Protecting lives and structures with engineered systems

Andrew Pass from MSA Safety – a global designer, manufacturer and distributor of safety products – talks about engineered systems and the integral role they play in keeping those that work at height safe.

Fall protection solutions are generally split into two categories: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and engineered systems. PPE covers products such as lanyards, self-retracting lifelines and harnesses, while an engineered system is essentially a product that is permanently attached to a structure or a building. It is what operatives attach themselves to, to stay safe while working at height. 

The role performed by an engineered system is to control energy. In doing so, a well-designed system should achieve two things: the protection of people and the integrity of the structures on which they are working. In the unfortunate event of a fall from height, a significant amount of energy is generated with force put on both the person falling and the building. To help mitigate the effect of this force, fall protection systems are designed with smart, integrated energy-absorption technology. This technology means that the system itself absorbs the majority of the force from the fall, rather than the building or, importantly, the operative.

Considerations when specifying a system

First and foremost, think about the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) hierarchy of risk control. One, is it essential work at height? Two, if it’s unavoidable, can collective protection (guard rails, etc.) be implemented? And three, if an engineered system is required, make sure it has been specified and designed with its specific use in mind and tested against not only the latest standards but also the application in hand. Finally, as with any work at height, prior to work taking place it is crucial that the end-user has received high-quality training from a reputable provider specific to the work required.

The fundamental consideration should be how and where the system will be used. Transmission towers, industrial buildings and wind turbines, for instance, all have very different requirements and typically systems must be designed to be durable enough to last 25-30 years. Care must be taken to implement an appropriate system for each unique application: there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach with height safety systems.

Testing engineered systems

At MSA, we focus on two aspects of testing: representative testing and exceeding standards. BS EN 795:2012 is an important fall protection standard that relates to the testing of anchor devices – it is the minimum requirement for people working at height. I strongly urge anyone choosing fall protection systems to do so in accordance with this standard and supportive representative testing. As an industry, we have a responsibility to do our utmost to help ensure people go home safely at the end of each day. Choosing equipment that passes strenuous tests and meets all relevant standards is crucial to doing just that.

As far as possible, representative testing should be carried out, which means testing a system on the actual substrate it’s going to be attached to. There is little point testing products bolted to concrete floors if they are intended to be installed on aluminium roof sheet, as performance could be completely different. A new standard, BS EN 17235, is being looked at under construction regulation CPR EU 305/2011. It will be an absolute game changer for the industry as it will make this type of testing a requirement. MSA welcomes this move, as we have been conducting representative testing since we first designed the Latchways Constant Force Post (MSA’s engineered system) 20 years ago.

Changes in recent years

Construction capabilities have grown massively in the past five years, so we’re seeing a lot of different structures. Curved and uniquely shaped buildings, for example, come with differing needs for fall protection. These often-complex structures can put even more of an impetus on the quality of both the height safety system itself and its installation, which is why it’s vital to partner with reputable organisations, including manufacturers, training providers and installers. 

There’s also been a growth in the range of systems available, so it’s important to understand the different offerings. The priority must always be to select the proper fit for the unique application, rather than selecting on cost alone. That said, Europe has and continues to drive full protection in terms of standards and regulations. Generally speaking, the rest of the world looks to Europe as a leading example.

Key points to remember

Understand clearly what is required of the engineered system so that the right equipment can be chosen, and accurate system designs implemented. Make sure that the system has been tested to and meets the very latest standards. Principal designers, specifiers, contractors, and others in the fall protection chain should, as far as possible, insist that the very best height safety specification is stuck with and not changed for an option that may not perform as well or be as well suited to the application.

Andrew Pass

Global engineering manager for fall protection engineered systems

MSA Safety