The Height of Good Sense

More than 4000 people a year in the UK suffer major injuries from falls while working at height and it is a major cause of workplace death. While the majority of these incidents occur in construction, other sectors of employment are also affected.

Most of the major injuries are associated with falls of less than two metres. The practice of working at height is also risky for those who might be standing below, through objects such as tools being dropped onto them and causing injury.

The Work at Height Regulations (2005) state that employers have a duty to assess the risks, plan, and supervise all workers who work at height. The Regulations require all employers to ensure that any task which is to be carried out at height has been properly planned, is fully supervised and that it is only carried out by those who are competent to do the work. They must also ensure that operatives receive thorough instructions and training, and that they are given all the necessary information required in order to carry out their tasks. The Regulations cover everything from how workers access working at height to how they and their tools are prevented from falling to the ground.

It is essential that appropriate work equipment is selected and used and that people working at a height are competent to do so. Equipment used for work at height must be properly inspected and maintained, while risks from fragile surfaces must be properly controlled. Work must be planned, organised, supervised, and carried out by competent persons, using the following steps:

Avoid

Wherever it is possible, work at height should be avoided if there is a risk of serious injury associated with the work. Can components or structures be brought to ground level or to a safe space for repair or maintenance, rather than working on them at height?

Prevention of falls

Clearly, the risk of falls is the greatest hazard associated with working at height. Both the worker above ground level and those below could be injured in the event of a fall, so preventative measures must be implemented where working at height cannot be avoided. Guard rails on scaffolding or mezzanine levels are an obvious solution, but in other situations harnesses and fall arrest systems may be appropriate as an extra control measure, particularly if the job at hand involves a lot of movement; is particularly high; or where the weather conditions are extreme.

Mitigate falls

In some situations, the risk of a fall cannot be eliminated entirely even when correct preventative measures including guard rails and personal protective equipment (PPE) is used. In such cases, it is vital to minimise the danger and consequences of a fall to both the individual working at height and those below. Minimising the distance of a potential fall is one preventative measure which can be implemented, as well as enforcing an exclusion zone on the ground to safeguard employees from being injured by falls from above.

Training and awareness

In addition to all the above actions, health & safety guidelines recommend erring on the side of caution and taking additional measures to contribute to fall prevention if it is not reasonably practicable to avoid. This may include additional instruction and training for employees on safe working practices at height and the correct use of PPE and safety apparatus, the demarcation of edges with painted lines, and fostering a safe culture in which employees are encouraged to identify instances of colleagues working unsafely and report them immediately.

Protect those on the ground

As well as the risk of falls, dropped tools or equipment can pose a serious risk of injury to workers and individuals on the ground or on levels below. It is therefore recommended that protection schemes to prevent injuries to people below from dropped tools are set up — including securing all tools from falling and taking every precaution underneath workers to prevent any objects that are dropped from falling on those standing below (a claw hammer dropped from 6m is the equivalent of being dropped from the second floor of a building, attaining 24 mph/39kph on impact with an impact weight of 117kgs). If the workplace contains an area in which there is a risk of someone being struck by a falling object or person, ensure that the area is clearly indicated and that, as far as is reasonably practicable, unauthorised people are unable to access it.

For those who do not work at height very often or are unsure about which type of access equipment to use, it is important that the risks are assessed and the right equipment for the job is selected:

  • If it is a light duty task that will take less than 30 minutes and the task can be completed mostly with one hand, or temporary access to a fixed working platform is needed, a ladder, step ladder or combination ladder may be appropriate
  • If the task is less than 3.8m high and two hands are needed to complete the job, a podium step or folding platform may be required
  • For tasks above 3.8m or which need access in the same place for an extended period, a prefabricated scaffold tower may be suitable
  • If the work comprises several tasks up to 15.9m high and not all in the same place, the best solution may be a MEWP (Mobile Elevated Work Platform), cherry-picker or powered access equipment
  • For longer duration work at height in a fully guard-railed work zone with a larger work area and work load capacity, towers may be needed.

The overriding criteria when selecting equipment for work at height are: specify and use the most suitable equipment, with training provided if required; give collective protection measures (e.g. guard rails) priority over personal protection measures (e.g. safety harnesses and fall arrest systems); and take account of the working conditions and risks to the safety of all those in the vicinity of where work equipment is to be used.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work at height where there is a risk of a fall which is liable to cause personal injury.

It places duties on employers, the self-employed, and any person who controls the work of others (e.g. facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height) to the extent they control the work.

It is the responsibility of all companies involved in working at height to know the law surrounding worker safety and dropped objects, and to follow it accordingly.

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Source: Reference guide to the British Safety Industry 2016