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Great Heights For Safety

Published: 19th Dec 2012

Reducing hazards across industries and continents, David Ackerley looks at the campaigns and regulations seeking to improve work at height safety.

Falls from height remain the most common cause of workplace fatalities, despite awareness campaigns, regulations and innovations that impress upon employers the importance of providing proper protection for their workforce.

The human and financial toll can be severe for any company failing to protect a worker against falling from height. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) classifies work at height as high risk work and, by law, employers must put the proper measures in place to protect staff, by operating safe systems of working with appropriate control measures.

Workplace injuries represent nearly a quarter of all workplace deaths in the UK. Between 2008 and 2009 - in the UK alone - there were 35 fatalities and 4,654 major injuries as a result of falls from height, many of which included fractured skulls and broken legs. It is a myth that these injuries always happen from ‘up high’ as many people experience injuries from falls below head height.

Typically, those working in the construction industry tend to suffer falls from height more often than workers in other trades, with more than six of every ten deaths occurring in this sector.

Any worker may have to work at height, from window cleaners, roof workers and tree surgeons, to office workers, teachers and librarians. While many employees find the equipment and regulations surrounding work at height daunting, there are tools and guidance available to make the process relatively simple and even failsafe.

What the law says

The UK’s Work at Height Regulations 2005 and the Work at Height (Amendment) Regulations 2007 cover this area. They provide a good blueprint for many organisations looking to learn how to protect their staff, with the message that anyone with control over work at height must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent workers from falling.

The regulations define work at height as “Work in any place, including a place at or below ground level, or where access or exit is via another means other than a permanent staircase, where someone could be caused injury from falling.” With this in mind, any movement away from the floor should be considered as work at height, and the control measures should be proportionate to the risk created.

For work at height which is not simple or low risk work, employers and those in control of workplaces - including construction sites - must have a formal authorisation procedure. This means a risk assessment must be documented and all safety precautions must be put in place by employees and contractors before the work at height starts. Known as a ‘permit to work system’, this is a formal, written way of controlling work that is potentially hazardous.

In the UK, where preventing falls and falling objects is concerned, the Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1996 cover guardrails, working platforms, ladders, personal suspension and fall arrest equipment. When considering which nonslip footwear or harnesses to select, the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 are a good place to start.

Companies which have experienced accidents at height have been prosecuted under the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998.

What the law means

Regulations dictate that any work at height is properly planned, organised and supervised, with everyone involved reaching a level of competency and training.

Any risks must be properly assessed, the right work equipment used and correct procedures put in place, such as for when working on a fragile thin roof, or to prepare for adverse weather conditions.

Planning must include arrangements for rescues and emergencies as well as access for work at height, including fall prevention, such as guardrails; fall arrest equipment, such as nets and airbags; and personal fall protection, such as work restraints, ladders and stepladders.

Action to take

Responsibility to protect workers does not just fall to employers, but to anyone in control of work at height. Companies are responsible for the safety of contractors and workers in the sense that they must check competence, agree a method of working and monitor work periodically.

For direct employees, bosses have the strict responsibility for their training and supervision. Even non-employers such as property developers, landlords, representatives of charities and others controlling the premises are subject to these rules.

Anyone carrying out work at height also has a responsibility to follow the instruction and training they’ve been given and to report issues which might put their safety - or anyone else’s - at risk.

Risk controlling principles

There is a hierarchy of controls that should be explored to find the best ways to reduce the risks of working at height.

Those nearer the top of the hierarchy are always the better options; however, a combination of methods works best.

Employers should always try to eliminate or reduce risk first, by removing or dramatically reducing work at height.

Prevention and reduction should come before controlling risk using operating procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE), as these last two options always carry with them the potential for human error.

A job should not be done at height if it can be done on the ground. At the design stage, the layout of a building or the way a construction job is being mapped out can remove the need for this type of work.

If eliminating work at height altogether is not possible, an employer should try to find an existing safe place of work from which a task can be carried out. Creating a temporary area with guardrails around a roof, or providing a correctly constructed scaffold will dramatically reduce risk.

In the UK, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 dictate that employers must provide sufficient work equipment to minimise both the distance from the ground and the severity of a fall’s consequences. This might mean installing control measures such as safety nets, fall arrest systems or airbags.

To prevent or reduce the risk of harm, a suite of measures should be considered before using PPE, such as physical protective measures. It might be that risk is minimised by reducing the time spent at height, such as by using long-life light bulbs which will need replacing less often, carrying out several maintenance jobs at once or using a scaffold for bigger jobs.

Before working at height, employees must have adequate training and instruction in this area. Regulations state that “Every employer shall ensure that no person engages in any activity, including organisation, planning and supervision, in relation to work at height or work equipment for use in such work, unless he is competent to do so, or, if being trained, is being supervised by a competent person.”

Injuries and issues relating to ill health can mean expensive legal bills, poor efficiency and increased lost time due to sick leave - a factor which in itself states the case for good health and safety.

How much protection

As previously mentioned, the best way to avoid injuries and fatalities from work at height is to eliminate or avoid the need for being at height altogether.

Many window cleaners have moved to systems which allow them to reach first story windows from the ground with extendable poles, eliminating the need for ladders or more expensive reaching equipment.

In many music and theatre venues, lighting rigs that can be lowered using a pulley system are now installed. This negates the need to climb ladders to reach them, making changing bulbs and filters a much safer task.

If elimination is not possible, some equipment will be needed to make the working environment safe. A simple checklist will help to determine the type of task, the risk and the method of overcoming it.

Employers need to consider:

• The height at which work is to be carried out

• How much horizontal or vertical movement will be needed to complete the task

• How long the task will take

• How many people will be working on the task

• Whether heavy or awkward loads need carrying

• Whether staff will be stretching or reaching during the work

• What terrain the equipment will stand on - whether it is dry or muddy, level or uneven, clear or covered in gravel or other materials

• Whether there are obstacles to straddle or avoid

• The weather conditions workers may face

• Whether there are access issues

• Whether staff are competent and qualified to erect, use and dismantle equipment safely

When installing equipment, it must be ensured that:

• Working platforms are safe and secure

• Guardrails or barriers are provided to prevent falls from open edges

• Risk assessments are carried out to cover all work at height activities

• Fall prevention is provided where other prevention is impractical

• Risks when erecting and dismantling equipment are managed

A safe system of work must be in place to ensure that everything from preparation to completion is covered, including safe routes to and from the work areas, equipment suitability, staff competency and supervision.

Specific regulations

There are a number of ways to protect workers and comply with the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which states that falls should be prevented as far as is reasonably practicable.

A risk assessment helps decision making regarding which equipment to use. Scaffolding is common, but modern building designs require more flexibility from protective equipment, such as provided by mobile work platforms, tower scaffolds, mast platforms, or person lifting cages.

Working platforms and other means of access are always preferable to fall arrest equipment. The former must include guardrails and toe boards, and if the work is short term a tower scaffold or mobile elevating work platform (MEWP) may be appropriate.

If a platform is not possible, other rope access techniques should be selected in preference to fall arrest equipment; however, harnesses and nets should not be a first option as they will only protect the person if they fall. Step ladders and ladders are only appropriate for working across short timescales, and only if the risk assessment proves that the work is low risk.

Working platforms

A working platform is anything which supports those who are standing while working, such as a scaffold, MEWP or cradle. It must be at least 600mm wide to allow workers to pass each other, and the size must increase if items are stored on the platform. It is also crucial that working platform supports are on stable ground and are sufficiently strong to support the load.

Those controlling risk must make sure that the platforms have no slip or trip hazards, with workers protected from and warned of any openings. Those responsible must also prevent anything from falling onto people below where workers and the public may pass. Here, tighter levels of safety are required and specified materials must be used as a barrier of extra protection to catch any falling objects.

Guardrails and toeboards

By law, any barrier must be rigid, stable, securely fixed and of a minimum height of 950mm. Because of the nature of work, intermediate barriers and guardrails must exist to prevent anyone falling when they bend, stoop or kneel. These must not exceed 470mm, while toeboards must be at least 150mm high to prevent material or debris falling from the platform. Any material stored above toeboard level should also be protected by a barrier.

The law does not state what material must be used for these, only that it must be fit for purpose and able to withstand the load it will have to bear.


Each ladder or step ladder is designed with a particular use and maximum load in mind and can be made from wood, aluminium, fibreglass or other materials.

To prevent ladders slipping at the base or toppling sideways they should be tied or clamped in place when in use. The surface the ladder stands on should be stable and level, and at the top the material the ladder is resting on should be strong enough to support it. As a guide, ladders should be placed one metre out from the wall for every four metres in height of the ladder itself. Workers should only carry minimal items up a ladder, taking care not to stretch too far sideways so as to avoid toppling.

Regular inspections should ward against defects that might cause an accident.

Mobile work platforms

MEWPs, cradles and mast platforms all fall into the same bracket and require competent, experienced and trained users.

The standard of training necessary for using this equipment is high and includes emergency and evacuation procedures in case of mechanical failure. The operator must have an approved training certificate, as an explanation from the hire company is unlikely to be enough.

This equipment provides a safe means of access, particularly if the work is temporary and only necessary for a short timescale. The ground it is placed on must be firm and level, with stability ensured through thorough checks. Some equipment features outriggers which must be fully extended and locked before the MEWP is used and raised. It is also important to be aware of any poor weather conditions and overhead obstructions, especially from electricity cables. The area below the work platform must be kept clear of workers with barriers and signs.

Those platforms elevated by a mast will usually be used on a high-rise building or structure for refurbishment, cladding or repair jobs. They usually take three forms of equipment: a mast that supports a platform, a platform that supports people and equipment, and a chassis that supports the tower or mast.

Only trained workers should put up and take apart this type of equipment, and the safe working load allowed should be made very clear. It must be guarded at both ground level and platform level, and guardrails and toeboards must again be put in place.

Suspended access equipment

Suspended access equipment includes working platforms and cradles which can be raised or lowered when suspended from a roof mounted assembly. It should only be installed by competent, trained personnel, with supervisors and operators trained to make sure equipment is used safely.

When in use, the maximum load must be made clear, with regular inspections, maintenance and weather taken into consideration. Protection should be provided against objects falling if people are able to pass below, and before using the equipment a check of the counterweights and fixings must always be made.

Personal suspension equipment

Personal suspension equipment carries with it a great risk and so a specific risk assessment must be conducted, paying close attention to rescue and emergency procedures.

One form of personal suspension equipment is a boatswain’s chair, which is a seat that can be raised or lowered using a suspension system. It should only be used for a short duration and when other methods are impossible. Rope Access or abseiling equipment is used by specialists to access places which would be very difficult or expensive to reach by any other means. This is only used for short timescales.

A risk assessment should consider if the equipment is suitable, strong and fit for purpose, and that it is checked before use as well as being attached to a strong and stable structure.

Fall arrest equipment

This type of equipment must be properly inspected and tested by an independent, competent person every three to six months. Suitable records must be kept to prove the tests have been carried out.

Any equipment deemed unacceptable must not be used until corrected, and must either be returned to the manufacturer for testing or destroyed. It can be called ‘unacceptable’ if it has not been tested within the last six months, if unique identification is not visible, if the manufacturing standard marked on the label is the old standard, or if it is thought to be defective.

British standards that apply to fall arrest equipment cover maintenance, periodic examination, repair, method of testing, packaging, and instructions for use.

Increasing awareness

In recent years there have been many campaigns - both in the UK and internationally - to improve awareness of employers’ duties to provide safe systems for protecting those working at height.

In 2006, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) ran its own ‘Height Aware’ campaign. This improved employers’ perceptions of the possible injuries that could occur from a fall from under one metre. People who viewed the campaign said they were more likely to think about the risks of working at height after being made more aware.

The UK statistics mentioned earlier highlight a need for further improvement. This is also true of the Middle East, where in Abu Dhabi, in May 2012, it was revealed that falls from height and falling objects were the biggest cause of worker deaths, with 53 lives lost in 2011.

Aiming to change this, health authorities in Abu Dhabi, such as the Abu Dhabi Emirate Environment, Health and Safety Management System and the Abu Dhabi EHS Center are working together on the campaign ‘Height Aware - Working Safely at Height’.

The programme of free resources for business owners, health and safety professionals and workers aims to raise awareness of the dangers of working at height, as well as the injuries that falling objects can cause.

Campaigns certainly play an important role in raising awareness. Together with awareness raised through education and improved help for employees to more clearly understand their responsibilities, these will help to reduce falls from height.

The Vice Chair of the IOSH Construction Group, Bob Arnold of Brookfield Multiplex, will be giving a talk at the 2nd Middle East OHS Strategy Summit in Abu Dhabi in February 2013. - this is another event that may be of interest to readers.

Published: 19th Dec 2012 in Health and Safety Middle East

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David Ackerley