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Written by
on 27 July 2016


Mastering the basics when Working at height

Working at heightMastering the basics of working at height is vital to keeping your employees safe – this is what you need to know.

Accidents while working at height continue to be a major contributor to recorded injuries and deaths for British workers. According to the most recent workplace safety statistics  published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), more than half of employees cite slips, trips or falls as a risk factor when doing their jobs.

Working at any height always involves risk

Almost every activity that is conducted above floor level is classed as working at height. So whether your employee is reaching for boxes on a low shelf using a moveable step-type device, or working on a building site covered in scaffolding, both employees are technically working at height.

And although one of these scenarios seems far less risky – using a moveable step – there is still a risk of serious injury should the employee fall. Broken limbs, sprains and even serious brain injuries have all been caused by relatively small falls in the past, so you should approach any ‘working at height’ scenario with the same attention to risk.

Mastering the basics

Like most health and safety issues, the key to preventing accidents is to exercise common sense. When assessing a task, you simply need to consider:

  • The person involved in the task – do they have sufficient skills and training to do the job safely?
  • The equipment involved in the task – is it well maintained, does it conform to the necessary standards and can it be secured in place?
  • The environment – are there any contributing risk factors that need to be addressed before work begins, like having a level floor, or the presence of overhead cables?

Answering these most fundamental questions will help you flesh out a workable risk assessment that better protect your employees.

Employee training

Your risk assessment also needs to place some responsibility on the user for checking that their equipment is safe and ready to use before beginning work. Every time a ladder is deployed, your employees need to check the condition of the equipment, including the condition of the feet and rungs themselves. The HSE website has a very useful photographic reference guide that can be used for training.

Employees will need to know the specifics of the equipment – how it is set up, how to secure the equipment, and the placement of handholds and similar to assist with keeping their balance. Beyond the equipment itself, training should cover the minimum number of contact points required to work safely on a ladder.

Again, the HSE has a useful resource – the Work at Height Access equipment Information Toolkit (WAIT) – will help you narrow down the list of appropriate options, based on several environmental factors applicable to a specific task. Using WAIT will greatly assist in improving your risk assessment.

Choice of equipment

In the same way that a claw hammer is unsuitable for driving piles, a stepladder is the wrong choice of equipment to access external fittings several storeys above the ground.

Again, there are basic factors that will help you define the right ladder/platform/scaffolding for a job:

  • Whether a step or leaning ladder is most suitable.
  • The load bearing capabilities of ladders that will be used to transport heavy goods and materials.
  • Whether a ladder really is the most appropriate choice of equipment. Some jobs will need more extensive support, like scaffolding. Others may even require rope access.
  • The actual maximum height at which the task will be carried out.

The right tools are essential for getting the job done and protecting your employees against injury.

Applicable legislation

As well as your responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act, there are other regulations that apply such as the Working at Height Regulations 2005 (WAH). Staying on top of these developments are vital to keeping your projects legal, and your workers safe – which means keeping a close eye on new developments.

Back in April 2016 the British Standards Institution code of practice for the safe use of construction hoists was revised for instance. The first update in ten years, BS7212 has been revised to include additional requirements for maintenance, inspection and routine examination of hoists installed on site. This may not be directly to working at height, but the code has a bearing on the safety of your workers.

If you find that keeping up-to-date is too time consuming, your business should consider partnering with an advice service (like Veritas Consulting) that can provide specific advice whenever you need it.

Don’t forget your subcontractors

Your site safety provisions must also cover subcontractors – those working at height, and any responsible for related tasks, like assembling tower scaffolding. You should make sure that they have up-to-date skills related to the tasks you have employed them to do – such as holding a valid PASMA card.

Do not hesitate to monitor their performance and remedy problems as the job progresses – these checks will help to address problems before they can result in an accident. They will also ensure that your subcontractors are performing and that the project is progressing as planned and safely.

Workplace safety standards continue to improve, causing a fall in the number of employee injuries and fatalities reported every year. However, any job that involves working at height still presents a real, manageable risk to your workers – form more help and advice, please get in touch.


A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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