What is working at height? ‘It is a place of work where a person may be injured falling from it, even if the place of work is at or below ground level’

Best practice requires employers and others who control work activities to ensure:

  • All work at height is properly planned and organised
  • Those involved in work at height are competent
  • The risks from work at height are assessed and appropriate work equipment is selected and used
  • The risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled
  • Equipment for work at height is properly inspected and maintained

In considering suitable controls we must use the accepted hierarchy of controls, which states:

Emphasis must be placed on elimination of the need to work at height in the first instance. Where this is not reasonably practicable then consideration must be given to the use of:

  • Collective fall prevention (e.g. guardrails and working platforms)
  • Collective fall arrest (e.g. nets, airbags etc)
  • Personal fall protection (e.g. work restraints, fall arrest and rope access)
  • As a last resort ladders

Emergency response

Consideration must also be given to emergency response measures and the provision of resources to affect the rescue and recovery of personnel in the event of an emergency. The selection of the correct equipment, not only for work purposes but also for rescue, will be paramount in the overall planning and management of the work. Any work at height needs to be planned in advance of the work activity, with careful consideration given to the selection and use of work equipment.

The safe system of work needs to take account of:

  • Supervision levels of workers that may be necessary, e.g. work equipment selected lower down the hierarchy of control, such as fall arrest equipment, will require a higher level of supervision
  • Weather conditions that workers may be exposed to, e.g. carrying out maintenance in high winds, extreme temperatures high levels of UV,?slippery surfaces
  • Emergency or rescue procedures that may be required, e.g. if persons fall while using a fall arrest system. It is not acceptable just to rely on the emergency services, it needs to be covered in the risk assessment and planned prior to the work activity being carried out. For example, how will an unconscious person be rescued after having fallen into a net? How will a person be rescued after having fallen in a fall-arrest harness? You may need to consider the use of a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP), ladder or tower to undertake a rescue
  • Equipment is carefully selected – consider working conditions, working height, distance and consequences of a fall, duration and frequency of use
  • The risks from fragile surfaces (roof lights, asbestos roofs etc) are identified and properly controlled
  • Any equipment used is properly inspected and maintained
  • Prevention of injuries as a result of falling objects

We must consider the motivators for improving how we undertake our working at height activities and note that they are loosely based on the norms of:

Humane – The effects on our staff, their families and others

  • As humans we don’t willingly wish to hurt our fellow human being
  • Our wish to have a content, happier and therefore more stable workforce

Economic – The potential financial losses from

  • Loss of reputation, with potential effect on share value, loss of existing contracts and future tender opportunities
  • Accidents, lost time, damaged equipment and of course civil claims from injured workers and others
  • Contractual claims, due to lost time and production
  • Increased insurance premiums
  • Possible fines

Legal – Possible civil and criminal cases, resulting in

  • Fines
  • Imprisonment
  • Other sanctions

With the above in mind, we need to explore various techniques and good practices, which allow us to work both safely and efficiently. In fact, some of the techniques examined actually improve production, notably, the use of a pole window cleaning system, which allow such operations to be conducted safely from the ground up to 4 floors, being both safer and quicker. A double winning situation.

However, a feature of the safe system of work that must be constantly considered is that of ‘competence’ of all those involved in the working at height process.

If we consider the standard 5 steps to risk assessment approach, namely:

  • What are the hazards?
  • Who is at risk?
  • What existing controls do we have in place and what additional controls can we put in place that are reasonable and proportionate to the task and possible risk and cost analysis?
  • Record in a comprehensible fashion, making such findings accessible to all who may require them
  • Review periodically

Designing the safe system of work (SSW)

In creating and working to the SSW that results from our risk assessment, we should consider all aspects of the worker, work equipment, work?materials used and/or encountered and the workplace. Examples of what to consider concerning the work activity include the following, which we can summarise using the acronym – PEME:

  • People Their physical and mental capabilities, e.g. pregnancy and vertigo sufferers
  • Equipment To be used; scaffold, MEWP, mobile tower scaffold or ladder. Also any PPE required, suitable helmets and harnesses
  • Materials Fragile roof materials, asbestos roof materials. How will all materials be raised and lowered to the workplace at height?
  • Environment The location where the work activity is due to take place, i.e. presence of hazards such as overhead power lines, open excavations, underground services weather conditions, lighting, condition and stability of existing work surfaces

What is often forgotten, however, is the requirement for competence at all levels in the risk assessment process and, of course after when the activity is to be undertaken, the competence of the worker required to conduct the work, in this case, at a height.

Who is competent to work at height?

Competency is having the relevant skills, knowledge, ability, training and experience (SKATE), to enable a worker to identify the risks arising from a situation and the measures needed to be taken. Those undertaking a working at height activity need to be trained in the selected system of work and any particular work equipment chosen. For example if a mobile elevating work platform, MEWP, is selected then the operator must be trained in its use. If nets are used the net riggers must be trained in how to erect them safely. Managers should check that those doing the work are adequately trained.

For employees who regularly carry out work at height, e.g. roofers, it may be necessary for them to attend a formal training course on safe working procedures when at height, rather than just on-the-job training.

So that’s the big picture and general background to working at heights. Let us now consider each element of that and the competence of those required to carry out each stage of the task of working at height;

Let us now consider, what the process and duties are – and therefore what the competencies should be?

Who is a designer? Well, the simplest definition I can come up with is;

“Anyone who influences the design, programme and sequence of build and maintenance through the life-cycle or eventual demolition of a structure”.

This will obviously start with those whom we consider ‘designers’ but will also include; the client who changes their mind and wants a different colour paint on the structural steel once it’s erected, requiring those tasked erection to amend their systems of work, thus the clients ‘design change’ has significantly increased the exposure of workers to the dangers of working at height. Others who influence working at height will include those who design the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, the systems of erection, sequences and programme. So the responsibility for working at height spreads far and wide, to include far more than the initial conceptual or detail designer whom we traditionally think of as ‘the designer’.

We should require designers to design out, or at least consider and reduce the need for anyone to have to work at height. However this is usually not completely possible and we have to accept that some form of working at height is a necessity.

The next thing the designer needs to consider, and the influence they can have at all phases of the life of the building, (build, occupancy, maintenance, modification, demolition), are the problems of:

  • Type, shape, size and weight of any building materials
  • The required duration of any working at height exposure
  • Frequency of any maintenance requirements
  • Ultimate demolition sequence and process
  • Access/egress during all phases

Having carried out the initial structural design, let us now consider the later phases in the process.


At tender phase, we need to consider the competence of the principal contractor to both design safe systems of work and adequately manage those who sub-contract to them, including reviewing the sub-contractor’s method statements and risk assessments.


Within the principal contractors team we need to ensure that they have good planners and sequencers to plan for and manage the construction process and the inevitable changes to programme.

The planning process needs to also consider activities like snagging and repairs, to ensure that work carried out ‘out of sequence’ after the main works, can still be undertaken safely. This is well illustrated by an accident that I know of, involving a worker falling and resulting in him suffering severe injuries, that happened when, due to delays in delivery of the last few panels, required him to fit some missing roof glazing panels when all the primary access scaffold and edge protection had been removed.

Process management

Those charged with managing the actual build process, are the ones whom we consider ‘at fault’ when it goes wrong, as we have already seen, the problems usually start way before the first blow is struck on site. However, the workplace manager has a major role to both ensure all trades and sub-contractors have in place adequate safe systems of work designed for them.

If the process manager inherits a poor design of structure or system of work, then they are often stuck with a fete-a-compli.

I recall a recent accident involving a scaffolder who tragically fell to his death, as he was not clipped on. He had been warned several times and was on the disciplinary process of his employer. Of course, he knew better – and fell 10 metres to his death.

On later investigation, it transpired that he had been dismissed by his previous employer for refusing to use his harness! What role do supervisors and managers play in such cases?


The workplace supervisor really is ‘stuck’ with other people’s designs; however, they are the ones who often have to use major reserves of ingenuity to ‘get the job done’. The primary job of the supervisor is to monitor against the safe system of work and risk assessments. We need to ensure that our supervisors are adequately trained, competent and confident and of course supported by their managers, to stop unsafe activities.


Finally, we need to consider the worker, their competencies and skills. Additionally, we need to consider the latitude, or otherwise, that we give the worker to influence the safe systems of work and methods of work and of course their adherence to these.

Additionally, having observed many workers working at height, I have to ask the question ‘do we adequately train our workers?’

By way of example, do we train workers to check prior to use and correctly fit their harnesses? Do they really know when and where to clip on? What criteria determine the selection and use the appropriate lanyard, i.e. the one that will stop their fall before they hit the ground? Don’t forget that fall arrestors can effectively lengthen the lanyard by around a metre, so when working at less than around 3 metres, what use are they?

Emergencies – rescue

Whereas good planning, design and management should make the workplace safe, we must consider the possibility of an emergency that may require some form of rescue. Such an emergency may be a worker becoming ill, one having fallen or becoming trapped for whatever reason.

Do we put enough effort into considering rescue from height; especially with the greater heights we are building to and working at?

Can we or should we rely on the local fire and rescue department? NO! Why? No matter how quickly they arrive, it will most likely be too long. Consider a worker hanging from the 30th floor of a building by their fall arrest harness. How long before they die? Estimates range from 20 minutes to 2 hours, either way, are you willing to wait to find out? And, even if they don’t die, what will their recovery time be if they are left suspended for say 15 minutes? What other physical and/or psychological harm will have occurred?

Emergencies – first aid

After someone has fallen, even if restrained what should we do, how do we get them to recover quickly, e.g. do we lay them in the traditional recovery position or other positions to maximise their chances of complete recovery? There are many specialist-training courses in this area, which is far too complex to cover here.

Maintenance and inspection

What are the mandatory and best practice requirements for maintenance and inspection of all access and fall arrest equipment and how to comply with such requirements?


As we can see from the above, the requirement for competence at all phases of design, build, occupancy, maintenance and final demolition are paramount. Such competencies will by necessity need to ensure that all involved have suitable and sufficient: Skills, Knowledge, Ability, Training, Experience in order to carry out their functions.

Finally, the consequences of ‘getting it wrong’

So, in conclusion, why should we bother? Well, let us just review a recent court case in the UK, not from a defensive “let this be a warning to you” angle, but from a ‘would you want this on your conscience?’ viewpoint.

Bradway Construction Ltd and Apollo Cradles Ltd – Sheffield Crown Court July 2008, (as reported in the RoSPA journal September 2008).

Apollo Cradles supplied and fitted a suspended access cradle to Bradway Construction to allow them to maintain and paint a multi – storey office building in July 2003. Bradway put four men to work in the cradle and there was a failure, causing all the workers to fall 10 metres with 3 being seriously injured and one man to be thrown to his death.

The Government Principle HSE Officer present at the court had this to say:

“This is a tragic case involving four men who had never worked in a suspended access cradle before. The incident would have been avoided if Apollo Cradles Ltd had ensured the equipment it was providing was fit and safe for use. By failing to operate and effective maintenance regime and to properly examine the condition of the cradle, they betrayed the trust of the workers whose lives depended upon them”. He further stated: “Added to this, the workers were required by their employers, Bradway Construction Ltd, to carry out painting and maintenance at height in a cradle without any training or instruction as to its safe use. This is unacceptable in this day and age – all workers have the right to expect to be trained on how to use the equipment they are working with, and there is plenty of advice and guidance available to employers in the construction industry to help them meet their legal obligations”

Would you want this on your conscience? No? Well the answer is in your hands!

Published: 10th Nov 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East