Accidents while working at height are one of the top three causes of injury in the construction sector, alongside lifting/handling and slips, trips and falls.
And during the five years between 2010 and 2015, falls from height were the cause of almost half of the fatal accidents in the sector.
Working at height refers to any task that takes place in a location from which a person could fall and be injured.
This includes working on a ladder or flat roof, falling through a fragile surface or even falling into an opening in a floor, or a hole in the ground. The key point is that workers don’t need to fall far to be seriously injured, or even killed.
Regulations provide clear guidance on what is required by law. The UK Work At Height Regulations 2005 require that a risk assessment should always consider how work at height can be avoided.
When this is not possible, collective measures including guardrails, working platforms or nets should always take priority over personal fall protection equipment (PFPE).
There are also regulations regarding the correct selection and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The Work At Height Regulations 2005 require the inspection of products like harnesses at regular intervals, as these can deteriorate over time due to exposure to weather conditions and UV light.
However, visual inspection alone is often not sufficient, and manufacturers are already developing solutions like ageing detectors which can identify whether a harness is liable to snap should a worker fall over the edge.
While regulation is an essential element of improving the construction industry’s safety record, it can sometimes be used as an excuse to do the bare minimum.
“While regulation is an essential element of improving the construction industry’s safety record, it can sometimes be used as an excuse to do the bare minimum”
I have myself come across companies that will provide workers with the correct PPE and sometimes deliver basic training, but – as long as they comply with the basic legal requirements – their safety commitment ends there.
Reliance on compliance alone is simply not enough to reduce fall-from-height incidents.
Companies may say that safety equipment is ‘mandatory’ for their workers, but fail to empower them through continuous safety training and other ways that gain the worker’s enthusiasm for, and commitment to, an effective safety programme.
Unfortunately, this approach does little to foster a safety culture where everyone understands the personal difference they can make to the business, to the quality of the project and to each other.
Engaging the workforce
For safety measures to be effective, people need to be fully engaged and to understand why they are being asked to behave in a certain way or follow certain rules, or use particular safety equipment.
If you are not sure how well your workforce understands the essentials of working at height, conduct an audit. The results can be very revealing.
Even where companies are committed to training, they do not always communicate what priority it should be given by their workers.
All too often, trainers are under pressure to cover all safety-related topics in the minimum of time, while most of the attendees are following building progress during the course.
“For safety measures to be effective, people need to be fully engaged and to understand why they are being asked to behave in a certain way or follow certain rules”
If you are serious about safety, participants need to feel guilt-free about the time training takes and be able to give it their full attention.
Progressive companies with strong safety cultures are organisations in which training and supervision are taken seriously, where management regularly inspects equipment and conducts practices on site and in person.
They encourage feedback from workers and share best practices. Employers that demonstrate they care about the health, safety and wellbeing of their workers help to instil positive safety behaviour among them, and increase staff retention, especially in a competitive industry like construction where specialist skills are in demand.
To summarise, there is an urgent need to close the gap between construction field culture, construction business needs and the safety culture.
A mature safety culture that leads by example from the very top of the organisation encourages positive behaviours whose consequences can not only be measured in reduced accident numbers, but in broader employee wellbeing and improved project quality.
Mathieu Mancuso is EMEA training & services manager: high risk safety at Honeywell Industrial Safety