The proposed changes to the fall prevention equipment standard

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AS1657 – Fixed platforms, walkways, stairways and ladders — Design, construction and installation has been revised and is open for public comment. A member of the AS1657 committee, CARL SACHS of Workplace Access & Safety explains the major changes.

AS1657 Fixed platforms, walkways, stairways and ladders — Design, construction and installation has been revised for the first time in 20 years and is open for public comment until 21 September. The document, which covers the selection, design, risk assessment and testing of fixed platforms, walkways, stairways and ladders, has more than doubled in size from 30 pages to 75. There’s more detail and substantial new requirements.

Step ladder, rungs or staircase? The revised standard helps make the choices clear and assists designers meet their responsibilities under the new Code of Practice for Safe Design of Structures. In short, use access equipment with lesser inclines rather than steep ones wherever practicable.
So, what does ‘practicable’ mean? It definitely does not mean cost, but it could mean space constraints. Other practicable considerations are the skills and capability of equipment users. Much more upper body strength is required to climb a vertical rung ladder than a step ladder. Even though users may be strapping tradespeople, they often need to carry tools up ladders and these extra loads must be taken into account.

Side-mounted ‘midway’ landing platforms are no longer acceptable. The 20-year-old standard was not clear on the purpose of these platforms and although they may have technically complied, risk assessments revealed the high risks associated with them.

New to AS1657 is the installation of guardrailing where there is a risk of falling off inclined walkways and rolling down, even if more than 2 metres from an edge. The committee recognised that if, for example, you step off a walkway 8 metres from the edge of a 20 degree saw tooth roof, you are likely to roll all the way to the edge and fall.

The standard recognises it is not always practicable to install a 1.5 metre midway landing platform and stagger ladders. Ladder safety lines are a practicable solution since where there is insufficient space for platforms.
It would probably be more practicable to install landing platforms and other more permanent controls like guardrailing – especially given the lifetime cost. Systems centred on harnesses involve routine inspection, a second user, rescue equipment, rescue planning and procedures, PPE like harnesses and lanyards, the cost of administration, induction and supervision, and the cost of recertification in years 10 and 15.

Because an open hatch is a fall hazard, the revised AS1657 prescribes perimeter protection to hatches. It also deals with the ergonomic and safety issues for access and egress.

There are three ways to claim compliance with AS1657:

  1. Testing: Testing equipment against the performance-based requirements
  2. Engineering calculation and certification: Having a certified structural engineer run calculations and computations on the different material sections and fixings to ensure they will stand up to the load requirements
  3. Deemed to comply: Some fall prevention equipment (such as guardrails) has prescribed material sizes and fixings – when fixed together as prescribed, the system is deemed to comply and does not require testing or independent engineering

If you cannot meet AS1657, do a risk assessment, document the reasons for non-compliance and then record it on the equipment, which is a new requirement of the standard.

The revised standard requires that equipment is clearly identified and labeled to identify conformances, or the lack thereof, on ladders, guardrailing, stairways and platforms.
The labeling identifies:

  • the manufacturer or fabricator of the piece of equipment; and
  • the installer of the equipment.

This is safety critical equipment and lives depend on it. Over the last seven years, three times as many Australians died from falls in the workplace than in the war in Afghanistan. The community cannot ignore this cost. We must be confident the lifesaving equipment on our roofs really can save lives and a relevant, manageable and well-used AS1657 is perhaps our best bet.
Make your thoughts on the draft revision of AS1657 known at before the public comments period closes on 21 September.

Carl Sachs, whose experience in safe work at heights spans two decades, is the managing director of national falls prevention specialist Workplace Access & Safety. He represents the Master Builders Association on Australian Standards committee AS/NZS1657 and the FMA on committee AS1891. He works closely with major corporations and the government to increase the awareness of falls issues and to achieve compliance throughout Australia.

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