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The Height of Safety

Published: 18th Aug 2014 in OSA Magazine

The competence, culture and correct equipment needed to stay safe at height

My personal experience of working at height is confined to workplace inspection these days, but it wasn’t always so.

Before becoming a health and safety consultant I was involved in plant maintenance, which included working at height in both guarded and unguarded situations - such are the necessities of working in iron and steel forging environments. I learned that any enterprise involving work at height should be planned thoroughly by an experienced and competent person, making use of equipment that has been checked and certificated where necessary and should use trained and competent workers. If any one of these ingredients is missed from the equation the possibility of an accident increases dramatically. I also learned that during the planning stage you should include emergency plans and know what to do if things go wrong.

Defining height work

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that work at height is work in any place where, if precautions were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. Any person that falls from a height above two metres undergoes the likelihood of sustaining serious injury.

You are working at height if you:

  • Work above ground or floor level
  • Could fall from an edge, such as in a loading bay or through an opening or fragile surface
  • Could fall from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground
  • Work on roofs, above tanks and pits, at the edge of elevated structures, or on top of vehicles or trailers
  • Work from ladders, scaffolds and platforms 

There are many more activities where people are required to work at height and it is not unknown for a person standing on a swivel chair to fall onto a desk and suffer serious injury or in extreme cases even death. For a fall to cause injury it doesn’t have to be from a great height.

It is worth remembering that working at height should be seen as any place from which a person could be injured when falling, even if it is at or below ground level. As an employer, the overriding principle should be that everything reasonably practicable must be done to prevent people from falling.

Consequences of getting it wrong

The following statistics are courtesy of the World Health Organization, which defines a fall as “an event that results in a person coming to rest inadvertently on the ground or floor or other lower level.”

Globally, falls are a major public health problem. An estimated 424,000 fatal falls occur each year, making this the second leading cause of death from unintentional injury, after road traffic injuries. More than 80% of fall related fatalities occur in low to middle income countries, with areas of the Western Pacific and South East Asia accounting for more than two thirds of these deaths. In all regions of the world, death rates are highest among adults above the age of 60 years.

Although not fatal, approximately 37.3 million falls severe enough to require medical attention occur each year. Such falls are responsible for more than 17 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). The largest morbidity occurs in people aged 65 years or older, young adults aged between 15 and 29 years and children aged 15 years or younger.

The financial costs from fall related injuries are substantial. For people aged 65 years or older, the average health system cost per fall injury in the Republic of Finland and Australia are $3,611 and $1,049 respectively. Evidence from Canada suggests the implementation of effective prevention could create a net savings of more than $120 million each year.

So one thing is established here: falls from height are costly not only to the individual, but also to the companies concerned.
These cold hard facts published in October 2012 only tell half a story. As bad and alarming as they are, they don’t address the reasons behind the figures. In order to expose why these accidents happen we have to look at the contributing factors.

These, however, also make for uncomfortable reading. 

Factors contributing to accidents

The main contributing and preventable factors include the following:

  • The absence of a company or organisational health and safety policy and structure
  • The absence of employee involvement and training. A lack of effective training and education systems regarding occupational health and safety at all levels
  • The absence of occupational safety and health management systems
  • A lack of knowledge, available solutions, awareness or information 
  • Lacking or poor government policies and regulations, and legal enforcement and advisory system
  • Organisations with a poor or non existent health and safety culture

There’s a simple test for safety culture: if you or your supervisors can walk past unsafe practices without challenging behaviour, then you have little or no safety culture. Without a positive health and safety culture that is nurtured by all, safety, and therefore the elimination of costly accidents, cannot take place.


The UK is governed by the 2005 Work at Height Regulations (WAHR). These regulations recommend that where you cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, work equipment or other measures should be used to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur.

Any hierarchy of control that you employ to minimise risk should take the following into consideration:

  • The overriding rule should be to avoid work at height where possible
  • Use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where you cannot avoid working at height
  • Where you cannot eliminate the risk of a fall there is a need for work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall

Avoiding working at height is easier said than done, but some manufactures have created ingenious ways to cut out certain aspects of height work. As an example, some companies now assemble modular roof structures on the ground. While this doesn’t eliminate working at height altogether it does help to limit the time spent working at height.

Prevention strategies should place the emphasis on education, training, creating safer environments and establishing effective policies to reduce risk.

Risk assessment 

The key to controlling any workplace activity and lowering the potential for accidents is, of course, risk assessment. 

During the planning process the principle of avoiding working at height should be adhered to wherever possible. Work should be carried out from an existing place of work that does not need additional controls, such as from ground level, mezzanine floors and staircases.

Where working at height cannot be avoided, consideration should be given to the hierarchy of controls.

For collective or group fall prevention, tasks should be carried out from a safe working platform. Barriers, guard rails, side nets, air bags and soft landing systems should also be considered.

For individual fall prevention a work restraint system or travel restrictor should be employed to keep a person from reaching a fall point such as the edge of a roof or the edge of an elevated work platform.

Individual fall protection can also consist of a full body harness and fall arrest system. This is a method to reduce the consequences should a fall occur. The entire system must be capable of withstanding the impact forces involved in a fall, including any additional weight being carried such as breathing apparatus and tools. It must also be capable of minimising those forces to an acceptable level.

Practical advice

When working at height, consideration should be given to the following:

  • Always make sure the surface and access equipment in use are stable and strong enough to support the worker’s weight and that of any equipment
  • Any edge protection should be wide enough and strong enough to prevent a fall
  • As much work as possible should be conducted from or close to the ground, for example, structures can be assembled on the ground and lifted into position
  • Take precautions when working on or near fragile surfaces, such as asbestos cement roofs, to prevent falls and to minimise the potential distance and consequences of a fall
  • Always ensure workers can get safely to and from where they want to work at height
  • Consider emergency evacuation and rescue procedures and practise them
  • Always make sure everyone involved is competent to do the work they are responsible for, including those who plan and organise it
  • Choose the most appropriate equipment for the type of work being done and consider how often it will be used
  • Remember to make sure equipment used for work at height is well maintained and inspected regularly - if in doubt have it inspected by a specialist and always maintain records of any checks done
  • Remember to provide protection from falling objects
  • Consider the use of aviation style steps in any workplace where the use of steps is needed to access stored goods or objects 
  • Have regular checks in place and reject any substandard equipment - record your findings
  • Consider environmental factors - the weather can make some tasks more hazardous 
  • Insufficient or inappropriate lighting can also catalyse or create hazards

Ladders and stepladders

Always use ladders or stepladders if the nature of the work is deemed to be heavy or if the task will take longer than thirty minutes or so to complete.

The following points outline pitfalls to avoid when using ladders:

  • Don’t overload - anything going up, including the worker, should not exceed the highest load stated on the ladder
  • Never overreach - keep your belt buckle inside the stiles and both feet on the same rung throughout the task
  • Insufficient contact points - don’t use ladders if three points of contact cannot be maintained in the working position. If this is not possible, consider an alternative safe system of work such as scaffolding or a scaffolding tower


Vehicles can pose a special danger. I have personally been onsite and had to attend to someone who took a shortcut by not wearing his hard hat while accessing the top of his tanker, which was situated under a loading chute. He lost his footing and fell to the ground. Lucky to be alive, he ended up in hospital and had a six month absence from work. Never forget, a fall from a relatively low height can cause serious injury. With this in mind, the following are a few safety points to consider concerning vehicles.

Getting on and off the vehicle:

  • Don’t jump down - this is bad for your knees and you are more likely to fall
  • Always use steps and handholds if provided
  • Take your time climbing down from the cab, load area or catwalk - face the vehicle and use the handhold
  • Report missing or damaged equipment
  • Before stepping off the vehicle, check for uneven surfaces such as potholes or kerbs which may cause you to slip

Keeping your vehicle safe:

  • Carry out pre-use checks on your vehicle; for example, check any steps or handholds are in good condition
  • Report broken boards and any other objects that could cause a fall
  • Keep loading areas tidy by picking up loose ropes and packaging
  • Check that the straps are safely stored on curtain side trucks so people don’t trip on them
  • Clean up spills and dirt such as diesel or mud to stop people slipping in them
  • On refrigerated vehicles, check the floor conditions for ice or water and follow any systems in place for reducing the amount of water produced

How you can work safely:

  • Wear well fitting, slip-resistant safety footwear when working on vehicles 
  • Keep the soles of your footwear clean to reduce the risk of slipping
  • Follow safe systems of work for loading and unloading vehicles
  • Make sure you have been trained in and follow the company’s safe ways of working, particularly if you have to use equipment such as tail lifts or lorry loader cranes
  • Use safe ways of getting on and off the vehicle when carrying out maintenance above ground level, for example, by using gantries or tower scaffolds

Look at what other companies do and if you see a good idea suggest it to your safety adviser or supervisor.


Never let anyone who is not competent carry out work at height.

The key to ensuring working at height is carried out in a safe manner, aside from the correct use of equipment, is ensuring competence of your workforce. This needs to be confirmed before letting someone work at height.

You should make sure that people have sufficient skills, knowledge and experience before being employed to perform the task, or, if they are being trained, that they work under the supervision of somebody competent to carry out the task.

In the case of low risk, short duration tasks involving ladders, competence requirements may be no more than making sure employees receive both instruction on how to use the equipment safely and appropriate training. Training often takes place on the job; it does not necessarily take place in a classroom.

Where a more technical level of competence is required, for example, when drawing up complex scaffolding plans, utilising existing training and certification schemes from trade associations is one way to help demonstrate competence. 

The UK has the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation as well as the HSE for advice on all aspects of working at height, including regulations. In Australia guidance is available from WorkCover New South Wales.

Remember, there is no such thing as a safe height to work from. With competence, correct equipment and a strong safety culture, however, we can execute safe work at height.

Published: 18th Aug 2014 in OSA Magazine


Peter G Brooksbank

Peter first became involved in health and safety in 1979 while working on the then British Steel complex in North Lincolnshire, UK. Studying at North Lindsey Technical College, Peter sat on the health and safety committee as well as the committee to reduce waste, right at the start of the company’s environmental programme.

He also qualified as a National Plant Registration Scheme Train the Trainer. He decided to relocate to the West Country and in order to maintain employment prospects in a non-steel environment, underwent further education at City College Plymouth, gaining both a NEBOSH and Teaching in the Life Long Learning Sector qualification.

Going on from there, Peter became the vocational manager of a regional literacy, numeracy, IT and vocational education training company, with branches throughout the South West of England. He was instrumental in developing a new vocational training centre in Cornwall and making others more efficient.

Peter has since founded Denbrook Consultancies in 2011, who offer health and safety consultancy services and a range of health and safety based training courses.

Peter G Brooksbank



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