Falls in the workplace are the single biggest cause of workplace deaths and one of the main causes of major injury.

No surprise then that work at height should be one of the risks at the forefront of any employer’s mind when undertaking risk assessments of their workplace.

Ellis Whittam’s Health & Safety specialists examine the legal duties and discuss some practical measures that can be taken to control the risks associated with working at height.

working at height

What the Law Says

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 specify duties on employers and any person that controls the work of others. There is no specific height above which the regulations apply – simply all work at height where there is a risk that a fall could cause personal injury.

The regulations set out a hierarchy for managing and selecting procedures and equipment as follows:

  • Organise the work to avoid the need to work at height;
  • Use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where work at height cannot be avoided; and
  • If it’s not possible to eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to mitigate the consequences of a fall should one occur.

The regulations also require employers to:

  • Ensure all work at height is properly planned and organised;
  • Ensure all work at height takes account of weather conditions that could endanger health and safety;
  • Ensure those involved in work at height are trained and competent;
  • Provide a safe place to work, which includes taking additional precautions where there are fragile surfaces to contend with;
  • Conduct adequate inspections of workplaces, equipment, means of access, etc; and
  • Eliminate any risk of injuries as a result of falling objects.

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Assess the Activity

In determining the type of control required for work at height, a suitable and sufficient risk assessment is required. This will identify practical steps which should be taken to protect the health and safety of workers.

The first step in the hierarchy of controls is to actually avoid working at height wherever possible by altering the task or the way it can be carried out. There are a few options to consider as alternatives to working at height:

  • Use automated storage systems such as vertical carousels (a motor-driven system that brings the shelves up, down and around so that they can be easily accessed by the user).
  • Use automatic sheeting on trailers.
  • Build or construct a product at ground level instead of at height.
  • Instead of using ladders to clean windows, use extendable cleaning poles to clean windows from the ground.

If it's not possible to avoid working at height, you should consider the following:

Edge Protection

The first line of defence when working at height is to provide adequate edge protection. It must be strong, rigid and securely fixed to prevent people and objects falling. The top handrail of the edge protection must have a minimum height of 950mm and any gap between the top and intermediate rail should not exceed 470mm, which should ensure a person cannot fall through or over them. Suitable and sufficient toe boards are also required to prevent the fall of any person, item or material.

Remember, the edge protection must be maintained on a regular basis, inspected as part of the management system and recorded.

Work Platforms

Working platforms are used to provide a safe working environment. The type and duration of the work will influence the type of working platform required for the specified task. There are risks associated with the erection and installation of working platforms which must be assessed. The working platform should be free from openings or trappings and constructed to prevent items and people falling and free from slipping and tripping hazards. They should be erected by a trained and competent person. Once erected, they should be inspected before use and at identified frequencies which should be marked on the equipment.

Personal Prevention of Falls

Restraint systems stop the user from reaching the fall risk zone. The system is cheaper and quicker to set up than platforms yet is safe when used correctly.

Fall arrest is widely used as it’s lightweight, cheap to implement and must conform to standards. Although requiring training in its use, it is easier and faster to use in situations. It requires checking prior to use and regular examination by competent persons. Prior to its use, rescue plans must be developed and put in place.

The fall arrest system allows people to reach the point where a fall could happen, such as the edge of a roof. In the event of the fall, the fall will be arrested, allowing the person to either effect self-rescue  or be rescued. There must be sufficient distance for the fall arrest lanyard to effectively deploy.

Free Download: Definitive Guide to General Risk Assessments

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Ladders

Contrary to popular belief, ladders are not banned from the workplace. Ladders can be used to complete short-term and light work. They must have an identification plate/mark and safe working load relative to the work being undertaken. If ladders are to be used for work, the organisation must ensure that:

  • The length of the ladder is sufficient so that the worker does not have to stand on the top rung or step.
  • They rest on a firm and level surface which is not slippy and should be secured in position by rope or other means, ensuring the ladder does not move sideways or away from the wall, or another person should be tasked with footing the ladder.
  • They are positioned at an angle of 75% to prevent them slipping.
  • There is a good handhold on the ladder.
  • The work area can be reached without overstretching and while staying within the frame of the ladder.
  • Any tools required should be light and carried in a tool belt. A gin wheel or other equipment should be used to transport heavy and bulky loads to higher levels.
  • They are not used where they may come into contact with vehicles or doors.
  • Aluminium ladders are not used where there are electrical hazards.
  • They are not used in high winds or storms.
  • Warning signs are displayed around safe working areas.

The ladders used must be regularly checked for damage prior to any use, which should be recorded within the management system. Any person using the ladder must have suitable safety footwear preventing them from slipping when ascending and descending a ladder.

Checking

Employees must visually inspect equipment used for work at height before use to ensure it is in a safe condition and has no visible defects. If any defects are found, the equipment is not to be used and must be quarantined. The manager must be informed of any defect or damaged equipment. If the equipment cannot be repaired, it must be destroyed.

Training

All employees involved in work at height, including those who plan and supervise, must be trained and competent. Appropriate health and safety training should cover how to carry out regular pre-inspections of the equipment prior to use and how to use it safely.

For those organisations who have managed their work at height activities since the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations, there may be little or no change required at all. However, accidents still occur in the workplace and recent health and safety figures show that fall from height is a major concern within the workplace.

Looking for more information and guidance on controlling work at height, including compliance with the law? Speak to one of our experienced Health & Safety Consultants for expert advice.

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Health and safety should be a priority for any business but ensuring compliance can often feel like a daunting task. We’re here to help you turn complex regulations into sensible, proportionate controls.

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