How IntelliPERMIT helps ensure people work safely at height

Statistics on fatalities from people falling from heights can make for sobering reading.

It is very important to take every possible precaution when people work at height in any industrial setting.

The permit to work system is an important part of this process by ensuring that there is awareness of the risks, that adequate precautions and control measures are in place and that people are competent and trained in the work they are required to do.

Falling from height accounted for 28% of fatal industrial accidents in the UK between 2012 and 2017, according to a HSE report [1]. In Australia, 11% of all workers killed in reportable accidents between July 2003 and June 2011 were as a result of falling from a height [2].

Many of these accidents were in the construction sector, but the risks associated with working at height are common across all industries.

Safe work Australia reports that most of these fatalities were a result of falls from ladders, steps and stairways (15%), followed by falls from trucks, semi-trailers, lorries (12%) and then buildings/structures (10%). [2].

Clearly, it is very important to take every possible precaution when people work at height in any industrial setting. The permit to work is an important part of this process by ensuring that there is awareness of the risks, that adequate precautions and control measures are in place and that people are competent and trained in the work they are required to do.

Working at height includes many different scenarios

The specific risks associated with working at height apply to working on plant, equipment or structures at an elevated level, where a fall is possible.   But there are also many less obvious situations where the same risks are present, even when working at or near ground level.  For example, a person working alongside a trench or hole in the ground; or near an open manhole, or adjacent to processing plant or materials.   The same risks might apply when working on a surface that is inherently unstable, slippery and/or sloped.   Or when working on any surface like a platform or roof which could collapse, leading to a fall down to a level below.

Each situation will have its own unique risk profile and therefore each job will need to be fully evaluated ahead of work taking place.   In the case of routine work it might be adequate to have a SOP (standard operating procedure) that covers the activity, but because this SOP cannot possibly cater for all risks it is not wise to rely on this alone.

In cases where work is not routine, each job will need a risk assessment to be done, together with controls measures in place to mitigate the risks.   In most cases, a permit is required to control the work and ensure that all procedures are being followed by competent workers.

It is not always accurate to think of “work at height” in terms of the distance that an individual might fall.   If you fall even one meter down into a hazardous liquid, or onto moving machinery the secondary risks can be significant.  However, regulations will normally exist that prescribe the actual height above which additional precautions must be taken.   For example, the height of scaffolding, or of rigging equipment.  In these special situations, operators generally need to hold a license from the authorities.

The hazards relating to working at heights do not necessarily relate to people falling.   Tools, equipment or other items could be dislodged and fall onto workers below.  Additional precautions like demarcating areas, using safety nets and securing loose equipment with lines might be necessary.

Because high points are generally quite inaccessible it might also be necessary to have a spotter and specially trained emergency response teams on standby to intervene when someone gets into difficulties.

First avoid, then implement precautions

Addressing the risks of working at heights follows a sequential approach which seeks to first avoid the requirement for working at height and then, where this is not possible, to implement precautions in a layered approach.   In practice, the following precautions are taken sequentially as in the diagram below:

Hierarchy Of Controls

1. Eliminate: By designing the plant, equipment or job appropriately it might be possible to eliminate the need for a person to ever work at height.   Lowering machinery or equipment to ground level for maintenance might be one alternative.

2. Use a fall protection device:   Passive fall protection devices include barriers, railings etc. and these should be used where possible to minimise the risk of a person falling.   Plants need to incorporate this into the design.  Additional railings or barriers should be considered throughout the lifetime of the plant as a result of an ongoing process to evaluate and manage all risks.

3. Minimise work in areas where a fall can occur:   In practice, this means that the job itself needs to be designed such that unnecessary activity at heights is avoided.  Consolidating smaller jobs into one overall job at height might make sense.    Or on the other hand, a complex job might need to be broken down into smaller, manageable activities, only some of which require work at height.   It will all depend on the specific circumstances at play.

4. Use a fall arrest system:  This could be a harness or safety rope, or a special guard/arrestor on elevated platforms.

5. Use specialised equipment:   When all other precautions have been taken it might still be possible to reduce the risk further through using specialised equipment.

6. Use administrative controls:  Last, but not least, administrative controls are used to ensure that people are trained and qualified and fit for work.   The permit to work system is one important administrative control that brings into account the hazards, the risks, precautions, special equipment, skills, emergency protocols and so on.

Administrative Controls

In most industrial settings, a special permit to work is issued for all work at height, irrespective of the other precautions and controls in place.    This permit will often be issued together with other permits for related activities, such as assembling scaffolding, isolating plant and so on.

Each and every job needs to be evaluated for risk by first doing a job risk assessment.  If the risks are well understood, and the work is routine in nature, then an existing risk assessment may be used as a template.  A generic risk assessment might also be used when a number of jobs are taking place where the fall hazards are the same.      The risk assessment often forms part of the permit to work and is incorporated into the preparation stage of the permit process.

Other Precautions

During preparation (and as the job progresses) it is necessary to ensure that the control measures are in place (and remain in place).   This might involve inspections of the equipment to be used (including safety equipment), inspecting the site and any demarcations, inspecting the physical plant or equipment to be worked on, including the guard railings and other passive safety measures.   The site inspection should also confirm that there are adequate handholds and footholds and that there are properly secured points to which safety lines and harnesses can be attached.   The work site must also be easily accessible to the working parties as well as to the response teams that might need to be called in an emergency situation.  Adequate egress of personnel and equipment should also be verified, the work itself should not result in exits being blocked preventing quick return to a safe location.

People that are required to work at height need to be inducted into the specific hazards and site conditions, and have the necessary qualifications for the work to be done.  Adequate supervision needs to be in place for each job.

Emergency response crews need to be kept informed, and a spotter will be assigned where necessary.   Emergency response procedures should be established ahead of the job, together with communication protocols to the working crew (radio, hand signals etc.).

Work at height becomes even more hazardous when there are high winds, rain, lightning, mist or fog. Environmental conditions should be carefully evaluated before any work is undertaken.  Many sites have a blanket ban on all work at height when there are gusts/high winds, visibility is poor or there is any precipitation.

All of the precautions above can be controlled by the permit to work process.  IntelliPERMIT has templates for the controls mentioned above that can serve as a starting point when designing the specific process.   These templates can easily be customised for any specific requirement as part of the system configuration.

Special considerations for contractors

Owing to the nature of the jobs, many situations requiring work at height involve contractors.  It is important to remember that the person contracting out the work remains responsible for the safety of all contractors on site.

Communication with contractors throughout the process is vital and this is multi-faced, including induction, training, verification of skills/qualifications and so on.

The permit to work is a very important document that forms part of the formal process of communication between the contractor and the responsible person.    The permit includes vital information in terms of the relevant hazards, necessary precautions, equipment/tools to be used and emergency response procedures.

Often contractors are required to provide a “Safe Work Method Statement” (or equivalent) to satisfy the responsible person that the contractor is going to work safely at all times, including when working at height.    In specific circumstances like rigging or scaffolding, the contractor may also need to be licensed to do the work and this will be governed by legislation and the standing policies and procedures of the company.

Maintaining and inspecting of Safety equipment

Work at height is often done with safety harnesses, ropes and so on.   This equipment needs to be in good condition and regularly maintained.  It should also be inspected ahead of being used on a job.   The same applies to demarcation equipment, safety nets for falling objects and so on.

Cross-referencing other jobs

Work at height is one very specific risk, but this work is often done in combination with other dangerous activities.   For example, isolations might need to be in place, there might be confined space work at height, or hot work, excavation work etc.    In this scenario, a number of permits might be issued and cross-referenced with each other.

IntelliPERMIT has comprehensive features that allow cross-referencing of multiple permits to ensure the integrity of the overall process and all the control measures.  This makes sure that every safety aspect of the job is properly governed.

Record keeping

It is good practice to make sure that all work at height is properly recorded and retained in the permanent record.   All risk assessments, safe work procedures, permits, contractor records, training records etc. form part of the overall safety “picture” and can be analysed to improve safety going forward.  This body of evidence is also important in the event of an accident to demonstrate that adequate precautions were taken.

These safety records and the auditing thereof will also form an important part of the company’s safety management system and will help ensure proper governance is in place.

Conclusion

Work at height is a particularly hazardous activity and recent accident statistics demonstrate this.   Work at height should be avoided where possible through a hierarchy of control measures that first tries to avoid the work altogether and then if this is not possible, limits the risk.  Where work must take place at height, all the risks need to be carefully considered.

The permit to work governs the process of assessing risk, ensuring precautions are in place, people are competent for the work, emergency response is catered for and the area is safe.   The permit to work also controls interaction when working at height with other control measures such as isolations, confined space entry etc.

IntelliPERMIT is a permit to work system that incorporates all of these principles.  Implementation of an electronic system such as IntelliPERMIT greatly improves the integrity of the safe work processes, as well as providing greater assurance that the procedures are being followed and exceptions are being catered for.

If you would like any further information on how our customers use IntelliPERMIT for controlling safe work at height, please contact the team at Adapt IT.

 

References:

[1] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/fatals.htm accessed on 9 January 2017[2] https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1702/falls-from-height.pdf accessed on 9 January 2017

 

Picture of Shirley Breytenbach
Shirley Breytenbach
Shirley has worked for Adapt IT for 23 years, starting as a developer on SmartSURE and OptiRUN, then moving into support and consulting. She now manages new projects with customers, enjoying the discovery process and integrating their processes into IntelliPERMIT.

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