Falls are the biggest cause of deaths in workplaces throughout the world. On top of this, high percentages suffer major injury such as broken bones or fractured skulls. You don’t have to fall far to be hurt, many deaths and major injuries were from a fall from below head height. It’s easy to see why many authorities have made reducing the number of falls from height a priority.

A serious risk

It stands to reason that working at heights adds an element of risk to what may already be a dangerous job. Gravity has a habit of punishing even the slightest mistake most severely. The problem is that many people treat the fact of workplace deaths as surprisingly low and therefore somehow acceptable. It must be repeated that one death is too many, as every death represents the loss of a loved one and should never be regarded as a statistic. Sometimes, precautions are perceived as taking too long, and the job does not seem risky enough to warrant them. Precautions may delay the start of the job by five or ten minutes but dead is forever.

Given the seriousness of the issue, what is the underlying cause, if any, of the majority of incidents? Accident reports show the common situations where falls from height occur. They illustrate that these events are usually due to poor management control rather than equipment failure. The most common factors involve failure to:

• Recognise a problem

• Provide safe systems of work

• Ensure that safe systems of work are followed

• Provide adequate information, instruction, training or supervision

• Use appropriate equipment

• Provide safe equipment

There are various laid down commonsense guidelines which bring a welcome and, it would appear, much needed standard of safety to the whole issue of working at heights.

There is the suggestion is that if possible; working at heights should be avoided altogether. This may well be achieved through job design or circumventing the problem by planning an alternative strategy. This is, of course, the best-case scenario, but oftentimes, the best-case scenario is impractical for a number of reasons.

If working at height cannot be avoided, the next step is to make use of the wide variety of work equipment available to prevent falls occurring in the first place. For every job, there is a tool and harnesses and guard rails are an essential if workers at heights are to be protected.

Accident case study 1

An employee fractured his leg and pelvis after falling from an unsecured potato box that was being used as a work platform on the forks of a raised forklift truck (FLT). The box toppled from the forks and landed on the employee.

However, it is very unlikely that the possibility of a fall can be eliminated entirely and in this instance, equipment should be deployed that will minimise the distance and consequences of a fall.

In short, avoid, prevent, minimise.

Accident case study 2

A factory owner was prosecuted when an inspector witnessed a man working on the gable end of a workshop. The worker had accessed the roof via a ladder which led up to a water tank and then across planks which spanning the gap between pallets which were on the tines of two forklift trucks (FLTs). The ARTICLE | Working at Height planks were approximately 4 metres above ground. The inspector also observed the factory manager at the top of an unsecured ladder with a casual worker standing on a tin sheet roof with no protection of any kind to prevent a fall from or through the roof.

The investigation concluded that:

• No edge protection or other precautions had been taken for working on or near fragile roofs

• The access arrangements provided which required the use of pallets mounted on the tines of fork lift trucks and workers being lifted in potato boxes on the forks of a lift truck were unsafe

• Inadequate arrangements had been made to control exposure to asbestos fibres. Power tools had been used by employees to cut asbestos cement sheets without suitable PPE being provided or worn

• The supervision was inadequate. Amongst other things, the majority of the work was carried out by foreign workers whose English was poor

Other common-sense guidance includes the postponement of work if the weather conditions endanger safety. High winds and rain may well pass, and it would be folly to press ahead and do risky work in such conditions unless there is really no alternative, as in emergency situations. Even then the full gamut of protection and safety procedures needs to be followed.

Of course, the wisest course of action is take action before the need arises. Training and regular good working practices should be in place and habitual long before they need to be used. Employees need to be fully trained in working at height and using the equipment related to this work. No-one would expect to drive a car without sufficient lessons, and yet workers are sent out to do jobs using equipment and techniques in which they have received scant or non-existent training.

Inspections of equipment by competent persons are also a necessity, regularly and methodically carried out, not just a cursory glance. This is particularly important if the equipment has come from another business or is not that usually used by the workers. Inspection routines should be predicated on the notion that no prior inspection has taken place and that therefore a full examination is essential.

Accident case study 3

During refurbishment of a warehouse, a contractor placed a ladder between two stands of a pallet racking so that the bottom of the ladder was resting against one rack – so that it would not slip – and the top was leaning on another. The ladder, which was wooden, was at an angle of 45 degrees. It broke under his weight and he fractured his skull in the fall.

This man failed to follow ladder safety guidelines, including footing of the ladder, its angle of incidence and – it is possible due to the fact that it broke under the weight of one man – conducting an inspection of the ladder before beginning the job.

As can be seen from this Case Study, an equipment inspection can often save a person from serious injury.

Even if the equipment is in good working order and operated correctly, workers should nevertheless be aware of the environment in which they are going to be operating. They should definitely keep clear of fragile surfaces.

This sign should be used to warn people that a surface is fragile and therefore dangerous.

If there is no reasonably practicable alternative to working on a fragile surface, those involved should ensure that suitable platforms, coverings, guard rails and the like are provided. Again, the role of protective equipment is vital and cannot be overstated. As before, all that can be done should be done to minimise the distance and effect of a fall if, unlikely as it is, such should happen.

There are sensible precautions to be taken for roof safety:

• Always assume that roofs are fragile unless it can be confirmed otherwise. There may be non-visible damage caused by weathering, deterioration

• Always avoid working on a roof if it is possible to carry out the work in another way, e.g. approaching the roof from below

• Never go onto any part of a fragile roof without using platforms to support your weight

• Fit appropriate warning signs to buildings that have fragile roofs, particularly at roof access points

• Never walk along the line of the purling bolts – it is like walking a tightrope

• Ensure that the platforms are wide enough and long enough to give adequate support across roof members and ensure that enough platforms are provided on the roof

• Protect against falling through the fragile roof adjacent to the platform by providing

• A properly installed safety net, scaffolding or similar close to the underside of the roof

• Suitable guard rails and toe boards at the edges of the platform

• Further suitable coverings over all fragile materials within two metres of the working platforms

Accident case study 4

A worker fractured his lumbar vertebra and badly bruised his ribs after falling through a fragile roof whilst cleaning the gutters. He had cleared an edge gutter by riding a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP). He then moved onto cleaning a valley gutter. The panel sheeting on the adjacent roof was fragile. The worker had examined the work area from a ladder and told the worker to ‘just walk on the bolts and you won’t go through’. The employer then left the worker on his own to clear the gutter and carry the waste to the mobile elevated work platform, which was left, raised at end of the valley. At some point he slipped and fell through the roof to the concrete floor below.

As well as ensuring that access to high working places is safely and responsibly managed, thought should also be given to the surrounding areas. Nothing should be thrown or tipped from a height if it is likely to injure anyone, or stored in such a way that if it is moved, it is likely to injure anyone.

Any area that is at risk of falling objects from work done at height should be clearly indicated and unauthorised persons kept out of it.

This sign, or something very like it should be prominently displayed around the area that is being fenced off.

It seems from the falling number of deaths and serious injuries over the past years that campaigns to raise awareness seem to be bearing fruit, but fast as the figures are falling, there is the very valid point, that One Death is Too Many. Some people may say that deaths and serious injuries can never be wholly eliminated in what is a dangerous world but merely because we cannot do everything does not mean that we should do nothing. There is no acceptable level of death and injury; every incident should serve as a shocking reminder of what can go wrong, and the steps that must be taken to ensure that it does not go wrong again.

When working at height the safest and most appropriate working platform must be used. When making the decision what equipment to use, you must look at what the job requires, how long will it last and where it needs to be done. It is not illegal to use a ladder to work at height but other means of access such as fixed scaffold, tower scaffold or mobile elevated working platforms should be considered, before relying on ladders.

If you are considering using a ladder you must make sure that:

• The work is of short duration and involves only light work

• Three points of contact can be maintained at all times

• The work only requires one hand to be used

• The work can be reached without stretching

• The ladder can be fixed to prevent slipping

• A good handhold is available

• The ladder is safe to use and has been regularly

Measures must be in place whenever there is a risk of a person or object falling a distance that may cause harm to others or property. If a mobile elevated working platform is selected then you must ensure the following:

• Only a suitably trained and competent person operates the platform

• That fall arrest equipment is provided and used by the person or persons inside the platform

• No one in the platform will climb out over the guard rails unless the platform is specifically designed to allow this

• All hand tools are secured to the platform with safety ropes to prevent them falling should they be dropped

• A suitable means of decent from the platform is provided in case of an emergency

• Maintenance and test records (dated within the last 6 months) of the equipment are available for inspection If a mobile scaffolding tower is selected then you must ensure the following:

• It has been erected by a suitably trained and competent individual

• The relevant components show no signs of rust or damage

• A suitable means of access is provided inside the tower

• Toe boards and guard rails are provided at the suitable heights (Toe board 150mm, intermediate guard rail 470mm and the top guard rail 950mm)

• That weather and ground conditions are properly considered as these may adversely affect the stability of the tower and also it suitability for the task

• Manufacturers guidelines are followed in relation to the height to base width ratio

• That an inspection regime is in place to ensure the tower remains safe at all times

If fixed scaffolding is selected then you must ensure the following:

• That it has been designed, erected, altered and dismantled by a competent person or the work is supervised by a competent person

• It is only erected on a firm level foundation that is capable of taking the load of the scaffold

• It is braced and tied to a permanent structure or otherwise stabilised

• If it is to be loaded then it must be appropriately altered to withstandthe extra weight

• That platforms are fully boarded and wide enough for work and access

• That scaffold boards are properly supported and do not over hang excessively i.e. More than four times its thickness

• That there is a safe ladder or other means of access to the platform. If a ladder is used it must be tied off and extend at least one metre above the platform to provide a safe handhold

• It is regularly inspected and formal detailed inspections are made at least every 7 days or sooner if something occurs that may have affected its strength and/or stability


• Consider whether there are other, safer ways of doing the job. Can work at height be avoided?

• Ensure that you have fully considered all of the ways in which you or your employees could be at risk of falling

• Don’t underestimate the risks involved

• Simply ‘taking care’ is not enough. Proper precautions must be in place

• Don’t start work at height until you have properly planned the work and assessed and controlled the risks involved

• Decide what equipment is required for the job. Ideally precautions should be designed to prevent a fall, for example using guard rails at a roof edge or crawling boards on a fragile roof. For some jobs it may be appropriate to use fall arrest equipment such as a safety harness and lanyard

• If you have not got the appropriate equipment then get it. Don’t take a chance with a ladder if what you should be using is a tower scaffold. Making do without the right equipment to speed up the work or minimise expense can lead to injury or death, as well as prosecution if the law is broken

• Ensure that there are no defects in any equipment that you use

• Make sure that equipment is used safely and that any necessary training or supervision is provided


Kim Murray TechIOSH, AIIRSM Safety Training India Pvt Ltd


Published: 10th Nov 2009 in Health and Safety Middle East