Working at heights has a lot of depth – Part 1

2019-06-12T11:43:57+00:00June 12th, 2019|Features|

Like many other aspects of construction, there is a huge risk when working at heights. Usually considered a headache, proper management of working at heights is critical as failure to do so can cause injury, close down sites and cost time and money.

By Benjamin Brits | Images by Creative Commons


If you are like me, you may assume that working at heights only involves things like access and working on, or in a roof, but recent developments in standards around best practice when working at heights will lower the requirement for management to as little as half a metre off the ground. In reality, even a fall of this short distance can cause serious injury (and even death in some cases).

I was invited to the Waco Training Facility in Boksburg, Johannesburg recently to discuss working at heights with training manager, Jakes Jacobs [who is also the chairman for the Scaffolding Chamber at the Institute for Working at Height (IFWH)]. During our chat, I realised the enormity of risk that working at heights holds, as well as the importance of this seemingly-simple element of construction that is not just about the correct gear or personal protective equipment.

“One of the bigger challenges in the industry is the fact that many companies in the construction space don’t know the difference between the various elements of working at heights, or the necessary training for their teams. Often they send their teams on training that is not aligned for what they need to achieve, which leads into the next major challenge of fly-by-night training providers offering training but they don’t complete the certification process. This essentially means that the trainee’s ‘certification’ is invalid. You also cannot expect a one- to two-hour crash course to give your team what they need either, which is often requested,” says Jacobs.

As this is such a huge topic, this article will focus on roofs [and ceiling work] as every development in the affordable housing space contains at least one of these two elements. In upcoming issues, we will also consider all of the other segments of working at heights such as ladder work, scaffolding, tower access, rope access and formwork – all of which have specific requirements and best practices to follow. These all fall under the IFWH that holds official recognition by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) as the professional body for the industry in South Africa. The IFWH controls two separate structures namely the trade association and the professional body.

Covering the basics

Risk is unavoidable on site as there are usually many elements of the process being executed simultaneously. Each site will be different but will usually have the same starting point.

Johan Vorster, CEO of Evolution Height Safety says, “A risk assessment must be carried out by a supervisor on site, this will assist in identify potential hazards such as the height of work, tripping hazards, possibility of falling objects and holes or weak spots as examples. The risk assessment conducted will include all employees and all employees will also have to acknowledge the risk assessment by signing the register.”

An example of harnessing and fall lifeline.

An example of harnessing and fall lifeline.

Naturally, minimum safety equipment must be provided to the employee, such as safety shoes and a fall arrest helmet (hard hat with a chin strap), as well as fall arrest equipment that includes a full body harness with a double lanyard, retractable lifeline and rooftop kit.

Vorster adds that one thing that should also be on the list of requirements is the hard issue of fitness. Fitness is something that can quite easily be overlooked. All personnel working at heights need to be medically fit – physically and psychologically, which means that those working at heights should be declared fit by an occupational health practitioner. Psychological fitness is an ongoing process which can be traced through risk assessment and ‘toolbox talks’, for example if a person is undergoing a stressful situation or depression, it is the responsibility of the supervisor on site to identify any such indicators as these circumstances can affect the employees ability to work safely and effectively.

“All personnel working at heights further require training that is specific to the job they will undertake, for example lifeline installation, the use of shock absorbing lanyards, retractable lifelines and more importantly the rooftop system. Some of the common challenges when working on or with roofs are lack of anchor points, lack of scaffolding, short distances from one level to the other or simply a lack of minimum free space. Rescue training is just as vital, because fall arrest systems don’t guarantee or fully eliminate the chances of a fall incident,” says Vorster.

Vorster additionally recommends inclusion in the suggested best practices, to designate one employee to install temporal lifelines and self-identified anchor points from one area to the next as the work progresses. This employee will guide and advise his co-employees on where to hook (shock absorbing lanyards) connect (retractable lifelines) or restraining systems (rooftop systems). An important note is that the designated employee must be familiar with the actual work being carried out and be competent on correct rescue procedures should an incident occur.

Ceiling work

According to the good practice notes (GPN) of the IFWH, it is of concern when accessing ceiling areas with ladders, where the installation of anchor points or the safe attachment of the ladder is not viable as well as the use of fall arrest equipment on the ladders which cannot be anchored. The other concern is for the worker performing work within the ceiling is the high risk of falling through the ceiling.

It is suggested that technicians use aluminium access towers to gain height access as ladders are just too unstable and technicians do not have a place to secure themselves. Access towers provide a stable platform and can easily be erected when the technician is in a safe zone within the guardrails. Even harnesses are not required at this stage. The towers are mobile and can also be moved around.

Should the technician be required to work within the ceiling space, there are obvious dangers involved as the ceiling itself and beams are not weight rated and, on many occasions, workers have fallen though ceilings and suffered severe injuries or fatalities.

It is therefore suggested that a temporary horizontal lifeline is set up to offer the technician manoeuvrability and provide the necessary fall protection should they accidentally fall. Basic fall protection gear should be worn and a full body harness is a must. However, it is suggested that the lanyard be shortened to provide maximum fall factor restraint and a suitable rescue plan is implemented.


Part 2 appears in the next issue of SA Affordable Housing