It is easy sometimes to forget just how long safety nets have been in use in the UK. In a very short period of time, safety nets have become almost as common as safety boots and hard hats. As professional safety netting manufacturer with more than 30 years’ experience, Huaxing Nets Co., Ltd specializes in manufacturing all types of knotless and knotted netting for various industries.
There is no doubt they are playing a significant role in providing a safer working environment for those working at height – typically industrial roof cladders and floor deckers. 1998 saw the first safety nets installed to any reasonable level of competency, so we are now in year seven, in an industry where other trades are decades or even centuries old. Reported incidents where safety nets were used in anger totalled 45 in year two – it would be reasonable to double that number to include unreported incidents. When considering safety nets alongside these other trades, it would be fair to say that safety nets are still in their embryonic stage. It would also be fair to say that there is still a lot the industry has to learn about itself.
What exactly are safety nets?
Quite simply, safety nets are suspended directly below the working platform from where an individual at work may fall. They are engineered to reduce the loads on both the faller and the structure to which the safety net system is attached. They minimise the height and consequences of a fall by provide a soft landing for the faller by stretching in a controlled way, thus minimising injury.
There are two primary reasons why safety nets have proved to be so successful in such a short period of time; firstly, they offer collective protection which is one of the options in the proposed Work at Height Regulations. For example, nets, barriers and guard rails provide collective protection and are normally installed by a competent specialist who should handover safe areas when complete. This means that once a system has been installed and handed over in this controlled way, then everyone operating at height in the area is protected.
By using this specialist, principle contractors can manage quality control procedures before work commences, satisfying themselves that the specialist is indeed a specialist. This can be controlled by pre-contract documents and meetings where safety can be planned and importantly the needs of the beneficiary (the worker at height) and safety solution providers can be coordinated.
Secondly, safety nets provide passive protection which means the individual operating in a hazardous area does not have to do anything personally to be safe. For example, a roof worker using a harness is not safe to work at height until he puts the harness on. He also needs to ensure the harness has been inspected and recorded within the last three months and has not suffered damage during normal use which may affect its performance in the event of a fall. Those managing this individual should have provided appropriate training and put measures in place to ensure the harness is used properly.
A question which is seldom addressed (perhaps ignored) is “what is the roofer going to attach his lanyard to?”, and is he competent to make an assessment as to what is or isn’t a reliable anchorage point. The use of harnesses minimise the consequences of a fall, they don’t minimise the height at which a person may fall.
Doing the work properly
As with any new trade in any industry, there are those who do it right and those who don’t – the latter benefiting from high prices in early market conditions – often at the expense of the uninformed potential beneficiary of the system. In the early days of safety nets, rigging courses were made available, but with varying degrees of instruction, understanding and assessment. Individuals could choose to attend a two day course which included theory sessions based on EN 1263/1&2, practical work from MEWPs and a written test supported by a practical assessment to confirm the trainees understanding and aptitude. Some courses offered a period of on the job work and site assessment before competency cards would be issued.
At the other end of the scale, an individual could pay considerably less for a 1⁄2 day course and still obtain a competency card. The inevitable question arose; how could the safe gate keeper recognise a card that offered genuine confirmation of an individual’s competence? He may be confronted with two individuals with competency cards from two different training providers – which one should he accept? He has after all, a duty of care to ensure those working on his site are competent to carry out the required task.
It would be reasonable to suggest that the biggest threat to the safety netting industry was its own uncontrolled success. It was only a question of time before the inconsistency in training led to a serious error of judgment.
Alongside the issue of training and competency was the interpretation of standards, good practice and the need for a focal point to where questions and issues could be directed. New rigging questions were arising as more safety nets were installed. It certainly became evident that the emerging industry needed a voice through which issues could be discussed and communicated. The HSE were keen to identify with an industry body with whom they could work, preferring industry involvement rather than prescriptive measures.