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  • Gary Clarkson

Free Falling !

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

Douglas Adams said " It's not the fall that kills you, It's the sudden stop at the end"

If you don't understand, ask an engineer.

In the last few weeks I have had numerous conversations with numerous people about preventing falls from height in the construction sector.


So I thought I would reflect on some of the conversations, put some rumours out of their misery and clarify what we need to do when we put people into potentially risky situations at height.


So what is a fall ?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a fall as "Moving from a higher to a lower level, typically rapidly and without control."


So, we need to think not only about falling from above the ground (from a structure, scaffolding, etc), but also falling from the ground into a level below (such as an excavation, pit, hole or shaft).


What does the law say?


The Health and Safety @ Work Act 2015 says we need to eliminate risks to h&s and if that's not reasonably practicable to minimise those risks.


In other words, we need prevent falls from occurring so long as the cost in time trouble and effort it takes to do this does not outweigh the consequences.

Since the consequences with many of the potential falls in our industry can be quite significant, doing nothing is no longer an option.


I can't think how we might eliminate the need for work at height with many of the things we do in the industry. So in practice we will tend to move straight to minimising the risk.


This should be done through isolating people from the fall risk - i.e. stopping people getting to the fall by using edge protection or if that's not possible by using total restraint systems (one of few occasions where putting people in PPE is an acceptable first step.

But please make sure that only trained and competent people are allowed to use those systems.


If we can't do any of that, only then must we think about minimising the risk by implementing engineering controls such as safety nets or fall arrest systems. Worksafe NZ's Best Practice Guidelines for working at Height provides a simple to understand table to demonstrate what approach is needed.

Simple eh !


Now that we have the legal stuff out of the way and for those still awake, let's look at some of the rumours which are doing the rounds.


It's only gonna take a minute, I don't need to worry.


Short duration work at height needs to be treated in the same way as any other work at height. We need to consider appropriate fall prevention controls, no matter how long the work is going to take.

It's fair to say that it may not be reasonably practicable to provide full edge protection for work that is going to take a few minutes, but we need to be consider all of the factors during the risk assessment process (height, surface conditions, work activity, work equipment, weather, etc.) before we discount anything.


Make sure you document the reasons for your decision. Because in the event that something goes wrong, you may need to defend what you did or did not do. The table above can help you with your justification.


The mysterious 3 metre rule


It would astonish you how many people have said to me " I don't need to do anything if the fall is less than three metres".


This probably stemmed from a misunderstanding of Regulation 21 of the old Workplace Regulations.

Even though these Regulations are no longer valid, there are still some old-timers out there who haven't quite moved on.


Let's be quite clear — a fall is a fall, and you don't have to fall far to seriously hurt yourself. 3m is quite a way down and you are going to hit the ground hard enough to break bones, if you are lucky!


Pits, shafts and excavations


How many times have you seen an excavation or shaft with only danger tape around it? or if you're really lucky some of that orange plastic mesh tied to waratahs.

For some reason we think that is an acceptable solution when we wouldn't dream of using that as our fall protection control around a roof edge. Often the fall can be significant.


Next time you see that setup, ask yourself, will that plastic tape prevent me from "moving from a higher to a lower level, typically rapidly and without control" ?


Then report it or do something about it.


Falls from height continues to hurt and injure a lot of our colleagues in the construction industry and we need to do better.


The bottom line is if there is a potential for a fall from any height we must take steps to address it.


If you need help to determine whether the steps you are taking are suitable, please give me a call.


In the meantime I hope the Easter Bunny is good to you.