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Don’t fall for poor inspection

Author : John Boyle

23 December 2011

John Boyle looks at why keeping a building’s fall protection systems fully tested and inspected is essential for minimising risks to workers on roofs and external facades.

Premises and facilities managers are well aware of the role they play in taking care not only of the internal workings of a building, but also the external façade – and this includes the protection of workers when carrying out essential maintenance to roofs and walls.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 have gone a long way to reinforce the importance of the protection of workers. However, figures from the Health & Safety Executive show that there are still around 4000 serious injuries each year from work at heights. Falls from height are still the biggest reportable cause of fatalities in the workplace, as reported in RIDDOR (Report of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations). The introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter Act in 2008 has further emphasised the need for businesses to minimise their risks and provide greater protection to workers. Should an accident occur, it could mean that not only will the company suffer huge financial penalties, but also individual directors could be liable.

So what can be done to minimise the risks? The regular testing and inspection of fall protection systems is now an integral part of many facilities managers’ planned maintenance programmes. For multi-site managers, it is important to plan a dedicated inspection regime and how this should work.

Working with specialists in this area can provide peace of mind, as the external company can take responsibility for managing the whole maintenance schedule for one or a whole portfolio of buildings. This ensures that all testing is carried out on a planned basis to provide optimum protection.

Safe working order
It is important to remember that safety devices installed to protect workers when operating at heights need their own maintenance programme to ensure they remain safe and in good working order. UK legislation states that cable-based fall protection systems should be tested at least every 12 months, as should PPE associated with Work at Heights and eyebolts on roofs. Furthermore, Abseil anchors should be tested every six months, as part of meeting Work at Height legislation, including BS 3N 365, BS EN 795 and BS EN 7883. These are the set rules for testing and inspection, but frequency of inspection varies from product to product, so it is worth checking this with the manufacturer. Also, the location of the building and the nature of the environment may necessitate that checks be carried out more regularly, for example, if the building is in an area of high wind speeds or where it experiences heavy snowfall and regular freeze/thaw action that could damage such systems.

The Hierarchy of Risk Management separates fall protection systems into three categories:

 Eliminate the risk of a fall
 Collective protection
 Individual protection

The safest method of fall protection is to eliminate the risk, which means removing the need to work at height, however this is often unavoidable. It is surprising how many times a year workers may need to access the roof - often the roof and cladding have to be inspected for weather damage, following high winds or severe winters. However, the number one reason that such systems need to be tested regularly is because of misuse due to lack of knowledge or human error, which can lead to damage of the systems. This is why effective training for staff that work on roofs or facades is all important.

Staff training

Providing complete protection for workers and minimising risks are the essential elements of work at heights training. Training policies should ensure that staff feel confident that they are adequately prepared to be able to access all of their work areas safely. They should also receive preparation training in case they find themselves in a fall hazard situation. An important part of the training is how to avoid falling and how to minimise injuries should a fall occur. This includes looking at the implications in the event of a fall.

Work at Heights training involves identifying safer ways to carry out the works that are necessary. This includes undertaking pre-checks on the equipment before starting work and ensuring the operator knows how to use the equipment correctly. It also involves fault identification in the equipment. The training should also cover the importance of reporting any defects, so the next user is not put at risk by using faulty equipment. Training should also include real life scenarios that workers could find themselves in and what their response should be.

One way to avoid having to train all maintenance staff on Work at Height or PPE training is to arrange a schedule that minimises the number of people who have permission to enter the roof space, or use ladders or scaffolding.

In choosing such staff, it is very important to assess their competency when working at heights and their previous experiences in this area. Within a business, there needs to be at least one competent person dedicated to fall protection systems.

It is advisable on many projects that roof access is looked after by a dedicated keyholder, who ensures that non-competent staff are not allowed to enter the roof area. Training of all staff involved with roof maintenance is essential and again this is one of the duty holder’s responsibilities as part of the Work at Height Regulations. This training must cover the organisation, planning, supervision and supply and maintenance of equipment.

Once competent persons are selected and trained, it is very good practice to make sure that staff do not become unfamiliar with the equipment they have been trained on and refresher courses are advisable, otherwise this knowledge could be wasted. How often staff need to be trained or attend these courses depends on the equipment they are using and how regularly they use it.

There are ways to minimise the amount of Work at Height training required, for example, if workers are carrying out operations on a roof that has a guard rail around the perimeter or work area, then it is likely that specific training will not be needed. It may be recommended that workers are given an initial safety briefing, including basic information, such as the fact that they are not permitted to cross over or climb guard rail or demarcation systems.

Training on personal protective equipment is all important and should be carried out to ensure that harnesses can be fitted correctly, as this is essential in the event of a fall from height. Accidents have been recorded in the past, for example, where safety harnesses were not adjusted to the appropriate size or fitted correctly and, as a result, caused a hazard. If this is the case it could cause serious risk of injury. It is a regular occurrence for workers to be using fall protection equipment or their PPE incorrectly and it is one of the major hazards on site. This can result in damage to equipment and a costly repair bill, or even worse serious accident and injuries.

As part of the service when working with an external fall protection specialist, they may assess the competence of staff when working at height, ensuring that fall protection systems are only being used if the operator has received adequate training specific to the work required.

Working at heights involves a great deal of equipment, such as harnesses and lanyards. If these are not fitted correctly it could cause serious risk of injury. These should be tested and inspected by manufacturer-approved installer companies – and that doesn’t just mean a visual inspection. A physical inspection is also recommended and this includes carrying out individual load testing on each element of the fall protection system with forces applied in line with expected service.

Many facilities managers take their responsibilities very seriously relating to the safety both internally and externally of workers, staff and visitors to a building. With roofs and external facades of a building being probably the most potentially hazardous places of all it is no surprise that fall protection testing and inspection is now taken so seriously.

Often we are asked to provide an assessment of individual buildings on behalf of new clients and following this we can supply an independent review of the current status of fall protection systems. Even with new buildings, the maintenance programme starts immediately and a new build is just as likely to have issues six or twelve months down the line as a building that is much older. Roof top perimeter systems, such as guard rail, are now more aesthetically pleasing due to innovation in design. The advantage of collective protection measures, like guard rail, is that it provides protection to all workers on the roof “collectively” without the need for extensive individual training.

Whatever the fall protection method in place on a building, one thing is certain; that system will require an ongoing planned maintenance programme. Failure for this to be carried out by an experienced fall protection professional could lead to a lack of duty of care on the part of the management company. By working with premises and facilities management companies on individual buildings or a whole portfolio of different roofs, we can create a system where their risks are minimised, their workers are protected and the fall protection systems are compliant with all relevant regulatory standards.

John Boyle is Director at Eurosafe Solutions

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