Is Working at Heights Safe in Construction and is it correctly Risk Assessed?

Report by Wayne Phillips

Is working at height safe? In the construction industry falls from height, worldwide is under high focus. The incident rate for this type of work is upon the highest risk management and analysis categories within the construction and offshore areas of work. Fall prevention and fall protection, along with a selection of equipment, are major casual factors along with human error.

Risk assessment processes and the evaluation of the tasks must be detailed and reflective on the work and the persons conducting the tasks. Training and supervision of employees is an ongoing cycle and must be assessed with new equipment and technologies coming into industry, promotion of current persons, and new starters entering the ever-growing demand for construction projects worldwide.

The risk of working at heights and how these are being management of project level will be at the forefront of this report. The risk to workers and how these is being reduced and communicated to the workforce shall be emphasised in gaps within the data that will be analysed. This report will analyse in death sources of information and critic the data noting any potential gaps and highlight areas of failings or promotion of good practices taken from several sources of information with the data of scientific journals to derive a critical analysis-based conclusion of working at heights risks, fatality rates, and incidents within the construction industry. The Data sources used to conduct this research was taken from express lib, Scopus, University of Greenwich library search and

There are many risks to consider when developing a safe work system; this is especially noted in the areas of construction both onshore and within the offshore sector. It does, however, have an underlying topic of related risk throughout planned works. That is working from heights having an overwhelming high risk or even fatal accident rate. (Vigneshkumar et al 2020) stated that in between 2013 to 2017 fall from heights was the leading cause of injuries and fatalities in the construction industry to its work force. The statistics taken in Great Britain in 2018 (HSE, 2018) stated that 49% of all fatal incidents were attributed to falls from heights whereas in the United States between 2010 and 2015 35% of fatalities accounted for falls from heights according to (BLS, 2016). The regulation for working at heights in the United Kingdom is the (Work at Height Regulations 2005). The regulations state requirements for planning, the competence of persons, avoidance of working at heights, and the training of employees to supervise and risk assess the work and the safeguarding and management of the risk associated with the work.

 (The Work at Height Regulations 2005, 2022 section 14) Places duties of persons who are at work. These duties include that all persons are to report any deficiency or activity relating to working at heights where there is a likelihood that it will pose a danger or risk to life to themselves or others. It goes on to explain that the equipment provided to him/her as a safety device or as safety equipment must be used, this includes any person under the control of works. It also places duties for this to be achievable by means of stating that any equipment or safety device must also come with adequate training for its use. This also means that any instructions or prohibitions under statutory provisions must be provided and understood to ensure compliance

There has been a broad spectrum of studies carried conducted to quantify the comparison of accident rates in several areas of occupational work, the number one in most is agriculture however, for serious accidents, falls from heights peak the statistics The accident rate is high in the construction industry, regardless of the country being studied. Mining and agriculture are other industries with high accident rates. Fall accidents peak the statistics of severe accidents. “Minor accidents without absence from work have other reasons (cuts or damage to the lumbar spine, eyes, or shoulder/arms/hands) compared to fatalities, which usually are caused by falls from height, electric shocks, crushing, or that an object hits the worker. Generally, the studies show a decrease in the number of fatalities”. (Berglund et al 2019)

Training has been redeveloped and implemented in nearly every section of the construction-based industry over the last 25 years. The decline in workplace injuries has been on a steady decline with evidence pointing towards a reduction of up to 19.6% after effective training solutions were put into place; the table below highlights areas of the study of quantitative analysis pre-training to post-training highlighting a cultural and risk mindset change within the employees and management table taken from (Robson et al 2020)

Table taken from (Robson et al 2020)

Mandatory training for workers in surface aggregate mines showed a marked effect on the incidence of permanently disabling injuries, but no effect on the incidence of a broader category of serious injuries(Robson, 2020 pg 2)

A recent case study from a Malaysian construction company investigated two falls from height incidents resulting in fatal injuries to both employees; in the first case, a worker had fallen from a structure, whereas in the second case, a worker had fallen through the roof. The case study has expressed that in the first case, there were adequate fall protection measures in place, and the worker was provided with the correct personal protective equipment. However, it was unlikely that on the day of the incident, the worker was not correctly anchored to the lifeline system. The second case explains that the worker was installing glass panels on the roof of a building. The worker repositioned himself and suddenly fell through the last remaining gap in the roof the Investigation continued and noted that the use of a safety harness although provided was not being used and furthermore there were no suitable anchorage points in which to secure a person using fall arrest techniques. The implementation of the permit to work system also failed, there was a system in place however was not controlled or implemented to the work place (Shuaib et al., 2021) In both cases, the employees chose to bypass the regulatory safety systems put in place for their own protection; however, it is also clear that inadequate supervision and additional control measures should have been in place, such as rigid barriers to prevent the fall in the first instance and not only to reduce the consequences of the fall. The table below shows management failings (Shuaib et al., 2021)

A study by (Halabi et al., 2022) analyses the 23 057 registered in the OSHS database related to fall incidents that occurred in the USA in the construction industry between January 2000 to August 2020. The study highlights an upward trend in significant accidents related to falls from height-raising from 44.6% to 59.59%, with 80% of all falls below 10m. The investigation, however, is comprehensive, only highlighting the actual statistics for the falls and not the preventable outcomes such as controls measure and management supervision and training models. The table below does show a decrease in protection levels for the worker through the years (Halabi et al., 2022)

Table from Halabi et al. 2022

While incidents are on the rise, also is construction growth and demand. With expanding projects and workforce around the USA and the world, a direct comparison with working hours and incident rates would present a clear outcome. (Muflihah Darwis et al, 2021) conducted a study of the safety risk assessment in construction projects at the Hasanuddin University of 2003 of the workers and charted the results of the risk assessments in the form of a table (below) The table highlights that the highest risk on the project was during the dismantling and installation the crane due to the risk of falling from heights. Workers were moted to be afraid of working at heights and when conducting works for dismantling or installation of towers the use of inexperienced workers were used when conducting these activities without the proper training or experience in order to wear the provided PPE. (Darwis et al., 2021). It highlighted that from 20 projects, the fall of persons at height was at 26.59%

Conclusions and Recommendations 

The data shown above is formed from a vast area of construction and databases. There is a developing chain of highlighting working at heights as a very high-risk task; this is abundant in several areas, from crane towers to scaffolding, including general working at height tasks. The data shows that the fatality level of a fall is among the highest in all the construction industry. Several causal factors were analysed from the data. Human error and the incorrect use of the safeguarding equipment and the personal protective equipment led to a vast majority of injury and fatalities; however, it was unclear on much of the data of the training level of the employee on these registered incidents. The training showed significant improvements in many areas, including a reduction in serious injury mover over it, highlighting a change in an employee mindset, safety culture, and reporting on construction projects of potential areas of risk.

There is a growing requirement for managers and supervisors to ensure that all working at height works have adequate supervision of the tasks being conducted to ensure that safeguarding techniques identified in the risk assessment processes are in place and are understood by the workers conducting the high-risk tasks. Furthermore, management and project organisiations must review high-risk tasks. Looking at the areas of protection primarily related to identifying the hazard and the control measure to go along with that risk. Areas of focus must be placed on the prevention of the fall in its entirety. Prevention is better than cure. A detailed analysis of the falls from heights of workers within the United Kingdom when utilising the fall arrest equipment and fall prevention would show a clear understanding of fatality rates and falls from heights.

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