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Written by
on 01 August 2018

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Working at height is the UK’s biggest cause of workplace deaths – this is what you need to know.

The first rule of working at height on construction sites: don’t. Wherever possible, you should avoid any situation that involves working above ground level.

Unfortunately, in all but a tiny minority of construction projects, working at height is unavoidable. So, the second rule: do as much as you can from the ground. Which leads to the third: prioritise safety when working above ground.

Prevent and minimise

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that principal contractors implement a ‘prevent and minimise’ strategy to keep operatives safe on-site. Prevention fulfils our first and second rules by forcing contractors to assess proposed activities and to identify ways to complete work from the ground. This will always be preferable and working from the ground should be explored and implemented wherever possible.

In practice, this could mean installing cables at ground level, lowering fixtures so they can be maintained on the ground, or completing pre-assembly work to be fitted above ground later. You should also consider using extendable tools, and extension poles, to avoid the need to use ladders and scaffolding. Anything you can do to prevent the need for working at height should be considered thoroughly.

Once ground-level work has been completed, it is essential to minimise – both the need to work at height and the risk of falling. There are a number of strategies to assist.

First, always try to use existing safe structures to work from. This could be a solid roof with a perimeter guardrail, for instance. Otherwise, you must deploy appropriate access equipment – such as scaffolds with integrated guards – to provide similar protection. Other provisions you could consider using include tower scaffolds and scissor lifts, both of which are excellent options for preventing falls.

For ‘low’ heights, a ladder may be acceptable. You must ensure that the correct ladder is used for the task and that operatives are fully briefed on how to use them safely. Consider using spotters to ensure the ladder is being used correctly, and to provide an extra pair of eyes to identify risks while work takes place.

And if someone does fall…?

No matter how good your edge protection systems, there is always a risk that someone could still fall, and this is why working at height is the UK’s biggest cause of workplace deaths. Because there is always that risk, you must implement secondary protection systems to prevent injury or death.

Safety harnesses provide a useful backup, keeping operatives tethered to the building. A high anchor point in conjunction with a fall arrest system can dramatically reduce the risk of dropping to the ground.

You should also consider installing safety nets below work areas, helping to ‘arrest’ – or stop – falls. Where appropriate, these safety nets could be substituted for airbags and soft-landing systems at ground level. For example, airbags are often used in housebuilding as additional safety protection for operatives working at first-floor joist level.

Be competent and get help

Accidents when working at height remain a serious risk to UK workers. In fact, according to the most recent statistics published by the HSE, falls from a height caused the most workplace deaths – 35 – over the last year.

Because of these very real risks, it is essential that you address the challenges of working at height correctly. As you carry out risk assessments, use the ‘prevent and minimise’ strategy to ensure that your work plans are as safe as possible.

Competency is very important. You should make sure that people with sufficient skills, knowledge and experience are employed to perform the ‘at-height’ task, or, if they are being trained, that they work under the supervision of somebody competent to do it.

If you run into problems with your risk assessments or would like expert advice about working at heights, please get in touch.

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About the author

David Cant is a Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME’s favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick. You can find him across social media on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.