Working at height presents serious risks to the life and health of construction workers, but these risks can be mitigated with proper equipment, procedures and training.
This is according to experts speaking during a recent MBA North Occupational Health and Safety Compliance Seminar: Fall into line with lifelines, presented in collaboration with The Institute for Work at Height (IWH).
The seminar was sponsored by FEM, BCIMA, ALVA Training, OHS Care CC, Gravity Access Elevating Solutions, PASMA, SAIOSH and MBA Greater Boland.
Real-life fall case studies
Lydia Mentoor, Johannesburg Regional Manager for construction sector insurer Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (FEM) outlined a case in which a lanyard detached from the locking hook and an employee fell from height, resulting in an open skull fracture, fractures of the facial bones and nose, rib fractures, dislocation of both shoulders and a fractured ankle. He was in a coma for 28 days and a further 5 days in a medically induced coma. He had surgery to reduce swelling on the brain, as well as multiple procedures to fix his facial bones, shoulders and ankle and remove loose teeth. The employee spent a total of 55 days in hospital with medical bills and loss of earnings totalling over R3.9 million, and permanent disabilities as a result. His PD was calculated at more than 31% of his monthly pension.
In another case, an employee had a swing fall from the 15th floor and his body hit a wall, causing multiple injuries including multi-level spinal cord fractures, extensive pelvic and hip fractures and internal injuries including a ruptured spleen and bowel tears. His treatment and surgical procedures included multi-level spinal fusions, total hip replacement, removal of the spleen and a colostomy, and he spent 105 days in medical facilities, at a total cost including lost earnings of over R6.3 million, excluding the costs of a wheelchair and renovations to his house. The employee is now a paraplegic requiring a wheelchair and constant care, who must also use a permanent colostomy bag and must be hospitalised for two days every three months for review and renewal of the colostomy. His disability was calculated at over 31% of his pension, with a constant assistant allowance (CAA) for his care-giver.
Best practice approaches to lifelines and anchors
Speaking on understanding lifelines and anchors, Hein Stapelberg, Managing Director of Gravity Access, said: “It is important to have safe anchors and lifelines because people need to get home safely every day. There is a hierarchy of controls to manage the full risk of working at height – first, we try to eliminate the fall risk entirely. If that’s not possible, we try to find other ways of doing the work without being exposed to a fall risk.”
“If that’s not possible, we go to the next level of controls by engineering the risk away with solutions like guardrails. If this is not possible, we go to administrative controls – writing processes and permit systems to manage the way people work and prevent exposure to a fall risk. Only if that doesn’t work do we use PPE -harnesses, lifelines and anchors – to keep people safe. He said it should be noted that training and preparation is needed for people to use these systems safely; including being medically fit, aptitude, competence training and induction training.”
Stapelberg outlined the design and use of single point anchors – static single attachment points with the purpose of giving a secure point to hook oneself into a single location, for uses such as fall restraint, fall arrest and for rope access. These anchors include pop-up anchors, swivel anchors and bolted anchors. It’s important to be aware of the risk of stress corrosion cracking when an anchor is fixed to structural steel, he said. When using temporary anchors – for example wrapping a sling around a structural steel member – it is important to understand the requirements for structural steel members as temporary anchors. “One of the requirements is the minimum load capacity that the structural steel member should be able to handle. Anchors must also cater for rescue, and any certified anchor already caters for rescue loads in its design.” He said anchors should align with best practice guidelines, such as EN quality and performance standards and exceed minimum load requirements.
Stapelberg noted that when planning anchors, it is extremely important to consider safe access to and from the anchor in the design. “This is often overlooked, but a safe anchor with unsafe access is only half the battle won,” he cautioned. “Because it’s static, you have a radius of movement around the anchor, so you need to consider the range of movement of the worker, and where exactly the fall risks and access points are.” He said that dangerous pendulum falls could occur if anchors were not properly positioned.
“You also need to be mindful of using the right equipment with the anchor,” he said. “A thing many people miss is that a hard hat is not really designed for work at height, and that a work at height helmet should be used instead. In addition, you can’t tie your rope directly to the anchor – you must use a connector. You can’t use unrated equipment, and you must ensure that your anchor and equipment are sourced from reputable suppliers who offer warranties.” He warned against using non-structural features like handrails for fall arrest, or using machine lifting eye-type anchors.
Manufacturer guidelines for direction of load should be carefully adhered to, and anchors designed for work at height should not be used for rigging and hoisting, Stapelberg added. “Rigging anchors don’t provide for shock loads,” he said.
Lifelines are designed to connect to anchors, with a shock-absorbing element, and are used for fall restraint and fall arrest. “Lifelines are not for hanging on – you need a different system if you need to support a person’s weight,” he noted.
“A certified lifeline caters for rescue loads in its design and should cater for multiple simultaneous users. As with anchors, lifeline planning should include safe access to and from the lifeline hook-up point, and consideration of the range of movement it allows and any fall risks in the radius of the lifeline,” he said.
“Ladder cages used to be the standard approach to fixed ladders on-site, but these actually cause more injury and harm, complicate rescues and interfere with fall protection systems,” he warned. “If you have a fixed ladder, the best solution is to have a fall protection system in place with no ladder safety cage.”
Guidelines and training
Michelle Beetge, Chair, Fall Protection Chamber at The Institute for Work at Height (IWH), said the Work at Height Guidelines document, print booklet, app and e-book sought to assist stakeholders in establishing safe practices in any industry where a person would be at risk of a fall from height. She said IWH looks to benchmark international best practices to stay up to date with changing guidelines, regulations and practices for fall arrest, fall prevention and fall restraint systems used across a vast range of activities.
Lizahni Wolff, QMD (Quality Management Division) of The Institute for Work at Height (IWH) outlined IWH recognised training providers and the newly developed QCTO (Quality Council for Trade and Occupations) skills programmes. The IWH works closely with the Department of Employment and Labour, specifically the Civil and Construction, and the Occupational Health and Safety Directorates on training and coordinated closely with the SETA’s and QCTO on all work at height training matters.