No industry is immune to falls, including employees slipping and falling on wet or uneven surfaces, or from heights. SHEQ MANAGEMENT takes a look at how companies can help prevent falls and respond to them.

An estimated 1,5 to 2,5 fatalities occur in the construction industry per week with 77 fatalities in the mining industry in South Africa. About 21 percent of the deaths in the mining industry are due to falls from heights, as well as slip and falls.

Lizette Scheepers, sales and marketing at Height Safety, a supplier of training, services and personal protective equipment (PPE) for working at heights, notes that not all falls are reported.

“Falls are one of the most common causes of injury-associated mortality, after traffic accidents. Many factors affect the mortality and morbidity of falls, such as the employee’s experience and training background, the fall height, the cause of the fall, the type of ground on which the employee falls and the obstruction that is hit during a fall,” Scheepers says.

“For people who work at heights, their focus on safety is of utmost importance. It takes one mistake to turn a normal routine into a nightmare. Falls can be deadly. Employers must be prepared to protect employees each and every time they are exposed to the risk of falling,” she adds.

No industry is immune to the hazards of falls, whether it is a fall down stairs, off a ladder, a walkway or a scaffold. It is essential for companies to prevent these falls where possible and to be prepared for when an incident does occur.

Prepared

Prevention is always better than responding to an incident. Companies can start by establishing a comprehensive fall-protection plan, which includes possible risks and ways to manage these risks, as well as procedures on how to respond to falls.

The fall-protection plan should be industry specific and comprehensive. Industries that experience more frequent falls, such as mining and construction, might want to consider a separate fall-protection plan, while other industries can include the fall-protection plan in their general occupational health and safety (OHS) plan.

Informed

Lennie Samuel, senior inspector and forensic investigator at the Department of Labour, states that health and safety regulations in South Africa are of a high standard, but have failed to ensure worker safety.

He says: “The lack of supervision and failures by management, in my view, are the biggest factors in the cause of incidents. The majority of our investigations reveal there is lack of management controls and a lack of supervision.”

Samuel explains that management often tries to address the immediate cause of an accident instead of resolving the root causes. He adds that, in his investigations, he has found that unqualified workers often perform the duties of the health and safety officer. An easy solution would be to provide employees with proper health and safety training at a registered organisation.

Scheepers notes that it is also important for employees to be well trained in working at heights. While training is required by law, it also assists employees to protect themselves. “Arm employees with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe. When it comes to fall protection, no one can have too much information,” she says.

Companies can also become members of the various health and safety organisations, such as the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Saiosh) and National Occupational Safety Association (Nosa), which provides training opportunities, regular seminars and conferences for OHS managers and employers.

Equipped

Each industry is unique and will require different equipment to assist with preventing falls. This could range from simply equipping a factory floor with anti-slip mats and stairs with reflective strips, to providing employees with fall-arrest systems and kits.

Fall-arrest systems assist in stopping a fall safely and include harnesses, anchor points and fall-arrest devices. Scheepers explains that it is essential for companies to provide the correct PPE, to inspect it regularly and to understand the fall distance.

“An employee can wear all the correct fall-protection equipment, but, if it is allowing them to hit the lower level before it engages, it’s pointless. It may sound like common sense, but, quite surprisingly, many people don’t seem to have this knowledge,” she says. Employers should also consider whether the anchor point is sufficient – particularly in the construction industry.

Scheepers notes that PVC pipes and decorative steel are, for example, not good anchor points. She states: “An anchor point must support the weight of the person attached and two kilonewtons per person. Many fixtures are not going to withstand those forces.”

If a harness has a maximum carry capacity of 100 kg, the combined weight of the tools and worker should be below the carry capacity of the harness. Employee fitness should also be considered. Employees who suffer from high-blood pressure, epilepsy, diabetes, or heart disease, or have a fear of heights, should not work at heights.

Scheepers concludes: “The employee fitness certificate is there to ensure that the appointed person is fit to perform the job. If, for example, an employee has an epileptic seizure while working at a height, it can have devastating results. In order to protect the employee and employer, a medical fitness certificate must be obtained and must be readily available.”

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