Working at height is defined as any workplace activity conducted at, above, or below ground level, where there is a risk of a person being injured falling from any height. Falls from working at height are one of the biggest causes of workplace fatalities and major injuries.
In addition to falling from height to ground level (or below), working at height can also encompass falls into holes or pits, tanks, or machinery. Access and egress to a workplace could also constitute working at height.
In addition to the fall itself, other hazards associated with working at height include falling objects, contact with overhead electrical services, platform collapse, falling into a hazardous substance, machinery or the path of a moving vehicle.
Planning your Working at Height Activity
Working at height needs careful planning in advance, with consideration given to the selection and use of work equipment, and the establishment of a plan and means of escape in the event of an emergency. Consider the below as a minimum:
- Can the work at height be avoided? For example, can the task be undertaken from ground level? Examples include installing cables at ground level or using extendable tools instead of working at height.
- If the work cannot be avoided, ensure that it will be adequately planned, risk assessed, organised and supervised.
- Ensure the proper selection, provision, inspection and maintenance of the most appropriate equipment to both prevent a fall from occurring and also minimise the distance and consequences of any potential fall.
- Ensure that persons undertaking working at height are trained and competent for their work activities.
- Ensure that adequate information, instruction, supervision and training is provided.
- Ensure that emergency procedures are in place which include a rescue plan, to deal with any potential working at height emergency.
The planning must also include risk assessments in which the company should assess the working at height activity and the hazards arising from the activity, then implement effective control measures to reduce the exposure of persons to risk.
“working at height needs careful planning including means of escape in the event of an emergency”
The company should ensure that no person engages in any activity, which includes organising, planning and supervising, in relation to working at height or the use of working at height equipment unless they are competent, or, if being trained, are supervised by a competent person.
Beginning your Working at Height Activity
Where working at height cannot be avoided, an existing safe place of work should be used. The workplace and its means of access or egress should:
- Be stable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for the purpose
- Rest on surfaces that are stable and of a suitable strength
- Be of a sufficient size to allow the safe use of persons, plant and material
- Be constructed, used and maintained to prevent the risks of slipping, tripping or any person being trapped between it and any adjacent structure
- Have suitable means for preventing a fall in place
Where there is no suitable existing safe place to work from, work equipment or other measures to prevent falls should be provided.
“where there is no existing safe place to work from, work equipment to prevent falls should be provided”
Selecting the Right Equipment
Working at height equipment includes any equipment that is specifically designed to allow persons to work at height safely. The company must ensure that working platforms are stable, suitable and of sufficient strength and rigidity for the intended purpose.
The company must also ensure when determining the type of equipment to choose, they consider factors including:
- The nature, frequency and duration of the work equipment use
- The height of the job
- The load on the equipment
- Whether there is level ground available to use at the work site
- Are there any obstructions?
- What is the available space?
- What are the working conditions?
- What would be the potential distance of a fall and the potential nature of an injury?
- What training would be required for the work equipment?
Types of Working at Height Equipment
Scaffold – Is a temporary structure or working platform, used to support an employee and materials. Scaffolds are widely used on site to give access to heights and areas that would be otherwise hard to access.
Mobile scaffold or tower scaffold – Is a temporary structure or working platform which is quick to erect, light, can be moved into place and secured. They provide vertical access and are usually at a fixed height once erected with a steady platform and protective guardrails.
Mobile Elevated Working Platform (MEWP) – Is a powered working platform, designed to help people carry out working at height activities in a safe manner.
Ladders – There are many types and sizes of ladders including portable, suspended, step, interlocking, extension, mobile and fixed ladders. They should only be used for activities of a short duration and where work is light and low risk.
Stepladders – Stepladders are a ladder that has wide, flat steps and two pairs of legs which are connected at the top and that opens at the bottom so that it can stand independently without being attached to or supported by something else.
Suspended Access Cradles and Platforms – A suspended access system includes a working platform or cradle and a means of raising and lowering it from a roof rig.
Rope Access – Allows workers to access difficult to reach locations without the use of scaffolding, cradles or an aerial work platform.
“an emergency response plan must be in place which includes the deployment of a rapid and effective trained rescue team”
Personal Fall Protection Systems
Where the risk of falls cannot be prevented, measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall need to be provided. Personal fall protection systems comprise of either fall restraint/prevention or fall arrest systems. They do not stop people from falling, but minimise any potential injuries should a fall occur.
Fall Restraint/Prevention Systems – These use a body holding device connected to a reliable anchor. An example of a fall restraint system is a lanyard tied off at a set length from a weighted tie off point.
Fall Arrest System – These also use a body holding device connected to a reliable anchor. They arrest and restrict a fall by preventing the user from hitting the ground, structure or surface. An example of fall arrest system is the use of a safety harness.
Concerns to be mindful of when using personal fall protection systems include:
- In the hierarchy of controls, fall restraint is preferable to fall arrest.
- Training must be provided for all employees using fall protection.
- An emergency response plan must be in place which includes the deployment of a rapid and effective trained rescue team trained in first aid response, utilising suitable rescue equipment necessary to retrieve persons for whom a delay in rescue may have severe consequences.
– Persons using fall arrest systems may experience suspension trauma. This is an effect which occurs when the human body is held upright without any movement for a period of time. This may lead to a state of unconsciousness, and dependant on the length of time that the suspended worker is unconscious or immobile and the amount of venous pooling, the resulting orthostatic intolerance may lead to death
- The fall protection system must be suitably secured and attached to at least one anchor, for each anchor the means of attachment must be of sufficient strength and stability.
Guard Rail Systems
Guard rails may be required to make safe a work platform or other place of work by preventing falls. This applies to all guard rails, whether they are permanent structures or work equipment. The company must ensure that guard rails are used on the edge of the following:
- Openings in floors or edges of roof structures
- Shafts or excavations
- Fragile surfaces
- Working platforms, walkways, landings, stairs or ramps
Where persons are working at height in a place that is protected by guard rails, the rails should not allow them to fall over, under or between them.
It may be necessary, in certain circumstances, to remove guard rails, fencing and other means of protection for short periods. The company should ensure that this only occurs:
- When persons are not working at height unless another safeguard is in place, for example, a safety net
- For the specific necessary period of time for the work activity only before the barrier is replaced
Control measures to protect employees while work activities are carried out could include safe systems of work or permit to work systems. The control measures could also include the provision of a fall protection system, limiting access to specific people and ensuring that those performing the work activity are provided with adequate information, training and supervision. If regular access or egress is required, it may be suitable to provide gates on the guard rail. In all cases, the gap in the protection should be minimised and closed immediately when the work activity has finished.
Collective safeguards for arresting falls include nets, mats and inflated devices which are designed to catch a falling person.
Safeguards may need to be anchored to prevent movement as per the manufacturer’s manual. If there are gaps in the supports for collective safeguards which could compromise safety, these should be filled or covered. Specific consideration of rescue procedures and the effects of landing should be considered prior to work activities beginning.
Collective safeguards can only be used where:
- A risk assessment has taken place and demonstrated that the work activity can be performed safely while using it
- The use of other, safer, work equipment is not practical
- The safeguard is suitable as regards to the work being conducted and is also of a sufficient strength to safely arrest the fall of a person or subsequent rescue
- That the safeguard used is stable
- Any safeguard that is designed to be attached is securely attached to all requited anchors, and that those means of attachment are suitably stable with sufficient strength to support the foreseeable loading of arresting any fall or subsequent rescue
- The safeguard used affords sufficient clearance
- An adequate number of employees are available to assist with all aspects of the safeguard operation and have received adequate training, including on rescue procedures
- Suitable and sufficient steps have been taken to ensure that the safeguard itself does not cause injury to any person
Where a collective safeguard is designed to be suspended and requires a clear zone in which to deflect, that zone should be kept clear of all obstructions to allow the safeguard to operate properly.
Where the design of a collective safeguard requires an external power source such as a pump for an air bag, or restraints such as brickwork to enclose the air bag to make it effective, these power sources or restraints must be sufficient to maintain the effectiveness of the equipment in the event of a fall and rescue.
Consideration must be given to the safety of people who could work or pass beneath the working at height activity, particularly from falling objects that could cause injury, such as toe boards or sheeting on scaffolding. Chutes may be used to control the transport of materials and waste from a height to a safe location.
Measures must also be taken to close off areas and prevent unauthorised access. The effectiveness of these measures will depend on the material and tools that are being used and the effect that weather, wind or other factors may have in creating a more widespread hazard.
“there is much to consider prior to the commencement of working at height activities”
The risk of falling materials causing injury can be minimised by keeping workplaces at height clear of loose materials and stacking or storing materials away from edges and in a manner likely to prevent falls such as via the use of a suitable racking system. Sheets of plywood, insulation and decking should be secured and ways of preventing objects rolling or being kicked off the edge utilises, these may include the use of toe boards or solid barriers.
Companies should be aware of the additional risk of persons or objects falling through fragile roofs, ceilings and skylights. These surfaces may be either close to or part of the structure on which work activities are being conducted and may also include vertical or inclined surfaces.
Any surface from which working at height is carried out must be strong and stable enough so that any foreseeable loads placed on it will not lead to its collapse.
It is also vital to consider the dynamic forces of the person falling from height onto the surface and the effect of ageing on the surface material and the deterioration caused by weather, environment, impact and any structural alterations.
If the work requires regular or occasional access where there is a fragile surface, permanent fencing, guards or other measures to prevent falls should be in place. Where a risk of falls remains, fall protection equipment is required.
Suitable Personal Protective Equipment should be provided by the company, which include:
- Safety helmets including chin straps to prevent the head protection from falling off
- Safety footwear which suitably protect feet and provide good grip
- The risk assessment should identify any other necessary personal protective equipment requirement
Inspection and Maintenance of Equipment
The nature, frequency and extent of inspections should be determined, taking into account factors such as the type of equipment, how and where it is used and the likelihood of deterioration. Periods between inspections should be decided based on the risk assessment, the type of equipment and the manufacturer’s manual specifications.
At a minimum, all work at height equipment, including accessories and personal protective equipment should be inspected:
- Before each use
- After each re-installation
- After any event that could affect equipment, such as adverse weather
- At specific pre-determined intervals which include a thorough examination
Records must be kept and retained of all inspection and maintenance of working at height equipment.
Training for Working at Height
Companies should ensure that all persons involved in working at height activities are adequately trained in both the language and the format that they will understand. This should include:
- Those responsible for working at height risk assessment
- Those responsible for the selection of working at height equipment
- Those undertaking working at height
- Those supervising persons working at height
- Those who may undertake rescue operations and respond to emergencies
- Operators of working at height equipment
Specific training must also be provided as regards safe working at height equipment, dependent on the type of equipment. This would also include:
- The use of fall protection systems
- The use of scaffolding, mobile elevating work platforms, mobile towers, ladders, etc.
- Awareness training on specific working at height hazards identified during the risk assessment
Periodic refresher training should also be conducted to ensure employees competency. This would include:
- Where previous training certification has expired
- Where identified during a training needs analysis
- Where the risk assessment findings identify training as a measure to aid the control of risks
- Where there is a change in legal requirements
- Where any incident investigation recommends refresher training
Records must be kept and retained of all training as regards to working at height.
Emergency Preparedness and Response
Companies should be prepared for all emergencies that may occur during working at height activities. Due to the increased risks from working at height the company must have plan in place which details what to do in the event of an emergency occurring and how to respond to that emergency.
Considerations to include when developing your emergency plan include:
- Details on how to affect a rapid and effective rescue in the event of persons working at height activating fall protection systems
- The availability of rescue equipment to retrieve any fallen persons without delay
- The provision of first aid response to persons who may have been rescued from height to prevent suspension trauma
- The appointment of emergency personnel who can take charge, make decisions on behalf of the company and liaise with emergency services
- That employees are trained in emergency response which includes first aid arrangements and the locations of first aiders and first aid equipment
- That employees appointed as first-aiders are available at each location and on each working shift
The above article outlines that there is much to be considered and planning to undertake prior to the commencement of working at height activities. Risk assessments, identification of additional hazards, the selection of appropriate equipment and the methods in which they are to be utilised, and employee training. Further consideration must also be made of working conditions such as the weather and the nature, frequency and duration of the work.
In addition to the consideration of the safety of the employee, risks to the safety of everyone around the working at height area must also be taken into account. Lastly, it is essential that any potential emergency is fully prepared for, and a suitable response plan is in place.