The Work at Height Regulations of 2005 outline all the requirements companies and workers must implement in order to ensure workplace safety. In order to be fully in compliance with the law sites must meet all requirements of the regulations without exception. Where working at height is specifically performed sometimes personal protection equipment (PPE) is required.
The purpose of PPE is to prevent serious injury or death resulting from a fall from height. It’s important to note that since the regulations were implemented the UK has seen a measurable decline in the number of workplace falls and their related injuries and deaths. However, to insure the risk is as slight as possible, PPE must be routinely inspected to make sure it is functioning properly and is appropriate to the task at hand.
“Failure to conduct regular inspections is an unnecessary cause of continued accidents.”
One of the most common types of personal protection equipment is the fall protection system. Such a system could include an EN 361 Full body harness, a fall arrest lanyard/restraint lanyard, connectors and an anchor point. All four parts of the equation are equally important to ensure that a worker who loses his footing does not fall to the ground below. As long as each part is appropriate to the task and functioning properly, there is little risk. But all it takes is one part to be deficient and the whole system could fail.
The appropriateness of a particular component is of great concern in a work environment where conditions are not always cut and dry. As an example, a worker may use a steel girder as an anchor point when working on a high-rise office building. But if that steel girder is not located within certain parameters, as dictated by the location of the work being performed, it could actually cause more harm than good in the case of a worker falling. Just because and anchor point is strong doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. It is the responsibility of a competent person to understand where anchor points should be positioned and choose one that’s appropriate.
Likewise, the same can be said about the appropriateness of any component in the system. Connectors and lanyards must be capable of supporting the individuals weight, anchor points must be strong enough, and safety harnesses must be correct for the weight of the individual and fit properly. Part of routine safety inspections is to make sure all PPE is appropriate to the work being performed and in date.
Along with appropriateness to the task comes the idea of PPE functioning properly. For example, you might have a fall arrest lanyard properly rated for the worker, properly attached to a safety harness, and properly anchored with an appropriate connector. But a fatal accident could still occur if that lanyard is not inspected on a regular basis to ensure the material hasn’t perished, cuts have not occurred and the shock absorber has not been deployed. It is the shock absorber that will deal with the dynamic energy that prevent internal organ damage in a case of a fall, a cut in the webbing would result in the lanyard snapping. If it’s not working properly it could mean the difference between life and death.
Safety inspections should be undertaken on a routine basis, including checking the proper functioning of all PPE. For PPE the inspection should take place every six months (or manufactures recommendations if sooner) in arduous condition (equipment used every day in a harsh environment) should be brought down to every three months. Failing to conduct such inspections will bring a certain amount of liability on company owners, managers, supervisors and users. It can also mean the imposition of stiff fines and other penalties should an accident result. Such inspections are not something to be taken lightly by supervisors and managers.
GET QUALIFIED INSPECTORS!
Just as it’s important to have qualified and competent supervisors and workers, it’s equally important to have qualified and competent inspectors. PPE inspectors need to have a thorough understanding of how safety equipment functions and how it is to be used properly. Such training usually starts with the basics of fall arrest systems and what they’re designed to do. From there inspectors learn how individual pieces of equipment are to be deployed. Then they are taught to identify weaknesses in any given system and provide remedies to those weaknesses.
It’s been said that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When it comes to the safety chain that weakest link should never be the individuals conducting inspections. If the equipment designed to keep workers safe is not working properly or is not appropriate to the task, no amount of training given to workers will ensure the highest level of safety. They will be risking their personal safety every time they trust such equipment to protect them from a fall.
THE EVOLVING WORKPLACE
As stated earlier, there are some types of work environments that evolve very quickly. One example would be working on scaffolding. Workers may begin the day working at a low level only to find himself several stories up by mid-day. Throw in the changes in the weather and temperature, and you could have a completely different work environment by late afternoon than you started with first thing in the morning. Safety procedures and PPE need to be able to adapt to changing conditions.
The evolving workplace requires inspectors to be on their toes in order to ensure that the right equipment is always available and being used. In environments where the evolution can be wide ranging, inspectors will need a much broader scope of knowledge. It is a good idea to have multiple people responsible for PPE inspections in environments that change quickly and extensively. Asking one or two individuals to be responsible for everything may be inappropriate in some cases.
Lastly, those responsible for PPE safety inspections need also to have a hand in procuring safety equipment. Since it is the responsibility of the inspectors to know what types of equipment are appropriate for specific tasks, procuring the proper equipmentwithout consulting them is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps the best way to handle equipment procurement is to allow competent site supervisors and inspectors to work together to create a list for the procurement department to work from. When ordering safety equipment the expertise of the inspector should never be ignored. He may request a specific piece of equipment because he knows how it works and the suitability to the conditions of work. Yet even if that piece of equipment is more expensive than a competitor’s alternative, it’s best to provide exactly what the inspectors are after unless the procurement officer specifically knows some reason why a different product would be better. Otherwise companies should trust their inspectors within reason. Inspection of PPE for working at height is a necessary component for ensuring a safe workplace. Inspector’s should ideally be trained in relevant equipment inspection procedures (where possible) by the equipment manufacturer. Don’t neglect it regardless of the cost or inconvenience; it may come back to haunt you.