AS1657: Clearing the confusion over revised fall prevention standards

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Australian Standard AS1657 for fixed ladders, platforms and walkways is one of the most widely read and referenced Australian safety standards of all time and its revised version has been a long time coming. It updates the 21-year-old and exceedingly out-of-date testing regime. Despite being released more than a year back (October 2013), confusion still reigns regarding its key changes. Let’s try to tackle these objectively.

Why is it important to comply?
AS1657 is Australia’s biggest selling safety standard. Across the globe, companies that build or aim to build equipment for Australia’s mining, power and oil and gas industries purchase copies of the safety manual. The Standard is referenced in state-based health and safety codes of practice, creating a benchmark for what may be legally regarded as a ‘reasonably practicable’ fall arrest system to implement in a workplace. In Victoria, exemptions to the fall prevention regulations are available for workplaces that meet AS1657.

What does it do for safety?
Given that slips, trips and falls cost the Australian economy around $6 billion in compensation claims and lost time injuries, it is easy to justify fall prevention equipment – provided it is truly effective. The AS1657 testing regime provides a sound mechanism for measuring the performance of the safety products it describes:

  • Walkways provide safe access and egress to plant and equipment. Suspended walkways are used inside ceiling cavities for access to plant and equipment (Image 1).
  • Platforms are used for access to cooling towers and HVAC (heating, ventilation and cooling plant, such as exhaust fans and chillers) (Image 2).
  • Midway landing systems in a ladder system can limit the distance a person could fall when correctly positioned.
  • Guardrail is used for edge protection on buildings, mezzanines and on working platforms.
  • Staircases, rung ladders and step-type ladders are used for maintenance access to machinery and to higher levels like roofs and mezzanines (Image 3). They are widely used for access to and from other fall arrest equipment like anchors and static lines.

Performance tests
Testing for rung ladders and step-type ladders has been added to AS1657, adopting a more performance-based approach that opens the door for new materials. For many years, a similar testing protocol has applied to portable ladders under AS/NZS1892. Eight tests ensure fixed ladders can sustain the loads.

  • Rung, step and tread tests

The strength test shows how much the tread or rung will deflect permanently and temporarily after a load is applied to the centre of the surface. This is intended to see how much the rung or tread deflects when a person stands on it (see Image 4).

Then, a ‘shear’ test applies the load where the rung meets the stile to assess the strength of the connection and whether the weld or bolt fixing will fail under the load of a person’s weight.

  • Fixed ladder stile tests

The ladder stile sway test checks how the ladder performs when a sideways force is applied. When someone climbs a ladder, their body weight shifts from side to side as they climb. The rigidity test ensures that the ladder won’t sway sideways.

The ladder stile strength test is applied vertically to ensure that the ladder doesn’t deflect more than 100 millimetres under load and is used to determine the maximum distance between intermediate brackets. It ensures that the ladder doesn’t flex and bounce excessively under a user’s weight. The maximum deflection under load is one percent and the limits for permanent set are 0.5 percent. A two-metre ladder, for example, must not deflect more than 20 millimetres under load and must return to within 10 millimetres of its original position. The ladder stile deflection test checks that the hand grab rail at the top does not flex excessively inwards or forwards. As a person climbs up a ladder, they pull the hand grabs towards themselves and slightly inwards as they climb up and through. This test guarantees that there isn’t excessive flex at the top of the ladder.

Staircase testing
The tread test involves applying a one to 1.5 kiloNewtons load to the tread via a 100 by 100 millimetres steel plate for three minutes. While a one kiloNewton load is applied to staircases narrower than 1.36 metres, the 1.5-kiloNewton load tests those wider than 1.36 metres. The test checks the flex in the steps.

Moreover, the entire assembly needs to withstand a load of 2.5 kilopascals, which represents the weight of two people and their equipment. The staircase cannot deflect more than one percent of the length with a maximum of 40 millimetres deflection – a sign that it is rigid.

Slip resistance testing
While the old Standard called for slip resistance, it was not quantified. The updated Standard deals with this issue.

Pedestrian surfaces like rungs, treads, steps, platform floors, landing surfaces and walkways must now meet the minimum R10 requirement for outdoor surfaces under Australian Standard AS4586-2013 (slip resistance classification of new pedestrian surface materials).

The slip resistance test comprises a ‘wet oil ramp’ test, which simulates a person standing on a surface, to measure the incline and rate the surface. Originally developed in Germany, this test is now widely used in Australia to measure pedestrian surfaces.

Guardrail testing
The revised AS1657 includes a deflection limit for guardrails, ensuring the devices are capable of saving a person in the event of a fall. AS1657-2013 aligns with AS/NZS1170.1-2002, requiring higher concentrated loads and line loads for guard railing systems. It also references standards to ensure the correct application of load factors and load combinations in the design and testing process.

The posts need to be tested on the same substrate to which they will be attached in the field. If a guardrail is to be fixed to a 0.40-millimetre ‘Trimdeck’ or ‘Klip-Lok’ type roof, for example, it must pass the tests to meet AS1657 on that substrate. This means that a guardrail ladder may face multiple tests for different applications.

Engineering
These requirements can also be confirmed with a structural engineer’s certificate for one-off installations. The engineer can calculate whether the different elements of the equipment can meet the loading requirements and performance limits of the Standard and then certify it accordingly. If the equipment is resold, the AS1657 mandates that these performance requirements be certified by a structural engineer and are proven with performance-based testing.

Labelling and certification requirements
A special section of AS1657 is dedicated to labelling and identification requirements that allow the user to identify the fabricator, design and installer of the equipment and its limitations. This requirement aligns the Standard with other fall prevention standards like AS/NZS1891 (Industrial Fall-Arrest Systems) and AS/NZS5532 (single anchor points). The requirement for inspection and ongoing testing of the equipment is also to be included, along with compliance statements.

Test reports
Appendix E of the Standard prescribes the elements of a test report. It details how to ensure visibility over the testing, such as test forces, testing devices and the methodology adopted to test the equipment.

Who should test?
In Australia, an agreement exists between ILAC (International Laboratory Accreditation Co-operation) and NATA (National Association of Testing Authority) to test the equipment. NATA accredits laboratories in Australia and has memoranda of understanding with the Australian Government and various state and territory governments that recognise its key role in Australia’s technical infrastructure. The Australian Government uses NATA-accredited facilities wherever possible and encourages state and territory governments and other instrumentalities to do likewise.

Check NATA’s website to ensure that a laboratory is accredited to do the AS1657 testing standards.

How can facility managers be sure it complies?
Third-party certification schemes offer consumers and businesses independent confidence that equipment actually complies with Australian Standards.

SAI Global audits companies for AS1657 compliance and licenses companies to use the trademark StandardsMark (‘5 ticks’) on their products. This demonstrates that an independent authority has audited the manufacturing processes, verifying its ability to consistently produce a product to standard, while maintaining complete traceability of every component all the way back to the source.

Being safety-critical equipment, the importance of consistency and reliability during the manufacturing process can hardly be overstated. The ABCB (Australian Building Codes Board) administers a separate accreditation program, CodeMark, to fill this need. A CodeMark product is guaranteed to meet all of the requirements of the Building Code of Australia, which includes the installed product.

CodeMark complements the StandardsMark scheme, pairing manufacturing with installation. This is particularly important for ladders, staircases and other fall prevention equipment that is heavily dependent on correct installation of the product. It is all very well that equipment meets the manufacturing benchmarks, but it must also meet all the stringent on-site tolerances and fixing methods to be AS1657 compliant and safe.

Making facility managers confident
The revised version of the Standard closes loopholes, makes the requirements clearer and provides greater guidance for designers, manufacturers and installers. The biggest changes to the Standard surround product testing and labelling – a blessing for facility managers seeking confidence in product performance. Most importantly, AS1657-2013 enables building inspectors to determine whether equipment is truly safe for use rather than simply compliant with outdated benchmarks.

Carl Sachs is the managing director of Workplace Access and Safety. He is also the technical chair of the Working at Height Association (WAHA) and a member of the Standards Australia committee for AS1657. He was involved in the drafting of the new Standard. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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