveolitis – an inflammation of the lung tissue and airways caused by the repeated inhalation of organic antigens carried in dust. This condition can lead to a range of respiratory problems and lung damage. Pigeon droppings can be potentially hazardous to health – especially when dry – creating airborne dust particles that can be easily inhaled.
Work site risk assessments should identify any potential biological hazards and work needed to remove them or mitigate their effects. An important part of this effort should include equipping workers with appropriate respiratory protection.
Employers have a legal obligation to implement working at height rescue plans – as stipulated under the Working at Height Regulations, 2005 – 4(2); in reality however, these plans often amount to general policies that would be ineffective in an emergency. It is good practice to take a fresh look at existing procedures and not simply rely on these generic procedures for all eventualities.
Effective rescue planning covers five key areas: assessment; scope; hazards; risks; rescue. It is vital to develop a rescue plan with rescue actions for each working at height task being carried out, assessing all foreseeable situations and solutions needed in the event of an accident. Work on the basis of a recommended maximum time of 15 minutes to rescue and recover a casualty and a maximum of 10 minutes to deliver first aid treatment. Remember, time spent in practising rescue plans is seldom wasted.
In conclusion, the importance of strong, effective work at height planning is essential. Employers and those in control of any work at height activity must make sure that work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people and that the right type of equipment for working at height is provided and used. By effectively assessing the risks and taking a sensible, pragmatic approach when considering precautions for work at height, safety managers can play a key role in ensuring workers go home safe and sound at the end of every day.