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High hopes for fall prevention

30 November 2012

As the safety of staff and visitors in the workplace becomes more tightly regulated, and with good reason, all areas that could pose a potential risk will be closely scrutinised to ensure everything is done to prevent an accident from occurring. With this in mind, Roy Bradburn looks at the issues concerning height and falls and how the specification of appropriate handrails and balustrades in the workplace can help to lessen the risk of serious injury.

Falls from heights are the single largest cause of workplace fatalities in the UK and one of the main causes of serious injuries. With modern working environments often split across multiple levels and spanning wide areas, the risk of injury from an accidental staircase fall has increased dramatically. With this in mind, regulation 12 (5) of the Workplace Regulations 1992 states that suitable and sufficient handrails (and even guards where appropriate) should be provided for all staircases that are traffic routes, unless a handrail would block the traffic route.

Supporting this, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also says that a secure and substantial handrail should be provided and maintained on at least one side of every staircase (except where it would block access).

To ensure compliance, handrail and balustrading systems should be fitted wherever the risk of a fall could occur to safeguard not only against possible accidents but also to protect employers against possible claims of liability.

Considering where and how handrails and balustrades are used in the workplace, it is worth remembering the high levels of traffic seen in these areas on a day to day basis. As a result, a durable system that can withstand such use is key - high quality systems comprising the likes of toughened glass, stainless steel, nylon and timber components are ideal and can stand up to such pressures. Systems of this nature are proven to withstand continued use and are also tested in accordance with Part M, ensuring safe access when installed.

Whilst in many cases, handrails may not be used all the time, a 1998 study by Maki titled, ‘The efficacy of handrails in preventing stairway falls: A new experimental approach’, showed that virtually everyone can right themselves by grabbing a rail when falling. As a result, the relative safety of an individual relies heavily on the structural stability of a handrail and balustrading system.

As such, it is expected that most stainless steel and nylon balustrade systems will be able to withstand a uniformly distributed line load of up to 1.5 kN/m. Similarly, balustrades incorporating timber elements are expected to withstand a uniformly distributed line load of up to 0.74kN/m. As a result, such systems are ideally suited for installation on staircases, which do not typically encounter a high surge load.

For areas more prone to this, such as access ways to emergency exits for example, a high performing solution is required. To achieve this, a thicker upright and top rail is required to ensure the balustrade can resist a uniformly distributed line load of up to 3.0kN/m. In this way, it is possible to select the most suitable system, depending on the needs of the installation.

Considering the predefined safety regulations applied to balustrading systems, it is worth noting the minimum barrier height for guarding of 1100mm – this is stated in both BS6180 and Approved Document K and is set as such as to ensure the safety of people of varying heights.

In addition to the obvious safety requirements associated with the installation of a handrail and balustrading system, there are a few additional points which must also be taken into consideration as failure to acknowledge these can prove to have a negative impact on the efficiency of the new system.

For example, the visual contrast between a handrail and balustrading system against its direct surroundings should be taken into account. An individual’s perception of visual contrast between two surfaces appears to be strongly correlated with the difference in the amount of light reflected from the surfaces - i.e. its light reflectance values (LRVs). In theory, a perfect white has an LRV of 100 and jet black has 0 - as such, it is important to consider how the handrail and balustrade system will appear in contrast to the surroundings.

According to Approved Document M, the definition of visual contrast states that when used to indicate the visual perception of one element of the building or fitting within the building against another, the difference in light reflectance value between the two surfaces must be greater than 30 points. By making the system as visible as possible, this too will help increase the chances of the system being spotted and used.

Another point that is often overlooked, yet was added as a recommendation to clause 5.10.1 in the 2005 edition of BS 8300, discusses why handrails should not be cold to the touch as this too can make people reluctant to use them, especially when installed in external access areas which are privy to the weather. To help minimise the effects of cold, handrails manufactured from wood or metal, coated with materials with a low thermal conductivity, such as plastics, are preferred.

With such a minefield of points to consider, specifiers who know what they need but require assistance to get started, or who need more general advice on system selection, can benefit from the expertise of a handrail and balustrading provider who will not only be familiar with the Workplace Regulations and the dangers of workplace falls from height, but can suggest a suitable system to ensure such accidents do not occur.

Roy Bradburn works for Balustrading Solutions within Laidlaw

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