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Victims of ‘drive-by’ testing may be paying a heavy price when Working at Height warns Ken Diable Managing Director at Heightsafe Systems Ltd

Facilities Managers are dealing with myriad pressures in their roles – not least the pressure to do more, with less. The difficulty arises however when cost-cutting becomes a by-word for poor standards. When it comes to safety any slippage in standards presents a real risk that real victims may suffer life-changing injuries or even death.

Unfortunately, many professionals working in the Working at Height industry have noted a worrying trend that is bringing this very dilemma to the fore; ‘drive-by’ compliance testing of essential Work at Height equipment and PPE. That is, the independent testing of essential safety equipment being completed in eye-watering record time…

Before we get into what that means in practice, let’s step back and remind ourselves why Work at Height is still such a prominent issue for facilities professionals.

In July the HSE published its annual workplace fatality figures showing that deaths due to falls from height have risen 11 per cent in the last five years, 14 per cent from last year. In 2018/19, 40 fatal injuries to workers were due to falls from a height.

Falls from height continue to be the biggest workplace killer. What these figures mean is 40 people dead, 40 families grieving and 40 organisations dealing with the potentially devastating personal and professional consequences of losing a colleague in circumstances that were more than likely, preventable.

Of course, there is legislation in place to prevent such incidents when Working at Height, the basics of which cover:

Current Health and Safety legislations dictate that Fall Protection systems should be in place when employees or contractors carry out work at height (two metres or higher).

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a vital part of protecting against the risks posed whilst Working at Height. This includes items such as safety harnesses, lanyards and karabiners – legally required when using some Personal Fall Protection Systems, (EN365 – Personal Protective Equipment against falls from height).

Let’s not forget, as an employer it is your duty to ensure that employees are fully trained when it comes to selecting the correct PPE for the job, (Health and Safety at Work Act and Work At Height Regulations).

The importance of regular assessment and testing of equipment should never be underestimated. It can be easy to be enthusiastic about new equipment and there may be initial well-meaning intentions to ensure it is kept in pristine condition. Of course, reality then takes over and equipment can be misused, pushed to its limits or just forgotten about.

PUWER (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998) state that regular maintenance and testing of Work at Height equipment and PPE is required to remain compliant.

If you have not followed PUWER regulations the Health & Safety Executive can issue an improvement or prohibition notice. Failure to visibility show tagged and compliant systems could not only invalidate your insurance but could also lead to prosecution, should an employee, contractor or trespasser suffer injury.

The frequency of testing of Work at Height equipment is not stipulated by the regulations, instead leaving it to the employer’s discretion. However, in deciding the regularity of testing it’s essential to assess the level of risk to a user’s health and safety from malfunction or failure. Considering that falls from height are Britain’s biggest workplace killer, the risk of using faulty equipment when Working at Height is considerable.

PUWER stipulates that testing of equipment must be performed by a ‘competent person’. For some less complex equipment you may have the necessary experience in-house to perform the required checks – for example, simple visual examination of a hand tool. However, when it comes to specialist equipment such as Building Maintenance Units and Abseil Rails, it’s good practice to hire a third party to carry out a specialised inspection. Not only does this ensure you’ve met the ‘competent person’ threshold but it provides evidence of objectivity and validity if there is ever a related incident.

Unfortunately, when it comes to third-party testing providers, not all show the same level of care and responsibility. Over the last year, the Work at Height industry has seen an upsurge in suppliers testing Fall Protection and Façade Access equipment at unrealistic speeds. Quite simply, they are claiming to have carried out fully compliant testing in completely unachievable timeframes.

For example, we were recently made aware that a testing provider was claiming to have completed tests on 95 Abseil Points and nine Safety Lines in just 1 hour and 20 minutes. That equates to approximately 45 seconds per point or line.

The provider claimed that all 95 Abseil Points were tested to BS 7883:2005 and BS EN 795, each with an individual load reading. Realistically, it is completely infeasible to expect a full and thorough test of this scale to be completed in anything less than a day.

Of course, in claiming to have completed the testing in such a short timescale meant that this supplier provided the client with an incredibly cheap service. However, it’s clear that cheap testing doesn’t equate to good value.

When falls from height kill more workers than any other workplace accident, this drive-by practice is exposing clients and their personnel who work at height to massive risk. While facilities clients may take comfort in the knowledge that they have a certificate of conformity, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

In the event of an incident, the compliance testing provider and client’s actions in accepting this level of inspection would and should be brought into question. In short, fast and cheap testing is neither safe, ethical or value for money for facilities professionals. Scrimping on testing of equipment might provide very short-term relief on a bottom line but will cost organisations dearly in the long run.

About Sarah OBeirne

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