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Get a grip on safe working at height

The latest work at height guidance clears up the confusion over what measures to take for each situation

Anyone working in health and safety will recognise the mantra ‘avoid, prevent, mitigate’.

When applied to work at height,this has led to complex discussions and confusion about the difference between ‘restraint’ solutions and ‘fall arrest’solutions.

Clarity was needed and a new hierarchy that would correctly position safety nets, harnesses, lanyards and ladders resulted.

This new hierarchy uses some new terms and is best explained as a matrix, with four levels of control measure and two types of objective: collective protection and personal protection.

In applying the new hierarchy the first step is still the same – remove the hazard, do the job another way and avoid the need to work at height.

Four levels of safety

If you cannot do that, the first level is to select equipment that prevents a fall.

The hierarchy requires that you select collective preventative measures first, and if they are not suitable, you select personal preventative measures.

If it is not possible to satisfactorily control your hazard in this way, you can move to the next level of control measures within the hierarchy – equipment that minimises the height and consequence of a fall.

This is a new term used to express the equipment objective and it effectively clarifies the terms ‘restraint’ and ‘fall arrest’. Within the ‘minimise height and consequence’ level. Again you are required to select measures that act collectively before choosing personal protective measures.

So closely-fitted safety nets are considered a better solution than a harness and lanyard.

In the unlikely event that you cannot control your risk level within the previous levels you can then move on to the ‘minimise consequence’ level.

Fall factor zero

Here we are dealing with situations in which the height may be difficult to control (for instance coastal working with a large tidal range). This should be an infrequently visited level and likewise collective measures precede personal ones.

The final level is work equipment that does none of the above – essentially ineffective solutions such as ladders.

This new hierarchy positions collective fall prevention like edge protection systems and mobile multi-user elevating work platforms in the top level.

It then positions true restraint (where it is impossible to fall), which is called fall factor 0. This has been a fuzzy area when using adjustable length lanyards and running lines, as they are rarely used effectively.

Once you have moved down to the next level, you should select closely-fitted safety nets and other energy absorbing collective measures, and only if they are not suitable can you reach for the harness and lanyard.

This new hierarchy took years to develop and it cleverly accommodates the additional responsibilities imposed by the Work at Height regulations. But it is not widely used or understood yet. It presents us with an opportunity we should embrace.

Barney Green is business development manager of Combisafe