Falls from height remain one of the biggest causes of workplace fatalities and major injuries. This could be anything from over-reaching or over-balancing to falls into inspection pits or holes, and falls from machinery, scaffolding or into tanks.

Other possible injuries related to working at height include falling objects, the potential for a working platform to fail or collision with overhead cables and services.

Work at height includes work where, if no precautions are in place, a worker or person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.

Construction and maintenance workers are at particular risk, but so are workers in a variety of other occupations such as painters, decorators, electricians and window cleaners, to name a few.

Whatever the occupation, any work at height should be carefully planned, with consideration being given to the selection and use of equipment and means of escape in an emergency.

As an employer, you are expected to protect your employees under the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

Can it be avoided?

Sometimes working at height can be avoided or the risk mitigated, for example by using a platform with suitable edge protection, and if possible, this should always be the first choice. However, it is not always possible and in certain situations, a ladder may need to be used but only when all other safer options have been ruled out.

It is worth noting that ladders should preferably be used as a means of gaining access to a safe place to carry out the work rather than for carrying out the work itself. They should only be used for a short duration and only after all the relevant risk assessments, checks and planning have been undertaken.

The hierarchy of control measures

When planning any activities which may involve working at height, the following hierarchy of control measures should be considered:

  • Avoidance where possible, of working at height
  • Working from an existing place of work, or using an existing means of access and egress
  • Provision of suitable work equipment to prevent a fall occurring, e.g. edge protection
  • Provision of work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, e.g. fall arrest systems
  • Instruction and training and/or other means

When working at height is unavoidable

When working at height is unavoidable, an existing safe place of work should be used. These workplaces (including access and egress) should:

  • Have suitable means for preventing a fall
  • Be stable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for their purpose
  • Be founded on stable and suitably strong surfaces
  • Be of adequate size to allow safe use for persons, plant and material
  • Have a surface which has no gap through which a person or material could fall and cause injury
  • Be constructed, used and maintained to prevent the risks of slipping, tripping or any person being trapped between them and any adjacent structure

Selection Tools

When selecting equipment and tools for working at height it should be strong enough for the work and any loads placed on it. Any tools selected to prevent falls should be given priority to collective measures over personal protection.

Should the risk of falls not be preventable, work equipment and other measures should be provided to minimise the distance fallen and any consequences of a fall, for example, safety netting or fall arrest systems.

While these tools won’t stop people from falling, it will minimise any potential injuries should they fall.

The Health and Safety Executive have a great selection guide available https://www.hse.gov.uk/work-at-height/step-by-step-guide.pdf

Watch out below!!

Protection from falling objects should also be given consideration to ensure the safety of anyone who works or passes below someone working at height.

The first step is to prevent any falling objects, however, where this isn’t feasible subsequent measures should be implemented to ensure that falling objects don’t cause injury (or worse) to people below. Barriers, signs and chutes are all examples of how the risk of injury from falling objects can be minimised.

The Right Equipment

Choosing the right equipment for the task at hand begins long before work begins on site. Consideration should be given not only to the work to be done but also to working conditions such as the weather, location and nature of the work to be carried out. The associated risks also need to be taken into account.

Choosing the right working at height equipment is based on all of the above criteria and there are several options available.

Powered vertical lifts, also known as “Scissor Lifts and Cherry Pickers” are designed to be used in a variety of locations and can be raised to the appropriate height to allow a safe working platform with a guardrail.

Another option is a suspended access system or cradle which is lowered and raised from a roofing rig. Some of these systems can also travel laterally along the side of the structure. The cradles are generally raised and lowered using a manual pulley block or powered winch.

Use of ladders

In 2018/2019 147 workers were killed in a work-related accident and 40 of these deaths were due to a fall from height. Accidents usually occur because the ladder is not properly secured because the work was of short duration. Over-reaching or overbalancing are also common reasons for falls/accidents occurring.

Further reading