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Raising the Bar on Fall Arrest

Published: 10th Sep 2010 in OSA Magazine

Falls from height are the biggest cause of industrial fatalities worldwide. According to the HSE, falls from height are the single biggest cause of deaths in the UK, and the second biggest cause of accidents. According to Singapore government statistics, falls from height were the biggest single cause of fatalities in both marine and construction sectors in 2009 - 54% and 36% respectively. Fall protection, therefore, is of global interest.

A change in attitude

The UK HSE model is recognised as one of the most effective at educating all levels of the workforce and promoting a positive HSE culture at all levels on site. All stakeholders are expected to educate themselves on risk and on appropriate measures for controlling it. All levels from executives down are held accountable for what they know about safety and how well they have put this into effect in a work situation.

In the past, the Asian attitude was different to that. The traditional approach was to dictate a series of blanket rules and regulations and punish those who did not adhere to them. This, however, is in the process of changing.

Singapore in particular is at the forefront of a sea change in attitudes towards safety, where encouraging all stakeholders to see the value of what they do is paramount. This goes hand in hand with more specific guidelines and an emphasis on the importance of education.

Worksites are beginning to expect technicians, supervisors and senior management to take responsibility for safety and become part of the process.

These key concepts are building a progressive HSE culture and enabling effective management of health and safety.

The Singapore Story

Singapore has a strong interest in preventing fall from height accidents. There is a large amount of heavy industry, construction and shipyards here, which is heavily reliant on immigrant workers, many of whom are poorly educated and have little or no HSE culture from their home countries. Combine this with the language problems and you have huge scope for misunderstanding and accidents.

Regulators in the past tackled this by providing a simple ABC handbook of what - and what not - to do on site. However, the set up behind this was not ideal. Most regulators have a broad remit, and Singapore’s is certainly no different. For such a small place, geographically speaking, the challenges are varied. Manufacturing, kitchens, shipyards and ports, refining, civil construction are all significant contributors to the GDP, and the persons employed in enforcement roles often lacked hands on expertise and sufficient understanding of the activities to engage effectively with industry.

In terms of working at height, it often meant that the same piece of PPE would be issued no matter what the workscope. More often than not, this would be in the form of a green belt attached to the worker’s waist. This would in turn be attached to an anchor point, or length of wire where they were working. Aside from the lack of understanding that resulted in some workers not even attaching themselves to the anchor point, the flaws and limitations of this were obvious to anyone trained in working at height.

Firstly, there was often only one point of attachment. Should there be a barrier half way along the workspace, the worker would have to detach the wire to get around it, leaving himself exposed.

Secondly, it was only really useful for work restraint. A belt like this is designed to prevent a person from entering an area where the risk of a fall from height exists, not protect them from the impact of a fall. If the system was used as a fall arrest system, it would result in injury for the worker. The forces of the sudden deceleration would all concentrate on the body in the region of one narrow band that was tied around the wearer’s spine, with obvious implications.

Fortunately, regulators recognised the need for a more holistic approach to Health and Safety. The Workplace Safety and Health Council (WSHCouncil) and its precursor the WSHAC, incorporated sector specific sub-committees more focused on the specifics of their field. They also work closely with unions, industry and professional organisations to make the work they do a process of communication rather than the ‘dictate and punish’ approach.

One of their four departments, ‘Industry Capacity Building’ (ICB) is tasked with helping industry adopt better Health and Safety practice, with functional assistance such as the Risk Management Assistance Fund. Another, ‘Industry Sensing and Engagement’ (ISE), collaborates with industry stakeholders to promote and raise industry driven changes.

Our first experience of this was a group of inspectors they sent to a workshop put on by IRATA International (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association) over three days at K2’s Singapore training centre. They also asked IRATA’s regional committee for South East Asia to review and comment on the draft of their Code of Practice for Safe Working at Height, looking at all areas and specifically the section on Rope Access. The level of engagement on the part of a government body was unprecedented in this part of the world.

The resulting Code of Practice, which came out in 2008, is a comprehensive 56 page document. It covers everything from hazard identification and risk analysis, subsequent selection of equipment and methods of access, through equipment standards, inspection, maintenance and storage, to suspension trauma and provision for rescue. The end result is an informative and practical document, which quite rightly puts the onus on industry to identify and carry out their training needs, and properly implement it. This type of outcome can only be achieved by engaging with the subject matter experts in industry, and the Singapore regulators are to be congratulated for recognising the shortcomings of their own approach and taking such proactive steps.

“Top management with executive or site responsibility shall define, endorse and document its policy for fall protection... It is important that the policy for fall protection is understood, implemented and maintained at all levels of the organisation,” it states.

Other documents go further. Implementing WSH 2018 for Marine Sector in Singapore, which was released this year, states: “The WSH professionals… drive WSH improvements beyond the minimum compliance with legislative requirements. They ensure that… systems in the shipyards are robust and up to date, through regular workplace inspections and inhouse audits…”

To put it bluntly, the onus is now on companies to take charge of safety in a responsible and appropriate way. They are compelled to select the most appropriate method rather than just putting on that green belt or its equivalent. How are they doing this? In many cases by sourcing training from other industry professionals. They are learning how to carry out thorough risk assessments, put their staff through appropriate training and issue the correct PPE for the job.

Our experience at K2 is that there has been a marked upturn in interest in our Working at Height training here in Singapore. People recognise the value of our expertise because they are now obliged to take responsibility for the activities of their employees when working at height. Not least because they are at a real risk of prosecution in the event of an accident should it be proved they did not follow industry Best Practice, as opposed to the old dictates which made less and less sense as equipment and techniques developed. Importantly, this duty of care extends to all levels - not just the workforce and direct supervisors, but managers and senior management as well.

Spreading the word

There are also positive signs that other South East Asian countries are taking up the baton, with regulators and enforcement engaging more fully with industry. In Malaysia this translates as a more specialised interest in the methods of working at height, such as rope access. This was the germination of the change that eventually took place in Singapore.

Thailand is another notable example. It is in the process of issuing a national training standard for fall arrest in the offshore Oil and Gas sector. The project was initiated by Thai Petroleum Training Institute (TPTI), which is a division of the equivalent of the Department of Minerals in the Thai Government.

As with Singapore, they have involved training companies in this - K2 have been contracted to write the draft standard.

These are extremely positive steps but they need to be followed by a change in attitude across the board, particularly with regard to PPE. Offshore oil and gas instillations, who work to international best practice safety systems, are up to speed with their choice of job appropriate harnesses, rope and lanyards. Yet we still see blanket applications of the wrong PPE in the construction sector.

Fall protection as a whole

One of the first things other industry professionals learn is that PPE is far from the only consideration when it comes to keeping people safe. Looking at the hierarchy of risk controls for working at height, first and foremost is elimination – e.g. removing the need to work at height. This is followed by substitution – using structures such as work platforms to prevent falls, engineering controls such as barriers or guard rails, and introducing administrative controls such as Permit to Work measures. Last of all is PPE, for all those workers not sieved out or protected by previous measures.

The safety of the few who are exposed to falls after other safeguards have been put into place is better protected by training and education, rather than just the PPE. As an introduction, there are three forms of protection system applicable to working at height.

A proper understanding of the distinction between them is essential to ensuring the safety of those working in these conditions.

Work Restraint is usually carried out on flat roofs and ledges, or open decks of high structures with easy access to the work site, but no handrails to prevent falls. Personnel are normally attached dorsally (back) to ensure that PPE does not interfere with the work task. Work restraint is not a suitable technique if personnel are relying on their PPE for support as the rigid attachments are designed to prevent the person entering into an area where the risk of fall from height exists, rather than save them in the event of a fall. Training requirements for work restraint are, generally speaking straightforward, although proper installation of the systems may require a greater knowledge of the equipment in use, and other methods of working at height.

Work Positioning is the use of PPE under tension so as to prevent a fall from height. The idea is that the tight suspension of the loaded system ensures against a fall, provided the PPE holds. As an insurance to the PPE, the system is often backed up with a second independent attachment to allow for a greater factor of safety. Personnel are normally attached at the waist, either centrally or at the hips with a work positioning belt.

Work positioning is becoming more commonplace due to the emergence of Rope Access as a recognised method of working at height. However, it is important to recognise the limitations of work positioning equipment when arresting a fall. Impact forces must be kept to a minimum, and generally speaking work positioning equipment is not suitable when there is potential for a fall greater than 0.5 metres. However, this is mitigated by the training on this method, which is the most extensive of the three, and best practice which involves stringent guidelines on supervision.

Fall Arrest is the use of PPE so as to safely arrest any fall that may occur. It is used in situations where the worker is working in a cradle, free-climbing or attached to a short rope. It is intended as a safeguard should the worker lose control, and halting their fall becomes appropriate. A major consideration is that the distance fallen is as short as possible so as to minimise the impact and swing of the arrest.

Fall arrest systems, PPE and other considerations

Fall Arrest is the most common form of fall protection. It can be relatively simple to operate and use minimal equipment. Training implications vary greatly depending on the location and work task. Personnel are attached sternally (at the chest) when climbing with twin lanyards and using lead climbing techniques, or dorsally (in between the shoulder blades) when working off a platform, such as a cradle and scaffold, or using an inertia reel.

The systems include a full body harness, which is designed to spread the force of the impact around the body, and other fall arrest PPE appropriate to the task - either an inertia reel, shock absorbing lanyard assembly or mobile fall arrest device. The energy absorbing component of the fall arrest equipment will ensure that the forces transmitted to the user are less than 6kN. This figure can vary - in the US they work from 8kN, but the standard in South East Asia is 6kN. Anything greater than this can be potentially fatal to the user.

Twin lanyard systems form the primary method of energy absorption in fall arrest. They are used to connect a harness to secure the anchor point in a fall arrest system. The double lanyard allows for continual attachment when climbing, while still being able to move freely (ladder climbing, climbing towers). They must not be used for suspension.

It is crucial that personnel understand if and why the equipment is suitable. In the event of a fall, the twin lanyard system or other shock absorber will stretch to reduce the impact of the deceleration. This piece of information is essential when designing the fall arrest system on any particular job, not least because swing back and swing down hazards carry their own risk of secondary impact, and thus injury to personnel.

The Fall Factor is also a major issue when it comes to Fall Arrest. Should a fall occur we can measure the severity in terms of the forces exerted upon the equipment and user with a simple formula:



It is important to ensure that the Fall Factor (FF) is kept to a minimum. While Dynamic rope is capable of withstanding a Fall Factor 2 fall when new, it is good practice not to exceed FF 1, and likewise it is good practice not to exceed FF 0.3 with a Low Stretch rope.

Provision for rescue is another vital component. Anecdotal evidence suggests that an immobilised person suspended dorsally in a harness will begin to deteriorate after as little as four minutes, meaning that they need to be rescued as soon as possible. Personnel also need to be able to identify the symptoms suspension trauma - light-headedness, nausea, paleness of skin, hot flushes and breathlessness - which can lead to coma and ultimately death.

Rescue plans and methods can vary from the use of a relatively simple lowering or raising rescue kit, to complicated aerial tramway systems such as those employed by the coast guard and mountain rescue teams. The methods employed must be appropriate to the situation and competence of those involved, the techniques and equipment required should be identified in the pre work risk assessment, self contained, light enough for one man to handle effectively and pre rigged to allow for quick and efficient deployment.

Equipment Standards

Until relatively recently, trainers would rely on American or European conformity standards - EN 361 for the Full Body Harness; EN 354 for the Lanyards; EN 355 for the Energy absorbers; EN 362 for the Connectors and so on. However, SPRING Singapore issued its own set of standards in 2006. They all fall under the heading of Personal Fall Arrest Systems, and the references are given below:

Full body harness:
SS 528-1

Lanyards and energy absorbers:
SS 528-2

Self-retracting lifelines:
SS 528-3

Vertical rails, lifelines, sliding type arrester SS 528-4

Connectors with self locking/closing gates SS 528-5

System performance tests
SS 528-6

Taking ownership of fall arrest safety

Singapore is taking the lead on Fall Arrest HSE, not just releasing a Code of Practice but also engaging with the industry and issuing its own equipment standards. The signs are there that other countries in the region will not be far behind. They are already engaging with industry and showing a clear commitment to educating stakeholders, particularly offshore.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a change in working culture across the board, where working safely at height is given proper consideration, and the bad old days when it was accepted that workers would be killed on a construction project as a result of falls from height are left long behind us.

Published: 10th Sep 2010 in OSA Magazine


Daniel Rogers

Daniel Rogers is an industry professional with more than 15 years experience in work at height projects and training. He is the current Vice Chairman of IRATA International (Industrial Rope Access Trade Association), the sole global trade association in the work at height sector. IRATA is internationally recognised for its safety standards by regulators and safety professionals across industry - its Rope Access certification scheme is the only globally recognised work at height training scheme. Daniel maintains his certification as an IRATA supervisor and trainer and acts as an independent assessor for IRATA training companies in the Asia Pacific region.

Daniel is also Group General Manager of K2 Specialist Services, headquatered in Singapore. The company is an established project service provider to the Oil and Marine industries, as well as being the leading provider of work at height safety training in the Asia-Pac region. K2 has operations centres in Korea, Brazil, UAE and South Africa and dedicated training facilities in Singapore, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia which specialise in work at height training.

Daniel Rogers can be contacted at: daniel.rogers@k2velosi.com

Daniel Rogers




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