Hatching solutions to improve safety

Working at height, especially on roofs and industrial buildings, can be a hazardous and sometimes dangerous business. The onus is on architects and designers to take all necessary steps to reduce the risk of serious injury to those working in challenging front-line activities, says James Fisher, general manager at Bilco UK.

Falls from height remain the most common cause of death in the workplace. In 2008/9 there were 35 fall-related fatalities and more than 4,600 major injuries. In addition, over 7,000 other injuries resulted in employees being off work for three days or more after falling from height.

Many falls in the workplace involve ladders. The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that incidents involving ladders account for more than 25 per cent of all fall injuries. Sometimes this is due to misuse but often accidents are caused by or are related to the equipment being unfit for purpose.

The continued use of lean-to ladders is a particular concern. HSE statistics for 2009 show that 10 of the 11 ladder-related deaths involved movable equipment which was also a significant factor in most of the 2,400 accidents that resulted in serious injuries.

Provisional HSE figures for 2009/10 indicate there were 65 deaths from accidents at work in the construction and manufacturing sectors alone with a ‘higher proportion’ of reported injuries due to factors including falls from height and falling objects.

Construction workers and roofers are not the only people risking serious or fatal injuries by carrying out tasks at height. Building maintenance staff, security personnel, window cleaners, painters and decorators, among others, are also at risk.

Often those risks could be reduced by the proper design of buildings and access systems to allow people to work safely at height.

The good news is that the number of work-related falls from height has decreased in recent years. The willingness of employers to embrace HSE regulations that set out specific requirements for all types of work at height has been a major factor in the declining number of accidents involving people working on roofs, ceilings, hatches, skylights, ladders and scaffolding.

Credit is also due to those manufacturing companies that work in partnership with employers and regulatory bodies to provide appropriate equipment and machinery to improve safety standards.

The greater the potential danger to workers in carrying out certain tasks, the greater the requirement for employers to ensure their people are safe, well-equipped and protected as much as possible against risks.

It is therefore important for architects, designers and suppliers of equipment and machinery to understand the risks facing those working in challenging environments and make it easy to provide appropriate protection.

HSE requirements stipulate that employers must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone from falling and state that:

• where possible, working at height should be avoided
• work equipment or other measures to prevent falls should be used when working at height is unavoidable
• work equipment or other measures should be used to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur.

The penalties for any company found guilty of deliberately flouting the rules and neglecting their responsibilities towards their workers’ safety will become more far more severe with the introduction of the new Health and Safety (Offences) Act.

The range of offences for which an individual company owner can be held personally liable is being extended and the maximum penalty is to rise from £2,000 to £50,000 – a move welcomed by trade unions and legal representatives acting on behalf of injured workers.

Companies can be prosecuted if they breach the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Employers convicted of corporate manslaughter can expect fines of at least £100,000 and possibly closer to £500,000 depending on specific circumstances – and individual directors can be sent to prison.

Building designers, architects and specifiers therefore have a vital role to play in ensuring there is safe access where maintenance personnel and window cleaners, among others, need to get on (and off) roofs.

Hatches need to be appropriately sized and sited to enable people and equipment, where necessary, to be taken on and off roofs. Designers need to consider whether a ladder is a safe means of access, given how the hatch will be used, or whether the hatch should be designed to be accessible from stairs.

Designers should also consider whether equipment can safely be manhandled through the hatch or whether a hoist or similar should be provided on the roof.

Product selection is too often left with the contractor – and that can lead to a price-influenced solution rather than a safety-conscious option.

Many issues need to be taken into account when selecting an appropriate roof access hatch, especially key performance factors including:

• what is the purpose of the hatch?
• can it be operated within the Manual Handling Regulations?
• can it withstand high winds?
• does the hatch provide adequate security?
• what about thermal and air leakage performance?

Using lean-to ladders should be avoided at all costs. In addition to the 10 fatalities in 2009 involving movable ladders, a further 2,396 accidents resulted in either serious injury or health problems which forced those concerned to take more than three days off work. Significantly, only 183 accidents involved fixed ladders.

For most businesses, the safety of employees at work has always been of paramount importance. There are, of course, always exceptions. But the introduction of much more punitive measures, with potentially substantial financial ramifications for those employers who continue to skirt round their responsibilities on safety, may serve to concentrate some people’s minds.

Suppliers are driven by customer needs and in many instances their needs are determined by health and safety requirements. Instances of falls are declining. The goal must be to provide companies with the means to help them further reduce the risk to people’s safety and well-being at work.

Bilco supplies roof hatches, smoke vents, floor doors and other access products to construction and engineering industries across the world.

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