Safety: When the stakes are high

Louise Smyth

Jeff Dalgleish on choosing and using fall protection for challenging environments 

According to the UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics for the year 2012/2013, the maintenance and construction disciplines within the oil and gas sector were the leading contributors to major injury with 11.8% of injuries caused by falls from height. In both offshore and onshore situations, there is a considerable need for working at height, often in extreme conditions and in remote areas, frequently with added complications such as working in a confined space. Apart from the height itself, risks include dirty and slippery conditions, extremes of weather and an environment where there is a great deal of activity, often with heavy loads being moved and lifted.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers and employees have a general range of duties but since April 2005, specific Work at Height Regulations (WAH) have been in force. One of the key principles of the WAH regulations is to assess risks where “a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury”.

A key requirement in relation to working at height involves avoiding the need for it wherever possible, where it cannot be avoided to use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls and, ultimately, where the risk of a fall cannot be eliminated, to use work equipment or other measures that minimise the distance and consequences of a fall.

In the oil and gas sector, the nature of the infrastructure involved forces the need to work at height. There are some measures that can be introduced to avoid a degree of climbing, but these are limited. Drones, for example, are being used successfully for routine structural inspections on onshore installations but where the need for maintenance or repair work is identified, there is no alternative to sending a human being aloft.

Categories of measures

Fall protection can be divided into three categories: fall prevention, fall restraint and fall arrest. Fall prevention measures are generally what the HSE terms ‘collective’ measures, such as guardrails and toe boards. Restraint and arrest systems involve the use of specific personal fall protection systems (PFPS) for which the worker is individually fitted and trained to use.

Fatal falls are often the result of incorrectly specified equipment or lack of training in its correct use. To correctly specify PFPS, it is essential to understand what the equipment is designed to do, how it works, its capabilities – and its limitations. There is by no means a ‘one size fits all’ solution and few are sufficient on their own. Types of PFPS to be considered include:

Restraint: this is equipment that involves a positioning system holding a worker in place while keeping the hands free to work. Restraint equipment may be used to prevent a worker from reaching a fall hazard position, but it is not designed to arrest a fall.

Suspension: suspension equipment, such as a cradle, provides a platform to work from.  Again, a suspension system’s components are not designed to arrest a free fall, so back-up fall restraint and arrest systems are critical.

Fall arrest: a fall arrest system is required if there is any risk that a worker may fall from an elevated position. The system activates only when the actual fall occurs and typically consists of a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point and a means of rescue.

In the event of an arrested fall, retrieval equipment is also needed to rescue a worker and bring them to safety. This can either allow for self-rescue, rescue by a co-worker or a rescue team, depending on the particular situations. Devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive rescue systems.

Choosing the right equipment

PFPS must be chosen for the specific task and the more hazardous the environment, the more critical this is. Equipment must, of course, be CE marked but this alone is an insufficient guide. For example, the typical test mass used to validate commonly used fall arrest equipment is 100kg, which given that the UK Office of National Statistics state average male weight/height averages of 175cm (5’ 9”) and 84kg (13st) may seem reasonable. However, you also have to factor in the extra weight, such as tool belts and other equipment that a worker at height may be carrying.

Another factor to consider is the potential distance of a fall. A fall arrest system will be of no use if the deployment distance is greater than the available clearance, a factor that WAH regulations require to be calculated. Fall clearance is the minimum distance a worker needs so that a fall is arrested before striking the ground or objects below the working area.

There are multiple factors to consider when calculating fall clearance accurately. Specialist manufacturers are the best source of advice and guidance and can provide charts and formulae for making these calculations for individual items of PFPS.

Keeping it safe

PFPS used in any sphere of the oil and gas industry have to withstand grease and grime, contact with corrosive and abrasive materials and need to be protected from volatile environments. Stringent inspection and maintenance regimes for PFPS are as important to worker safety as choosing the right system. Regulation 12 of the WAH regulations sets out duties for the inspection of equipment. It offers advice on inspection regimes and information on the frequency, procedure and level of detail of inspections as well as the type of records that must be kept.

In addition to what is required under WAH regulations, there are also requirements for inspection in BS EN 365:2004 (the British Standard for personal protective equipment against falls from height) and recommendations in BS 8437:2005 (code of practice for selection, use and maintenance of PFPS) and Health & Safety Executive Publication INDG367 (inspecting fall arrest equipment made from webbing or rope). Product-specific inspection requirements are provided by equipment manufacturers and should be incorporated into the inspection routine.

Equipment should be checked before every use, preferably by the worker using it. Materials can degrade over time regardless of use, but a common cause of loss of strength is abrasion or damage by cuts and any equipment showing signs of this type of wear should be scrapped, as should equipment that has suffered a high shock load.

A joint approach to worker safety

The oil and gas industry is highly risk-aware, but no matter how well trained or experienced construction and maintenance workers are, ensuring that they have the right equipment to stay safe at height has to be one of the main considerations of health and safety managers. To support them in this, PFPS equipment manufacturers such as Capital Safety can advise on the most appropriate equipment for specific applications and can offer training programmes that combine classroom or e-learning training backed up by hands-on training.

Falling is a serious issue and entirely foreseeable, so research into the correct equipment and investment in training to ensure its correct deployment is crucial.

Jeff Dalgleish is with Capital Safety.

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