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Working at height: separating fact from fiction

25 January 2017

Stephen Morris, UK fall protection training sales manager at science-based technology company 3M, debunks some common myths about working at height and offers some surprising facts


When it comes to working at height, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Reasonable-sounding myths abound, while the truth can seem unbelievable.

Myth 1: Any CE-marked PFPE will do

Although widely believed, it is untrue that all CE-marked personal fall protection equipment (PFPE) is necessarily appropriate and safe for all tasks. In reality, CE marking only denotes that PFPE meets minimum legal standards. PFPE should be suitable for both the task and the wearer, not just for compliance. 

For example, the usual EN drop-test for harnesses and lanyards uses a 100kg weight. Some workers may weigh more than this if kitted with boots, tools and equipment.

Some manufacturers do rate their harnesses above minimum standards. Companies should satisfy themselves that the equipment they select fully meets their particular needs.

Fact 1: Even small falls can kill

A surprisingly large number of working at height deaths are the result of falls of less than 2m. The reason most falls this small do not cause death, or even serious injury, is that normally the elbows or knees act as shock absorbers upon hitting the ground. 

Conversely, a person stopped in mid-air by a restraint-only lanyard feels the fall’s full impact, which is greater than many would expect. A 100kg person falling 1m can produce a force of 18kN. PFPE may withstand this, but the body may not.

Companies should carefully consider the various PFPE available for fall arrest, including shock-absorbing lanyards.

Myth 2: All fall protection solutions are universal

Another myth is that there exists a single fall protection solution fit for all purposes. Actually, there are many factors to consider.

These include: the fall clearance (the distance between the anchor point and the surface below); the fall factor (the potential freefall distance allowed by the lanyard); and whether the lanyard or safety line would run over a sharp edge that could cut it. 

If inadequate PFPE is being used, workers may appear to be complying with safety requirements when actually they are at risk. 

Fact 2: The hardest part is making workers go ‘click’

Even the best fall protection equipment is ineffective if not fitted and adjusted properly. Failure to do so can even lead to death. It is imperative that PFPE users are adequately trained in its use, and that work at height is appropriately planned for, managed and supervised. 

Managers should engage with their workers to ensure they are competent and comfortable using their equipment.

Myth 3: Specific training is unnecessary 

The law requires that people working at height are adequately trained. Training should be tailored to workers’ needs, as no two areas of work are identical. A range of height safety training courses exist for different industries and working environments.

3M, for example, offers various standard working at height courses, as well as bespoke solutions. These can be delivered at its training centre near Manchester, or at a customer’s facilities. 

Fact 3: The best method is prevention

When planning projects, companies should first try to avoid the need for working at height altogether. If this is impractical, they should aim to prevent falls from happening, prioritising ‘collective’ protections such as guardrails. If these controls cannot be used, personal work restraint systems can keep workers from falling over unguarded edges. 

The next measure is to limit any fall’s consequences by using personal fall arrest equipment.

As a final safeguard, companies should plan for rescuing workers suspended following a fall, preparing procedures, rescue equipment and training.