Falls from height are the single biggest cause of fatal workplace accidents in the UK. As well as being responsible for a large percentage of injuries and absences from work, the majority of incidents are also found to have been easily preventable.
Whilst working at height safety advice mainly applies to the construction and agricultural industries, falls from one level to another can happen to anyone in almost every kind of workplace. Even if the risk is minimal, it is still important to understand how to identify potential working at height hazards and minimise the risk that they pose.
The best way to remove the risk of injury or even death from working at height incidents is to ensure a full risk assessment is carried out and a safe working at height policy is introduced. It is the responsibility of the employer to carry out an appropriate risk assessment if employees are going to be completing work at height and to make sure that all the relevant control measures are implemented and followed.
Working at height is classified as any work that takes place in a location where a person could fall from a distance that would injure them if preventative measures were not taken. Working above ground or floor level, working somewhere that you could fall into a hole or opening in the ground or working in a place where you could fall through an opening, fragile surface or off a ledge all count as working at height.
A fall from height is classified as travelling from one level to a lower level, so incidents like trips or slips that occur on the same level, even if it is above the ground, do not count.
A risk assessment is a process of identifying and evaluating all potential risks that are present in a work environment. The common process for conducting a risk assessment involves identifying possible risks, identifying who could be harmed by them and implementing necessary safety measures to remove or prevent these risks from occurring.
The majority of risk assessments consist of five different stages; identifying hazards, identifying who may be harmed, evaluating the present risks, recording the data you have collected and then implementing control measures and reviewing them periodically. The process of completing a working at height risk assessment is no different.
Completing a risk assessment begins with identifying all the potential hazards that exist in the workplace. In industries such as construction, the location in which work takes place tends to change depending on the project, meaning that a new risk assessment has to be carried out every time you are working at height in a new location.
You can identify the potential hazards by talking to employees, walking around the workplace and observing hazards, reviewing past health and safety reports and reading equipment safety advice. Even if a potential risk is incredibly unlikely, it still needs to be recorded and prepared for.
Common hazards when working at height include:
Each of these hazards poses a potential risk, such as tools falling from a height and injuring someone, equipment malfunctioning, a surface collapsing or an employee working in an unsafe manner. These risks could all result in injury or a fatality and so must be prepared for and prevented as much as possible.
The Work at Height Regulations (2005) also highlights several factors that must be considered in a working at height risk assessment. These are:
Once you have identified and listed all of the potential working at height hazards, you will then need to decide who is at risk from each of these. Employees are the most likely to be affected by the risks of working at height, but if you are working in a public place or shared site then other workers, visitors or members of the public could be at risk.
For every potential hazard that is present in the workplace, identify who could be involved in an accident caused by this. Start with those directly affected, and then consider whether there may be any knock-on effects that could harm more people.
The third stage of a risk assessment is one of the most important, as it will inform the steps you need to take in the next section. Once you are aware of all the potential risks in the workplace and who they might affect, you then need to evaluate the likelihood of each of these risks occurring and the severity of their consequences.
This method of risk evaluation is used in the majority of risk assessments and often requires additional research or consultancy. In many cases, calculating the likelihood of a risk occurring will require external data and information from product or equipment documentation.
Once you have a clear idea of how likely a hazardous situation is, you can then estimate the severity of its consequences. An incident such as a tool falling from a height may only result in minimal injury, if anything, but the collapse of a surface or a fall through a window could cause serious damage and even death.
From these two pieces of information, you will be able to evaluate the severity of each of your potential risks and decide which need to be addressed first. These calculations will also determine which risks are deemed as unacceptable and have to be removed, and which only need to have preventative measures implemented.
You can use the working at height hierarchy of control at this stage to advise the actions that you take to handle each risk.
Following this advice will help you to decide on appropriate control measures for all of the risks present in the workplace.
You should have been recording your findings through the previous stages of the risk assessment, but at this stage you need to write up a formal risk assessment document that details everything you have done so far. There is no official structure for a risk assessment for working at height, but many templates are available online if you need help.
Once a risk assessment has been written up, it should be distributed amongst everyone in the workplace. It is very important that all employees know the steps that are being taken to keep them safe when working at height and are aware of what they must also do to minimise risk.
A copy of a risk assessment should be kept in the workplace or on the site of working at height tasks so that it can be consulted if needed, either by an employee or a health and safety officer.
Once you have produced an official copy of your risk assessment, you must then put all of the working at height control measures that you have specified into place. This must be done before any of the work is completed, as otherwise you risk legal consequences as well as an accident.
A risk assessment is not a finished product and should be updated and reviewed when necessary. If certain control measures aren’t working or accidents have taken place, the risk assessment should be consulted and new measures should be put in place if the old ones are deemed insufficient.
Before the updated Work at Height Regulations (2005) was brought in, working from height was defined as any work that happened more than two metres above ground level. However, these criteria no longer apply and there is now no specified value that classifies a task as ‘working from height’.
The hierarchy of control measures that are used in a risk assessment for working at height can be divided into three main steps; avoiding working at height, preventing falls when working at height and then minimising distance whilst working at height. Preventing falls and minimising distance have several different steps within them, but these steps all have the same intention.
The main piece of legislation that covers working at height is the Work at Height Regulations which was implemented in 2005. The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) also applies, as it makes employers responsible for keeping their staff safe in the workplace (which could involve working from height) and the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, or RIDDOR (2013), which requires any accidents that occur whilst at work to be reported to HSE.
Whilst working at height does present one of the biggest risks in the workplace, there are also plenty of simple controls you can put in place that will drastically reduce the risk of injury. It’s important to remember never to cut corners or rush a risk assessment for the sake of completing a task in less time, as it is in these situations where mistakes are made and hazardous situations become more likely.
For more information about safely working at heights, Virtual College offers an online ‘Working at Heights Training’ course that outlines the risks of working at heights in detail and the best ways to prevent these.