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Staying safe when working at height in challenging environments

19 October 2018

The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics are promising. Fatal injuries to workers continue to decrease and the UK consistently has one of the lowest standardised rates of fatal injury across the EU, lower than other large economies and the EU average. That being said, the HSE still reported 137 fatal injuries to workers in 2016/17 and falls from height clearly remain the most common cause.

From 2012/13 to 2016/17, falls from height alone were responsible for an average of 40 deaths per year. While increasingly diligent safety measures and sophisticated safety equipment is having a positive effect, there is always more work to do. 

Hazardous working environments are complex places with multiple health and safety considerations; from the harshest of construction environments to the highest telecoms, there are a lot of variables to consider. This is why it’s so important to constantly develop solutions to meet ever-changing demands. In this article, Alastair Hogg, MSA Safety’s Sales Director, Fall Protection, MSA International, takes a look at some of the most common risks associated with working at height in the aerospace, power transmission, utilities, and telecommunications sectors, and some tips to help minimise them.


Working at height is an inevitable requirement in the aerospace industry. Airports are busy places and any downtime due to work-related accidents can have a serious negative impact on operations. Whether it’s during aircraft manufacture, maintenance, repair or inspection, the necessity of working at height is part of everyday life. Protecting the physical safety of workers is more than just a legal requirement in aviation, it is integral to the safe and smooth running of airports and air travel around the globe.

And from a commercial perspective, aviation partners need maintenance and repairs carried out safely, efficiently, and without damage to the aircraft, enabling planes to get off the ground and optimise the time in the air.

When working on aircraft, whichever means of access has been put in place, be it working platforms, towers or scaffold, it should be provided with edge protection. Openings in the aircraft fuselage, such as doors and cargo hold, should also be provided with edge protection, or kept shut. It’s also important to remember that the straps provided to aircraft doorframes are not capable of preventing a fall and are not suitable as edge protection.

Edges that objects such as tools and materials could fall from and lead to injury should also be fitted with toeboards. Where loose items are stacked at height above the toeboards, additional protection may also be required, similar to 'brick guards' that are often seen on construction sites. Importantly, such measures can also help to prevent damage to the skin of the aircraft.

Means to prevent or mitigate falls should then be in place for when work is carried out from the surface of the aircraft itself, such as work by operatives standing on the wings.

Anchorage points for the lanyard should be above the wearer’s head and may be integral to the aircraft surface or may be part of the equipment of the hangar, such as a horizontal lifeline suspended from the structure. In certain circumstances a MEWP may be a suitable anchorage point for work carried out from aircraft surfaces.

The type of harness used also needs to be closely considered and you should be clear about what the harness is intended to do. Is it for work restraint, for example – i.e. preventing the worker reaching a dangerous position. Or is it for fall arrest – i.e. protection in the case of a fall.

Utilities and telecoms

From the water treatment plant to the telecoms tower, working at height in the utilities sector poses significant risks. Take the electrical sector: arc flash, electrical shocks, burns, fires, leaks, and spills (to name a few!) are all prominent dangers. And in telecoms, workers need to stay safe when working on a wide variety of towers, masts, monopoles and steel lattice structures, while climbing or in bucket trucks or scissor lifts.

An arc fault happens when electric current flows through air gaps between conductors, causing a dangerous release of energy. The cause of arc flash can be insulation failure, accidents caused by touching a test probe to the wrong surface or slipping (non-insulated) tools. Arc flash temperatures can exceed 19,400 °C at the arc end points and electrical energy can vapourise metal, changing its state from solid to gas or vapour, expanding it with explosive force.

This is why it’s so important that any PPE used for working at height when there is an arc flash risk present is tested to ASTM F887/2005. This is a unique standard for working at height PPE that combines drop tests and its ability to withstand arc flash. All flames should also self-extinguish in less than five seconds from exposure to the arc and there should be no excessive dripping of material.

As well as that, it’s important to use harnesses that have waist and leg padding, and easy-to-adjust buckles that don’t slip during use – all of which increases mobility, comfort, and all-importantly, safety.

An important consideration when specifying engineered lifeline systems for climbing towers, is that workers can have both hands free to climb and work for increased safety. If a worker should fall from the system, equipment should be in place that quickly locks onto the system and arrests the fall. Fall arrest systems that then enable post-fall rescue can also be put in place for quick recovery.

Leave nothing to chance

Regardless of the application or sector, be it aerospace, utilities, or telecomms, the basic rule underpinning fall protection is that nothing is left to chance. That means every new product or link in a fall protection system has to comply with stringent regulations to ensure maximum safety. When structural materials change, so too do the forces at play if someone falls. Fall protection technology needs to continuously evolve and adapt to reflect these altered circumstances.

For instance, with new designs and modern substrates, fall protection systems need the agility to perform when working on different, often lighter and more flexible, materials. Product innovation also means being able to re-engineer products and systems to meet stringent regulations while still maximising performance.

Make the right choice

As these new solutions evolve it naturally means that more and more systems are being used for fall protection. This can lead to confusion when specifying an effective combination of products. For this reason, it’s important to choose fall protection solutions that, while meeting complex needs, are still fundamentally simple to understand and use. Plus, there is the increased risk associated with choosing non-compatible products. If in doubt, you should always consult with an independent specialist to determine which fall protection solution best suits your needs.

Simplicity that inspires confidence

When developing new fall protection products, intricate engineering should enable customers to make a simple choice – not make it more difficult to understand and use. Each and every fall protection requirement should be considered and how, why and where a system would be used should be looked at it detail. It’s only by truly understanding the engineering complexities of fall protection needs that you can design a purposeful solution.

About the author

Alastair Hogg joined Latchways in the UK back in 1998, straight out of Strathclyde University. He has been with the company ever since, moving through the ranks from Sales Manager to Sales Director. Since MSA Safety acquired Latchways in 2015, Alastair has taken on the role of Sales Director, Fall Protection, MSA International. He is passionate about engineering and innovation - continuously working to bring customers the absolute best work at height solutions.

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