We all know that nothing in life can be 100% safe. We strive to make things as safe as possible by doing a risk assessment, considering the dangers and applying suitable controls. However, sometimes we find it difficult to agree on just what constitutes ‘suitable controls’.

Articles like this tend to concentrate on legal duties (where laws exist) and have a nasty habit of going on about ‘International Standards and laws’ usually as a way of telling you how to manage your work.

In this article I have chosen an activity – cleaning windows to 4 storeys – as an example of a realistic job with its own problems. If we consider taller buildings, then the use of access cradles etc, changes our perspective entirely. I trust that you will agree that my suggested solution is practical as well as being short on ‘preaching’ and long on practicality and common sense.

How dangerous is it anyway?

In most countries, falls from heights account for around about 50% of all fatal accidents with half of those being in construction and related activities. The majority of falls are between 2 and 3 metres but, strangely, the figures for falls of over 2 metres have halved in recent times. The number of major injuries caused by falls from heights, is around 75 times higher than the number of deaths – 1.33%.

Around about 10% of those accidents (and 1% of the fatal ones) are down to window cleaning.

Do these statistics suggest that no one cares about people working at height? No! What they illustrate is that humans instinctively take more care when the danger is obvious. If the danger is less obvious we become complacent and more willing to take chances and short cuts. We must remember that taking care in these situations includes those in charge correctly assessing the danger and putting suitable controls in place. Safety is not an optional extra.

As more and more tall buildings are erected all over the world, the problem of not only building them but also maintaining them has to be addressed. It is with this in mind that I have chosen several activities (below) in order to provoke some thought and comment. Hopefully this will lead to action, and a reduction in the carnage.

Firstly I have selected a common task – window cleaning – and then several other tasks to illustrate an approach which, if followed, will assist in managing working at height more successfully.

The task

So to our task: Window cleaning up to 4 storeys.

Until relatively recently the accepted method for such a task was to use ladders, abseiling and, for the more enlightened, aerial access platforms (also known as cherry pickers, scissor lifts, flying carpets and a variety of other local names). Whilst using aerial platforms is certainly better than using ladders, it still requires people to work at height, which is far from ideal and we should avoid it if we can.

The ‘water-fed pole system’ allows cleaning activities up to 30 metres (6 storeys) from the ground. So why would anyone want to waste time and resources, and risk their workers’ lives, by using access platforms or, heaven forbid, ladders?

I feel that the answer is simple; either they don’t possess the skills or the imagination to think outside the box or perhaps it’s a case of ‘this is how we have always done it’? Maybe they think that safety is expensive. Try costing an accident in terms of injury to staff, damage to plant and loss of your good reputation and contracts.

So why change how we have always cleaned windows? Well, there are generally 3 business motivators for doing anything, namely:

  • Saving money – the safer way is often the cheaper way in the long run
  • Keeping on the right side of the law – civil, criminal and Sharia
  • Looking after the welfare and wellbeing of staff

So how can using a waterfed system help you?

It is generally accepted that using the water fed pole system:

  • Allows operators to work from the safety of the ground
  • Eliminates the need for ladders and high access equipment
  • Is twice as quick as conventional window cleaning
  • Cleans more effectively using pure water and no detergents
  • Allows a small company to bid for work on higher buildings, without the need for massive expenditure in costly access equipment
  • Reduces disturbance to clients
  • Reaches inaccessible windows

But what if you’re not a window cleaning company?

Even if you’re not directly involved in construction activities, window cleaning or similar, you probably do have occasions when either your staff, or contactors working on your behalf, have to work at a height – that is ‘work requiring them to… obtain access to or egress from such place while at work… where if measures… were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury’.

The above definition is fairly broad, and deliberately so – we need to start thinking more radically about this, or we will still be reporting terrible statistics like those above in ten years time.

So what should I do?

The first question is do we need to work at height? If the answer is yes, then consider the following:

  • Follow the risk assessments you have carried out for work at height activities and make sure all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by competent persons
  • If we can’t avoid working at heights, follow the hierarchy for managing risks, and take steps to avoid, prevent or reduce risks
  • Provide a safe place of work Scaffolding: A correctly designed and built scaffold should be as safe to work on as standing on the ground Mobile elevating work platform (MEWP): As with a scaffold, a correctly positioned and used MEWP should be as safe as working with our feet on the ground
  • Provide collective protection Safety nets: These protect all workers without the need for restrictive working lines, harnesses etc Air filled ‘fall bags’: In case someone does mange to fall from a height
  • Provide individual protection Safety lines and harnesses: Fall prevention, using a suitable anchor point and retention line/harness Fall arrest: Such as inertia reel equipment Rope access systems: Using abseil techniques
  • If all the above fails – use a ladder or ‘hop up’ but only if the work is low risk and of short duration and does not requiring both hands at any time to complete the activity Hop ups are a suitable and relatively safe, method of gaining ‘inches’ in height not feet Ladders are really to be seen as a last resort as a means of access and then only when used correctly by competent persons

NOTE: The above will only work if ALL workers are trained & suitably supervised against the assessed risks and in the safe systems of work.

How does this affect me?

In order to illustrate the use and benefits of the above hierarchy and approach, I have shown below a few examples of varying activities across a wide range of workplace types and common activities such as…

  • Changing a light bulb at 2.5 metres
  • Washing tiled kitchen walls to a height of 3 metres
  • Regularly filling a water tanker at 4 metres
  • Tying down and sheeting a load on the back of a truck

Changing a light bulb at 2.5 metres

This type of activity is usually undertaken using a set of step ladders, with the possible risk of overreaching, standing on the top step and of course, falling backwards. Far better to do this with a simple and inexpensive system that offers access and prevention of falls.

Tying down and sheeting a load on the back of a truck at site

This activity has for years been ‘one of those things’ that just gets done and, if someone falls, everyone is surprised, but as every enlightened person in transport can testify, falls from the back of trailers is a major concern. There are several approaches to providing temporary and one-off solutions, without costing loads of money and slowing down the work activity. Two such examples are illustrated below, which I think you will agree are realistic and sensible solutions to prevent injury to drivers and helpers whilst tying down/ removing securing straps etc.

Any health and safety professional would be horrified if there were no measures in place to protect workers where there is the risk of a fall of between 3 and 5 metres. They would be interested to see the risk assessment and how the risk of a fall had been prevented or mitigated.

The good practice requires that all work at height is risk assessed. The assessment should really be based on a ‘goal setting’ approach, which means that there is no absolute right or wrong way to do the activity. Instead we follow a hierarchy of control. When planning an activity that may involve work at height the employer should consider the following:

  • Can work at height be avoided i.e. is it reasonably practicable to introduce a system where the work can be done from ground level, that is there is now no risk of a fall from height
  • Where you must work at height what can be put in place that would prevent a person falling i.e. could guard rails or a movement restraint system be used
  • If it is not reasonably practicable to put measures in place that will prevent a fall occurring, think about what you can do to reduce the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur. Mats, air bags and fall arrest harnesses for example
  • If the risk of a fall remains, think about other measures that will stop a person being injured, such as extra training

If you review your procedures and risk assessment, you should be able to decide what suitable, sensible measures you need to have in place to make sure the people who are doing the job can do it safely.

If you conclude that guard rails, tower scaffolds or mobile elevating work platforms can’t be used, any work restraint system chosen should be set up so that the user is prevented from reaching a position from where fall can occur. A belt rather than full body harness may be appropriate where a person cannot reach a position from which a fall can occur. If a fall can occur, the system is not working restraint but fall arrest. In this case the person will need a full body harness, energy absorbance, sufficient fall distance to safely arrest the fall etc.

Work restraint systems have been devised for use on vehicle. These incorporate running cables.

Tips for safe working

  • Plan what you will do in an emergency, or if someone falls
  • Make sure the people who will be doing the job have the right skills, experience and training to use the equipment safely and have been consulted about the right equipment to use
  • Take frequent breaks, especially when working from a ladder – do not work from a ladder for longer than 30 minutes at a time
  • If you have to use a ladder make sure you re-position it before you clean another window, to reduce the risk of an accident from over-reaching
  • If you use a ladder keep three points of contact wherever possible

If you are hiring access equipment, make sure you know how to install and dismantle it safely – ask the hirer for instructions or assistance if you need them.


Pat McLoughlin

British Safety Services

Linton House, Catherine Street

Aston, Birmingham B6 5RS UK

Tel: +44 (0) 121 328 8873


Published: 01st Nov 2008 in Health and Safety Middle East