What is working at height, and how can the risks be minimised?

Common-sense says that ‘working at height’ means being anywhere off the ground when performing a task. The Health and Safety Executive definition extends that idea with this definition: "Work in any place where, if precautions were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. You are working at height if you:

  • work above ground/floor level
  • could fall from an edge, through an opening or fragile surface or
  • could fall from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground."

In short, if there’s somewhere lower and a chance of injuring yourself by falling there, you’re working at height.

Working at Height
What are the risks?

The latest HSE statistics show that working from height was the most frequent cause of fatal accidents to workers in 2017, accounting for 28% of the total. There were also 43,000 non-fatal accidents involving falls from height. Over 60% of deaths during work at height involve falls from ladders, scaffolding, working platforms and roof edges.

What are the likeliest causes of accidents?

The commonest causes of accidents while working at height, according to the HSE stats, include:

  • Using ladders and stepladders incorrectly
  • Standing on benches or chairs
  • Overstretching while reaching from ladders.

Accidents can also involve access equipment such as cherry pickers and other types of mobile elevated work platform (MEWP) and suspended access equipment (SAE) such as window cleaning cradles.

What does the law say?

According the Work at Height Regulations 2005, employers and those in control of any work at height activity must ensure that the work is properly planned, well supervised and carried out by competent people.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSW Act) makes it clear that employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of their employees. They must ensure that those affected by their activities are not exposed to risk, as far as is reasonably practicable.

Who is a competent person?

To be competent to work at height a person must have the right skills, knowledge, training and experience. These vary, depending on the nature of the work and the equipment involved. For example working outdoors on overhead power lines requires different skills, knowledge and experience from rewiring a building.

HSE guidance on minimising risk

HSE lists a number of simple steps that can help to minimise risk. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Don't work at height if there's a practical alternative
  • Use the correct equipment
  • Ensure equipment is stable, strong enough for the job and in good working order
  • Make sure workers can get to their working position safely
  • Don't over-reach when working at height
  • Be aware of fragile surfaces such as roofs, and take extra care if working on or near them
  • Protect workers from possible falling objects
  • Know the emergency evacuation and rescue procedures
Plan, supervise, train

When employers are found guilty of working at height offences, one of the commonest finding is that the work was not properly planned and supervised.

Carefully plan jobs with suitable supervision, have the right equipment properly maintained and ensure that both management and staff are correctly trained. That’s the simple path to keeping accidents to a minimum, protecting both your workforce and reputation.

Many of the NEBOSH, IOSH and other training courses available from Phoenix are suitable for employees and managers at all levels, and include the latest thinking on safe working at height. We also offer a Working at Height e-learning course. Getting everyone working together with an agreed and co-ordinated approach is the simplest way to reduce risk.