Understanding Fall Clearance


There is a significant lack of information, education and consideration given to systems, procedures and general fall clearance awareness. I want to share a story from a recent encounter I had on a massive site we are assisting – The reason I think this story is so valuable to share is that it is a perfect example of the situation Work at Heights currently finds itself in South Africa.

We were around 25 Stories (approximately 75m) high. The area we were in only had concrete pillars, empty lift shafts, concrete flooring underfoot and concrete roofing overhead. This left the area completely open as there were no solid barriers or windows installed as of yet. The building was approximately 90m at it’s highest point which meant that falling from the top could be a sheer drop of almost 100m. Falling from any one of the open levels would almost certainly be fata.

One of the men working on site about a meter from the edge of one of the opening sections was connected in a way that was ONE: Unsafe and TWO: In the event that his fall arrest system managed to work, a rescue would have been far too complex and unsafe for the rescue team to attempt.

The solution was simple and would have eliminated any chance of falling, thus removing the need for a rescue. The equipment he was using could be have been setup already and it would not have interfered with the job he was carrying out. I tried to explain the situation he was in, and dangers he was facing, and showed him how we could quickly change the setup to establish a safe working system. I was completely shocked when I received an apathetic and defensive response, basically telling me it was none of my business.

There are a number of implications that need to be taken into account with this situation:

Site: In the event of an unfortunate incident resulting from this situation, the entire work site would have been affected, work stoppages/investigations/legal implications.

Contractor: The employer of the worker would be liable for the injuries/deaths/work stoppages/legal implications.

Person: A fall from working at these heights would most likely have been fatal, resulting in an emotional and financial burden for the workers’ dependents, family and friends – The best case is the user is hanging and everyone would just hope to pull of a rescue from such an awkward position

I completely understand companies are affected by this kind of incident – but they will carry on. The person involved, the person who felt like they were being attacked when someone tried to make sure they were safe, is the one who pays the biggest price.

There are many factors and ways which can potentially reduce fall risk from 6.5m to a free fall of 10cm. It is vital that people utalising fall protection systems understand the limitations of the systems and more importantly understand whether there are solutions which could remove the current risks faced. It also does not help putting in a system which ‘makes the injury less harsh’, which is surprisingly common as there is disinterest to look harder into solutions or rush to find anything that works without doing appropriate research.

Ways to effectively reduce Fall Clearance:

  • Remove the risk of falling by working in a fall restraint position.
  • The user must connect to an anchor point as high as possible.
  • Use a shorter Shock Absorbing Lanyard
  • Use an alternative to a Shock Absorbing Lanyard (SRL or Rope Grab)
  • Use a connecting point which is Metal – Webbing will have stretch
  • If you need to use webbing ensure the system is as short as possible and has intermediates.

The above are just examples of ways to reduce fall distance, but as mentioned in the site example there are sometimes more effective ways dependent on the challenge on site.

Protekta Safety Gear have created a range of posters to help improve and hopefully in time, eliminate this culture of indifference and lack of education throughout industries in South Africa. The posters reinforce what we train in a Work at Heights course, with simplified methods of ensuring safety at heights. This in turn will increase the likelihood and speed of this ‘culture shift’ whilst assisting the workforce to continuously be reminded of specific portions of the training provided.

The value of these posters is their direct relevance to the people working in fall risk positions. We need to keep in mind that the majority of workers at risk when working at heights, are in most cases, not paid to work at heights. They are paid to lay cables, install windows or paint walls and ceilings. The point is they have to get their job done and this ‘Work at Heights’ thing is just an obstruction. We believe that education and empathy will go a long way. Providing workers with simple strategies to keep in mind when working at heights and ensuring there is a clear and consistent message about the dangers of fall risks. Our Protekta poster range seeks to convey these messages.

The poster in this article focuses on Understanding Fall clearance and depicts a person working on a roof at 6.5m height falling while connected to the roof. The worst case scenario finds the worker falling up to 5.5m. Even a person who has not attended Competency training can understand the poster and dangers involved. From the anchorage point (and sometimes sag involved), to the lanyard length and lanyard shock absorber deployment length, to the stretch of the harness and hanging limbs of the user, there are many aspects to take into consideration. Once this is all taken into consideration we also need to look at the exact area this person could fall and ensure there are no obstructions directly below the user which would reduce the Fall Clearance.

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