Working at height and ergonomics

Working at height and ergonomics

Many risks can be identified if you use an “ergonomic lens” to look at various work environments, from office spaces to employees hanging from a high-rise.

In 2019, the South African government published its first regulations for ergonomics, including the following definition: “Ergonomics means the scientific discipline concerned with the fundamental understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.”

In layman’s terms, this means that ergonomics ensures that the design of products, processes, and systems best meets the needs of the people involved. When considered correctly, an ergonomic approach aims to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance the safety and comfort of the working environment.

There are many risks that can be identified, and therefore avoided, when taking an ergonomic approach. These include:

  • Workers operating in awkward or static positions.
  • Tasks that involve repetitive movements, overreaching, pushing/pulling, and manual lifting.
  • Not allowing for sufficient rest breaks.
  • Environmental factors such as poor illumination, dangerous noise and vibration levels, and extreme temperatures.

So, it is easy to make the link between ergonomics and traditional office environments, but how does this impact people working at height?

Work at height considerations

Most of the risks mentioned may also be relevant to a person working at height. A worker could, for example, be in an awkward or static position for a long period of time. This can cause physical exhaustion, muscle cramps or pains, and fatigue. These can all be dangerous as they may result in a fall, leading to severe injury or even death.

An additional issue specific to working at height is suspension trauma (also known as harness hang syndrome, suspension syndrome, or suspension syncope). If a worker falls and is held upright and motionless in a harness for an extended period, they will eventually faint. When in this position they risk cerebral hypoxia (brain damage) due to insufficient circulation of oxygenated blood.

With all of this in mind, ergonomics regulations must therefore be applied and risk-assessed when operations are planned. Considerations may include:

  • Limiting shifts to between two and three hours, depending on the scope of work.
  • Ensuring that workers stay well-hydrated and avoid working at extreme temperatures.
  • Using a work positioning lanyard to allow the hands to move freely and comfortably.
  • Ensuring that the right equipment is being used and that it has sufficient padding so that it is comfortable over long periods of time.
  • Ensuring that workers are trained and familiar with their equipment.
  • Encouraging stretching before and after work to prevent muscle cramps.

Need to know more?

BOVA Safety Wear has a wide range of tested and certified fall protection equipment, proudly manufactured in South Africa. For more information or to find the right fall protection equipment for your needs, visit 

Be safe out there!

Published by

Ruaan Breedt

Ruaan Breedt is the working at height and fall protection specialist at BBF Safety Group. He has completed the following training and obtained accreditation for: Production efficiencies & ISO 9001:2015 auditor; fall arrest level 1, 2 and 3; confined space entry, exit and rescue; and is a fall arrest equipment testing specialist. He is a SABS technical committee member; SABS ISO mirror committee technical member; and fall arrest and rope access chamber member.
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