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Falls from height

Falling from height is a significant cause of injury in many industries. When there is a chance that someone might be injured by a fall (even if the fall is at low level), measures must be in place to limit the risk of injury. Similarly, items stored or used at height could fall onto people below and this too needs due consideration.

When considering work at height - for example cleaning windows or undertaking maintenance - think about the following hierarchy:

  1. Can the work be avoided?
    For example, cleaning windows can be done with a pole onto which the sponge and squeegee are mounted.
  2. If not, prevent falls.
    This might mean having hand-rails in place on a balcony to stop people falling.
  3. Finally, if 1 and 2 can't be achieved, think about what can be done to minimise the fall, such as using harnesses and lanyards.

Building features

Many Churches and Places of Worship are built on more than one level. Hand rails need to be provided on stairs and the recommended height for this is 900 mm. It must be impossible to pass a sphere of 100 mm diameter through any uprights or gaps in the guard, which would prevent a small child climbing through and falling.  It might also be beneficial to install slip-resistant nosing to stair treads to limit the chance of people slipping on the stairs, especially if the treads could become wet or icy.

Balustrades in areas like balconies where public have access should be at least 1100 mm height, except directly in front of seating where it may be reduced to 800 mm (which is a standard typical in theatres and the like). The structure of any guarding or railing must be strong enough to prevent someone falling through.  It is also beneficial to design the barrier in such a way that objects places on the top (such as hymn books) are unlikely to fall onto those seated below.

In areas where public do not have access, it might be adequate to provide guard rails of a minimum height of 950 mm. This must comprise two horizontal bars (e.g. one at 950 mm, the other at 430 mm from the base) and preferably a toe-board or plate to prevent objects being kicked off accidentally onto people below. Guard rails need to be installed where there is a significant risk of injury if someone falls (often above 2 metres height is quoted, although no distance is given in the current regulations).

Windows need to be protected to ensure that people cannot fall through when the opening is above ground level, being especially mindful of children who might be in the area who are most at risk. Usually, the bottom of the window opening needs to be 800 mm above the floor level. Alternatively the window needs to be fitted with a suitable guard rail or barrier. Windows should also be fitted with restrictor devices that prevent the window from being opened more than 100 mm if there is a significant chance of someone falling through.

Working at height

There are many situations within Churches and Places of Worship where people working might be at risk from falling. This would typically include places where people could fall more than two metres, but falls from lower level can also cause significant injuries - in fact, low level falls account for the majority of accidents although people usually think of a higher risk of injury caused when working at much higher levels. 

Similarly, falls onto certain surfaces, including hard flooring or metal railings, can cause significant injury even at a low height. However, all working at height should be avoided whenever possible and when this is not possible, the work must be organised and planned, taking into consideration weather conditions for outside work and other factors that could affect the risk of injury such as indoor lighting.

Some common examples of areas where people might be at risk of falling include towers, roofs, opened graves and basements or crypts.  Whenever possible, access to these areas should be restricted, and members of the public should not usually be admitted to these areas if the Risk Assessment deems this necessary.

In many Churches and Places of Worship, lighting is at a high distance from the floor level. When accessing fittings to change lamps and bulbs, it might be necessary to use some form of scaffolding or access equipment other than a ladder. To make best use of this equipment when set up, change all lamps in the area and use long-life versions and electronic starters for fluorescent tubes. If replacing light fittings, try to obtain ones that can be raised and lowered for maintenance. Any scaffold or elevated working platform needs to be used and installed by a competent person.

Fragile roof surfaces, such as corrugated Asbestos cement, need to be marked with suitable signs in prominent places.  Work on fragile roof usually requires crawling boards to ensure that the person's weight is distributed, along with fall-arrest equipment to prevent the person falling too far should the roof fail to take the weight.  For all roof work, appropriate guarding rails must be installed where people could fall from the edge of the roof or through a different surface like a skylight (the highest risk places are where the roof is largely solid but fragile areas, such as skylights are contained in the roof).

Those people working at height might also be using tools and other equipment.  These items could fall onto people below, and it would be usual to put up a barrier immediately below the works and tools should be fitted with a lanyard to limit the fall. Some tools and equipment can be fastened to prevent it falling, such as stage lighting equipment, which must always be fitted with a safety bond or safety chain.

Ladders

Quite often, areas need to be accessed using ladders.  Where possible other means of access should be sought, such as work platforms, but in many circumstances the only access suitable is a ladder. In fact, for some tasks, a ladder is the best option (there is certainly no reason why ladders cannot be used - ladders have not been 'banned').  The use of ladders should be restricted to light tasks and those lasting no longer than 15 to 30 minutes. Before use, all ladders should be inspected and any defective ladder immediately removed and destroyed.

All ladders must be used carefully, following the manufacturer's guidance, especially making sure that weight limits are not exceeded.  Domestic ladders are not suitable for use in Churches and Places of Worship.  Ladders must be either "Class 1 Industrial" or conform to EN131.

Step ladders are often used for tasks such as changing lamps and general maintenance.  Steps must always be used in the open position, with all locking mechanisms fully engaged. A second person should ideally hold the base of the steps, to provide stability and the ladder must be used the right way around, with the person facing the steps. The top rung(s) of many step ladders is not designed to be used other than as a shelf and the person using the steps must not straddle the upper hand rail.

Portable ladders must be correctly put up, ensuring that all feet are firmly on the floor. The floor surface must be even and free from hazards that could cause the ladder to slip or move.  The top of the ladder must rest against a strong surface, not something like guttering or a window that could shatter or break, and should preferably be secured in place. If the top cannot be secured, the base should be (as an absolute minimum a person can steady the base of the ladder providing it does not extend very high and it is only for a short duration).

A good rule of thumb to remember is that for every four units the ladder is extended up, ensure that the base is out by one unit (for example, a four metre high ladder must be out by one metre at the base).  The rungs of the ladder need to be horizontal, and this can be checked with a sprit level.  Extending ladders are fitted with mechanisms to lock the sections together, and these must be fully engaged before using the ladder.

In some situations, fixed ladders (or steep stairs that are used in a similar way to a ladder) have been installed owing to limited space.  These ladders must be properly supported on both sides, securely fixed and of good construction (including metal reinforcing ties in the case of a wooden ladder).  It is common to provide a landing at 6 metre intervals, staggering the ladders to prevent falls.  Usually fixed ladders over 2.5 metres have additional safety features, such as a built-in fall arrest system or safety hoops. Note that safety hoops have been shown not to be very effective at preventing falls and it is now preferred to provide a fall-arrest system.

Where a ladder passes through a hole, such as the access to a loft space, this hole should be as small as possible, but being large enough for someone to pass through unrestricted.  In some situations, a gate or barrier might need to be installed to prevent people falling who are using the area after access is made using the ladder.  Note that people should not carry things up or down a ladder as this prevents safe ascent or decent.

Those people using ladders must do so in a safe way. This includes gripping the ladder when ascending or descending, not using the ladder for extended periods of time and not using the upper three rungs (these are a hand hold). The person must not over-stretch, especially sideways (a belt buckle is a good indicator - this should remain inside the uprights) and both feet should remain on the same rung of the ladder.  Ladders are commonly used wrongly, so providing information, instruction and training is essential.

Other access methods

It is becoming increasingly common to use alternative work platforms to do work at high levels owing to safety concerns about ladders. Tower scaffolding is common and quite cheap and when used correctly is much safer than using a ladder. However, scaffolding needs to be assembled and erected by competent and trained people.

Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPs) are also useful, and in fact can be safer than a tower scaffold as the person does not need to leave the work platform to ascend or descend the ladder.  Two common types of MEWP are the "Scissor Lift" and the "Cherry Picker".  Articulated cherry pickers offer a great deal of flexibility, and scissor lifts are only useful when there is flat and even ground directly underneath the point where access is needed.  Note that MEWPs are work platforms and not access lifts (people should not step out of the cage to access something at high level).

The design and installation of scaffolding must be completed by a competent person.  The scaffolding must be appropriately designed for the safety of those at work on the platform and those below, such as including kick-boards to prevent items being accidentally knocked off the edge of the working platform.  Access to scaffolding by the public, especially children, needs to be prevented and worksites need to be secured.  If scaffolding is being used, this must be inspected every 7 days, and ideally tagged to show that it has been inspected. Any defects must be rectified by a competent scaffolder before people use the scaffolding again.

For some work it is recommended to use fall-arrest equipment.  This includes safety harnesses and lanyards or safety netting underneath the area where people are at work. It is not preferable to use fall arrest systems as the only means of protection, especially where other measures can be used (it's better to prevent a fall than catch someone as they fall!). However, fall-arrest systems provide a useful additional level of protection to prevent people being injured from a fall from height. When using harnesses consider how to rescue someone that has fallen - this is often forgotten about.

Excavations

Any excavation from an open grave to a trench for laying a pipe or cable can pose many hazards. Falls into the excavation can be prevented by using barriers, portable fencing and warning signs to indicate the danger. Any excavation should be filled in as soon as possible, and can be covered over with strong steel plates or wooden boards as a temporary measure to prevent people falling in (for example, when the excavation is on a pathway).

An additional hazard is due to the soil, as it has the potential to collapse onto a person working within the excavation or collapse under someone working nearby or under a vehicle. The sides of most excavations should be supported or designed in such a way so that the soil cannot collapse, although shallow trenches and holes can often support themselves.  Advice should be sought from a specialist if there is any doubt about the nature and stability of the soil or supporting methods needed.

Works near buildings could undermine structures if it is carried out in close proximity to foundations. Service pipes or cables could be accidentally struck when digging and careful surveying and planning is essential. Consider where tools, equipment and vehicles are located and where the excavated material will be placed as these too could fall into the excavation and increase the risk of collapse due to the weight on the soil.  Excavations can also fill with water from various sources or exhaust gases from nearby engines (such as a generator), and could expose contaminated land or harmful materials.

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