If you and your staff are going to be working at heights, it’s important you know what control measures should be put in place to keep yourselves safe.

A recent study conducted by Safe Work Australia shows that working at heights is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. It took the lives of 232 people between July 1, 2003, and June 30, 2011. That represents 11 per cent of all work-related deaths that occurred during this period.

In addition to this, in 2010-11 a total of 7,730 people were seriously injured after falls from heights. Safe Work Australia reveals that’s about 21 people a day, all of whom required at least one if not more weeks off from work to recover.

These deaths and injuries could have been easily avoided if the right control measures were used.

The Hierarchy of Controls

It should be noted that simply putting control measures in place is not enough when it comes to preventing falls from heights. What makes this area of OHS law so unique, reveals WorkCover New South Wales, is the Hierarchy of Controls that dictates it.

Basically, there’s an order in which particular control measures should be used. When introducing control measures to your workplace, you must start at the top of the list and work your way down. You should only use control measures that appear lower in the Hierarchy of Controls when it’s been determined those above them are not viable.

According to WorkCover New South Wales, the Hierarchy of Controls has three different levels of control measures.

The first is a “stable and securely fenced work platform”, which should not only be provided to those working at a height, but also regularly maintained. One example of such a work platform could be scaffolding. This must be erected and dismantled by a qualified worker, as well as inspected before its first use, after repairs and at least every 30 days to make sure it remains safe to use.

If – and only if – the implementation of a “stable and securely fenced work platform” is not possible, you should then proceed to introducing the second level of control measures. This includes the “provision and maintenance” of physical barriers that are capable of stopping a worker from falling. These physical barriers can be anything from secure perimeter screens via fences to handrails.

It’s important that such physical barriers are strong enough to withstand someone falling against them. They also need to be in place before any tasks are performed in your workplace.

Finally, if you are unable to comply with the first two levels of the Hierarchy of Controls, you are required to observe the rules outline in the final level.

This involves supplying your workers with physical restraints that are designed to arrest “the fall of a person from a height of more than two metres”. These are known as fall-arrest systems.

How do you know when to use fall-arrest systems?

As mentioned earlier, you should only proceed to the third level of control measures – fall-arrest systems – when it’s not “reasonably practical” to implement the second level of control measures. The same goes for the second level of control measures – these should only be relied on when the first level of control measures has been ruled out.

The design of your workplace may render it impossible to erect scaffolding or another type of portable work platform. If your staff are working at heights in a small area, for instance, you might not have the room to set up scaffolding.

WorkCover New South Wales adds that “similarly, it may not be reasonably practicable to use a physical barrier, for example, because it may not be possible to fix it due to the roof profile or type of rafters being used”.

In these situations, it’s likely that you’ll need to implement fall-arrest systems in order to comply with OHS laws. Just remember, you will need to document your reasons for making this decision.

It should also be noted that control measures from different levels can be used in conjunction to make sure all of the risks associated with working at heights are managed.

What you need to know about fall-arrest systems

They may be something of a last resort on the Hierarchy of Controls, but fall-arrest systems have an important role to play in risk management. While many can’t stop a worker from tumbling down in the first place, these devices can ensure your staff don’t fall an uncontrolled distance. They can also be used to reduce the impact of a fall, thereby preventing workers from sustaining fatal injuries.

In Safe Work Australia’s “Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces: Code of Practice”, a wide range of fall-arrest systems are discussed at length. The following are just a few:

– Catch platforms

These are temporary platforms that are set up under workers who are performing tasks at an elevated level. As the name suggests, they’re designed to catch workers if and when they fall, effectively reducing the distance they plummet and preventing them from getting seriously hurt.

Catch platforms need to be strong and positioned so the “deck extends at least two metres beyond all unprotected edges of the work area,” explains Safe Work Australia. In addition to this, it needs to be placed so the maximum distance an employee could fall onto it is no more than one metre.

– Safety nets

According to the Code of Practice, one of the major advantages of using safety nets is the “freedom of movement” they give people working at heights. If you do implement safety nets in your workplace, however, make sure they are set up and properly anchored before any work begins and they’re made of a strong material.

They also need to be positioned so that anyone falling into them does not make contact with the ground or surface below the net.

– Individual fall-arrest systems

There are a huge variety of individual fall-arrest systems available. These include anchorages, rope grabs, harnesses, rail systems and lifelines, to name just a few.

These are basically devices that are worn by the workers themselves, which means it’s of paramount importance that every person using one knows how it works, is wearing it correctly and is able to identify when it’s not functioning as it should be. Enrolling in a Working at Heights Training course is a fantastic way to acquire all of this knowledge.

– Anchorage lines and rails

The final fall-arrest systems featured in Safe Work Australia’s Code of Practice are anchorage lines and rails. These are normally used by people working on ladders or other climbing devices and are designed to provide “continuous fall protection” as they move up and down.

These must be set up so the maximum distance a worker can “free fall” is 600 mm. It’s important to inspect anchorage lines and rails after a fall to make sure it’s in working order next time it’s used.

Want to find out more?

If you’re interested in learning more about fall-arrest systems, as well as the other control measures that can be used to prevent falls from heights, a Working at Heights Training course is the best way.

For more information get in touch with the AlertForce team today!

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