Working at height: recent cases highlight the risks

Thursday February 11, 2021

While there is generally an improving trend in workplace accidents, working at height remains an area of considerable risk. Last year there were 29 fatalities as a result of falls from height making it, as usual, the leading cause of death in the workplace in the UK. Moreover, nearly 10% of non-fatal injuries reported by employers were also as a result of falls from height.

Serious human and legal consequences

If you employ staff who work at height, you will already know that it is governed by a strict set of regulations: rules intended to prevent serious consequences. A recent spate of court cases, however, reminds us that all too often the rules are not adhered to. Already this year, the HSE has published news of several successful prosecutions. Here are the details from three cases in which employers failed to protect employees when working at height.

A roofing supplies company was fined £20,000 after two employees fell from a tower scaffold. The employees were installing a new sign when the tower scaffold moved away from the building. Both employees fell two metres and sustained multiple fractures. The HSE found that the scaffold had not been fitted with guard rails or outriggers, and had been erected by someone without the necessary training.

In another case, the governing body of a high school was fined £10,000 after an employee fell over three metres. The school’s assistant site manager was removing footballs from the roof of the sixth form centre when he slipped and fell, suffering multiple fractures. An HSE investigation found that the school had failed to install barriers on the roof, even though it was common for staff to climb the building to retrieve balls.

Most seriously of all, the owners of a building were fined £80,000 after a roofer fell six metres to his death. The roofer was carrying out snagging work when a fragile section of the roof collapsed. The HSE found that the occupier of the building had failed to take reasonable steps to keep contractors safe, such as installing safety nets on the roof.

What are your responsibilities?

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to employers, building managers and facilities managers who control working at height. The law outlines three main areas of responsibility:

  • Ensuring that work is properly planned and supervised. This includes carrying out a risk assessment before any work begins.
  • Ensuring that workers are fully trained and competent.
  • Providing and maintaining safety equipment.

How can you prevent falls from height?

As well as these basic responsibilities, further good practice on preventing falls from height includes:

  • Working on the ground whenever possible.
  • Making it easy to get to and from elevated areas.
  • Ensuring that all equipment is properly maintained and suitable for the task.
  • Providing protection against falling objects.
  • Mitigating risk from fragile surfaces.
  • Implementing evacuation and rescue procedures.

You should also take care to avoid unnecessary risks such as:

  • Overloading ladders.
  • Overreaching while using ladders.
  • Resting ladders against weak surfaces.
  • Using ladders for heavy or strenuous tasks.
  • Using ladders for more than 30 minutes at a time.

Don’t take any chances

When the risks are this great, you can’t afford to get it wrong. Take the time to familiarise yourself with the common dangers and the best ways to avoid them. You should also make this information readily available to your employees. If you would like assistance in planning and assessing the risk when working at height, contact our experts.

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