Without proper planning and preparation, construction projects can be a dangerous affair. This is particularly true when it comes to working safely at heights. A key priority for creating a safe worksite is preventing falls from heights. This requires active management, and having a deep understanding for your responsibilities and obligations in nurturing a height-hazard free workplace, whether as a supervisor or as a worker on the job.

It’s very easy to envision skyscrapers and cranes when you hear the term “working at heights”, but Investigations by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment reveal that 50% of falls occur from less than three meters, while approximately 70% are from ladders and roofs. Combined, the estimated cost of these falls is approximately $24 million a year, and that’s not taking into account the impact they have on human life.

There are many factors that contribute to these injuries sustained from working at heights. At times it is human error  and negligence, such as a lack of or inadequate planning and hazard assessment, or inadequate supervision. Compound this with insufficient training for the work being carried out, or being stubborn and unwilling to change the way a task is being performed when there is a safer alternative and the potential for an accident increases exponentially.

But operator error is only one side of the coin, on the flipside the equipment used can be the greatest asset or detriment to site safety. Workers are at risk if they use the incorrect protection or equipment choices, as well as the set-up or use of equipment. Sometimes the cause of hazards is the lack of availability of the correct equipment.

As you can see, there are many factors that can lead to injuries when working at heights. Because of this, there are certain height safety regulations to ensure a safer work site.

Highly Trained Personnel are Key

Safety concerns the welfare of people, and therefore your first line of defence is going to be with those people. The height at which is being worked determines whether or not a person requires to be a ticketed scaffolder. Any task performed higher than 5m requires a person with the relevant scaffolding tickets, qualifications and training. But even below that height, workers need to be considered competent. Every worker needs to understand the risks associated with working at heights. This includes the possibility of tools, objects, and people falling and injuring someone. Therefore it is important that all workers are able to follow all procedures and controls that are put in place with the intention to keep everyone safe when working at heights. Workers are personally responsible for ensuring that they are using the correct protective equipment when required and knowing it is their responsibility to let their supervisor know if they observe unsafe work practises being carried out.

Planning Controls and Equipment when Working at Height

Implementing controls is a way of managing hazards at heights. It can be broken into two categories, personal controls (for individual workers) and group controls. Depending on the type of hazard, it will fall across a spectrum of controls that include elimination, isolation, minimising the height of the hazard, minimising the consequence of the height of the hazard, and minimising the hazard through management controls. When planning and assessing, these controls will dictate what equipment is used.

Elimination: If work isn’t specifically required to be done at height, don’t do it. Examples of this may be fabricating structures on the ground

Isolating the Hazard

  • Group Control Measures: The use of edge protection systems, guard rails and safety mesh
  • Personal Control Measures: total restraint system/harness, platform (podium) ladder, single user MEWP, man cages

Minimising Height and the Consequences of the Height Hazard

  • Group Control Measures: Soft landing systems and safety nets at high level
  • Personal Control Measures: Fall arrest systems, work positioning systems, industrial rope access

Minimising the Consequences of the Height Hazard

  • Group Control Measures: safety nets at low level (less than 6m) and remote soft landing systems
  • Personal Control Measures: Inflating air suits and life jackets

Minimising through Management Controls

  • Group Control Measures: platforms, trestles and hop up trestles
  • Personal Control Measures: ladders, step ladders, suits

Using this spectrum of controls to plan for minimising and eliminating hazards allows the right equipment to be used at the right time. For instance if you know at what height a full body harness is required (anything over 6 feet), you’ll know anything above that requires you to isolate the hazard for personnel by using a total restraint system.

Scaffolding Structure

Anything that requires more than 5m in height to be worked on requires a scaffolding system by law. Work at heights regulations state that ladders should be used for low risk and short duration tasks only. Three points of contact are recommended at all times when using ladders and scaffolding, and this is best achieved using a ladder and a handrail. Handrails need to meet OSH handrail requirements. Anything else requires scaffolding. 

If the scaffolding platform height is under 2m, it requires a base to height ratio of 2:1, while anything above that 2m mark requires a ratio of 3:1. This scaffolding requires edge protection to prevent persons, objects or materials from falling. This includes the perimeters of working spaces, openings and where there is fragile or brittle material that is unable to safely support the weight of a person. Edge protection may include using a proprietary (engineered) system, a guardrail that acts as a physical barrier, erected scaffolding that is able to support a temporary edge-protection system, or a combination of these features.

Scaffolding platforms require safe and easy entrance and egress. When possible, it is recommended that a stair access is used rather than a ladder. This stair access must meet OSH handrail requirements and be set 900mm-11000mm above the stair tread and landing whilst not being made using flexible material.

As stated above, the use of man cages, outrigging, safety nets and soft landing systems all play their part in eliminating and reducing as many hazards as possible when it comes to working at heights. These should be implemented alongside all the standard OSH requirements, such as OSH fire extinguisher height requirements, first aid kits, alarms systems etc.

Choose a Team that Knows how to Work at Heights Safely and Efficiently

The scope of this article cannot cover all the considerations that go into working safely at heights in New Zealand. It is a complicated task with plenty of nuances and considerations.  This is why the experienced team at South Pacific Scaffolding have gone through extensive height training to arm them with the knowledge, skill and experience to work on projects of any size or complexity. With such a low barrier of entry for your project to be considered “working at height”, odds are you are going to need a team that knows what they’re doing to keep everyone safe while keeping the work moving along efficiently. For more information about our high quality scaffolding services, get in contact with the team at South Pacific Scaffolding today!