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HIGHER PERSPECTIVE ON LOWER FALLS

Barney Green of Higher Safety takes a look at ‘low falls’

The current HSE Shattered Lives Campaign is looking to address the injuries caused by all falls, both ‘high’ and ‘low’.

In this short article Barney Green of height safety consultants Higher Safety takes a look at the potential for injury from low falls.

Low fall potential for injury underestimated 

When we mention work at height, or height safety, the mind immediately moves towards towering, vertigo inducing, activities like high rise, bridge building, roofing. We see mast and towers, harnesses and climbing systems, and work that must be described as specialist. If we then look at the statistics, we realise that it is actually the falls from low level that are greater in number, produce more injuries and even fatalities, and are much harder to address.

The main reason is the poor awareness of the low level fall’s potential for injury. Most people, when placed on a leading edge 15m above concrete, are fully aware of the injury potential of their situation, but they will happily jump up onto a flat bed trailer to assist in roping down or unloading, with no thought of the potential of a fall.

We even have the old “2m rule” that became accepted practice as a “definition” of “a fall likely to cause injury.” The rule never existed, however best practice in many a trade took cognisance of it. In reality, the term required judgement, which by definition is subjective, and we all pleaded for common guidance on “what is acceptable.”

Now we have the Work at Height Regulations, with no height mentioned and a very clear hierarchy to work within. Added to this problem is the generally short, quick fix nature, of much of the work. “I’ll just hop up on this and have it fixed in no time ……”

Fall arrest is not a option for low falls

The other problem with low falls, is that they are notoriously hard to arrest once started. Harness and lanyard solutions require the fall energy to be absorbed, and this needs height (note that before SG4 Appendix A, a scaffold contractor would argue that it was pointless to clip on below 4m). Safety nets also need a clearance distance.

As always, the first route to solution should involve avoiding the need to work at height (see hierarchy). Much more effort is needed in this area, and this can include pre-assembly, remote connections, and detailed planning. This is now common place for areas of high “real” fall hazard, but often ignored as too much detail in low fall areas.

Following the hierarchy, we should then move to collective prevention, and this is the area of edge protection and guardrails for high falls, but they are often seen as restrictive, “in the way” (impractical), and expensive relative to the perceived risk for low falls. A regular access route for a plant driver might have a dedicated stairway, but what about a platform to provide the fitter with access to the engine ?

Significant effort has been invested by manufacturers in offering a large range of low fall solutions. There are many flat bed truck solutions, many guard railed hop ups, lightweight mini scaffolds, and even adjustable height steps with platforms and guardrails.

The NASC has made great strides in directing scaffolding best practice towards advanced guard rails moving away from tunnelling, to address this issue in their trade. For the reactive solution there are always the bean bags and air mats to minimise the consequence of the fall. All offer some protection and all have their place.

Awareness and perception is key

The real problem is the awareness of the potential for injury in a low level falls. On the one hand we have the “nanny state” and “six people needed to change a light bulb,” and on the other we have the statistics of horrible, debilitating injury, or even death, from low level falls by well intentioned workers just “nipping up to fix it.”

Barney Green

Higher Safety – Feb 2010

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