Working at height is one of the biggest causes of accidents and injuries in the workplace each year. Risk assessments and control measures are vitally important to help reduce these accidents and help keep people who work at height safe.
If you’re responsible for completing a working at height risk assessment, you’ll need to consult the hierarchy of control for this kind of work. This hierarchy offers guidance on the steps that should be taken to reduce the risk of hazardous scenarios and provides a framework for implementing control measures and continually assessing risk until a situation is as safe as possible.
In this article, we explain each of the stages in the hierarchy of control for working at height and explain what is required at each level to keep workers safe.
HSE defines working at height as “any place where, if precautions were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury”. It does not only apply to people who undertake work whilst they are above ground or floor level, but also anyone who could fall from an edge or an opening to ground level or fall through an opening at ground level onto a surface below this.
Working at height means that there is the potential that you will fall from where you are working. A fall from height is defined as falling from one level to another and does not include tripping or slipping over on a surface that is raised above the ground.
The working at height hierarchy of control outlines a list of control measures that should be implemented before any work at height takes place. They exist as a kind of checklist to work through, where you shouldn’t move to the next stage until the one above it has been completed as much as possible.
Hierarchy of control measures are frequently used in work at height risk assessments as guidance when taking steps to reduce the likelihood of hazardous situations occurring. If you are completing a risk assessment, it is recommended that you use the hazard control hierarchy to evaluate the current measures you have in place and ensure that nobody will be at risk.
There are 8 different stages of the hierarchy of control for working at height. The specifics of each of these are explained below.
The first principle of the hierarchy of control in any context is to try and avoid doing the work that poses a risk altogether. This might seem counterintuitive, but there are usually ways in which dangerous work can be avoided or alternate arrangements can be made, which will then remove the need to continue with a risk assessment and keep everyone involved much safer.
When it comes to working at height control measures, the first thing you should do is consider whether anyone needs to work at height at all. For example, if repairs need to be made, can they be made at ground level and then reinstalled at height? Can the person completing the work remain at ground level and use equipment to do the work above them?
If you assess the work that needs to be done and determine that it cannot take place anywhere other than at height, you will need to work through the other stages of the hierarchy of control.
If work at height needs to take place, you should first ensure that everyone involved has received appropriate training that will enable them to complete their jobs safely. Before anyone goes above ground level, they should complete appropriate training for working at height and be taught how to use the equipment and safety devices they will be using as well.
Supervision should also be provided whilst working at height, especially if the employees above ground level are less experienced. Supervisors should also have received appropriate levels of health and safety training, and have experience working at height so that they know what to look out for and what guidance to share during the work.
If you’re looking for training for your team, we offer an online ‘Working at Heights Training’ course that is CPD certified and is aimed at anyone who plans or carries out work at height.
If it has been decided that working at height is unavoidable, you will need to assess whether any equipment can be used to prevent falls. This will mean that if a fall does occur, the person involved will be protected by equipment such as a net or a harness, minimising their chances of injury.
Fall prevention equipment also includes things like guard rails and other barriers that will stop workers from falling off edges or through openings. You should implement these measures first, and then consider things like nets and harnesses if no other fall prevention equipment is possible.
If you are responsible for selecting and installing safety equipment, you will also need to assess whether it is suitable for the work that it is helping to keep safe. This can be done by clarifying the work that will take place, the potential risks that this involves and then the strength and stability of the equipment that has been installed.
Having safety equipment in a working environment is no use if the equipment isn’t actually safe. If one of your control measures is equipment that prevents falls, you should also implement a process for ensuring the correct operation of this equipment so that it doesn’t malfunction and lead to someone getting injured by falling from a height.
Before any work at height is completed, equipment should be checked to ensure that it has been installed correctly and will serve its purpose. Only after this should work be carried out.
If you’re completing a risk assessment, you should specify who is going to carry out these safety checks, how frequently they will conduct them, and what action will be taken if a fault is discovered. You should also consider how this equipment is going to be maintained and who will be responsible for fixing and maintaining it.
You can prevent the severity of injury from falling from a height by providing workers with appropriate personal protective equipment. When working at height, this often involves supplying fall arrest harnesses that will keep employees connected to the equipment they are working on to prevent serious falls.
Hard hats are another key piece of PPE that should be supplied to everyone in an environment where working at height hazards are present. This is to protect people at ground level from objects or other people that might fall from above.
This stage of the hazard control hierarchy involves completing regular assessments of the working environment to ensure that no other hazards are present that could compromise the safety of the people working there. If work is taking place near power lines for example, this should be factored into the risk assessment and steps should be taken to reduce the risk of harm.
A key consideration when working at height should also be the weather if the work is taking place outdoors. Strong winds, rain and fog can all make working above ground level much more dangerous, and if these weather conditions are present then the work should be delayed if possible.
Finally, the last stage of the working at height hierarchy of control is to have an emergency rescue plan in place. This should be a last resort, as you should have done as much as possible to reduce or remove the likelihood that rescue will be needed, but a plan should still be put together just in case.
A rescue plan usually applies to a situation where someone has fallen from a height but is suspended in a harness and needs help safely getting down. You will need to specify how they are going to be reached, what equipment will be needed and how you will prevent them from falling any further during the rescue process.
Emergency rescue plans may also apply to situations where someone may have fallen and is injured but still stuck above ground level. This again will require specific equipment to get them down safely, along with knowledge of how to respond to injuries when someone is still in an unsafe position.
Remember that whilst emergency services will usually be called in the event of a fall from height, it is not their responsibility to retrieve an individual who has fallen. That task belongs to the person in charge of the working environment, which is why an emergency rescue plan is an essential part of a risk assessment.
Control measures refer to any action taken or process implemented that reduces the risk of exposure to a hazard or minimises the harm caused if a hazard occurs. They protect individuals from the hazards present in a variety of environments and are a key part of risk assessments.
Different hierarchies of control exist for different kinds of activities, which means that the number of levels in the hierarchy will depend on what the control measures are affecting. In the working at height hierarchy of control, there are eight levels of control measures.
Previously, the official definition of ‘working at height’ was any work that was done 2 metres above ground level. However, more recent health and safety regulations removed this benchmark and there is no minimum value that has to be reached to class an activity as ‘working at height’; if you are off the ground then you should follow the appropriate health and safety guidance.
Risk assessments are one of the best ways of reducing the risk of harm during activities like working from height, and the hierarchy of control offers a comprehensive framework for ensuring that you take all the precautions necessary to keep everyone safe. Remember that it is designed to be worked through from top to bottom, and that you should always complete each stage fully before moving on and implementing the actions from the next one.
If you’d like more information on official health and safety guidelines when working at height, our ‘Working at Heights Training’ course contains everything you need to know to comply with official working at heights legislation.