Working at height – risk prevention

In a series of articles for AccessPoint, SMAS Worksafe will look at the risks and preventative measures for those working at height and the equipment and procedures which can be implemented to mitigate the risks, or reduce them to as low as reasonably practicable.

The latest statistics from the HSE on Working at Height show a steep rise in fatal injuries over the last year, revealing that 147 workers were fatally injured in 2018/19 – a rise of 4 per cent on the previous year. Forty of those individuals were killed by falling from a height, making falls from height the single biggest cause of death from fatal injuries at work in the UK. When major injuries are also included, this is a big problem that needs to be addressed as a priority.

The most common causes of these incidents occurring involve overreaching, overbalancing, or the failure of a fragile surface that weight is being applied to without support. However, falls from height also involve unguarded holes in floors, including hatchways, inspection holes and pits, or falls into tanks and machinery. Other hazards include falling objects or platforms overturning or collapsing. This  highlights just how varied the risks can be when working from height and how important it is for organisations to have clear procedures in place to mitigate each of these risks – every time their teams carry out work.

Control measures

A systematic approach should be taken prior to conducting any activity at height. The steps should be considered to ensure the risk is as low as reasonably practicable:

●    Consider whether working at height can be avoided – if you don’t need to, don’t do it!

●    Complete as much of the work as possible from ground level

●    Complete the work using an existing means of access and egress

●    Use suitable work equipment to prevent a fall occurring, e.g. edge protection

●   Use equipment to reduce the distance and consequences of a fall, e.g. fall arrest systems

●    Provide training and clear instructions to those who will carry out the work to ensure the activity is conducted in a safe manner with the appropriate serviceable equipment

Working at height safely

Although working at height should be avoided where possible, the reality is that, quite often, it cannot be avoided, particularly in the access and scaffolding sector. Therefore, it is vital that an existing safe place of work is employed. These means of access or egress should:

●    Be strong and stable enough to hold the weight of the operatives carrying out the work and rest on an equally strong and stable platform

●    Be big enough to facilitate the operatives, materials and machinery

●    Avoid having gaps through which operatives or materials could fall

●    Be constructed, used and maintained to prevent the risks of slipping or tripping, or of any person being trapped between the working location and any adjacent structure

●    Provide suitable protection, such as platforms, coverings, crawling boards or guardrails, or, where not practicable, measures taken to minimise the distance and consequence of any fall, e.g. fall arrest systems, safety nets and air bags

●    Include prominent warning signs at any location where persons may pass near to or work on a fragile surface

Reducing the distance and consequence of a fall

Often the risk of falls themselves cannot be avoided entirely. Therefore, it’s important that work equipment and other measures are implemented to reduce the possible distance and consequence of those falls. This primarily means the use of safety nets that must be manufactured to recognised standards and designed to catch both falling people and falling materials. Safety nets should only ever be installed by competent, trained individuals who can ensure that the tension in the net is set correctly to enable the safe catching of the falling object.

Prevention of falling objects is important and often overlooked when considering the risks of working at height. Passers-by and other workers at ground level are just as at risk from falling objects as those operating at height.

In the first instance, steps should be taken to prevent the fall of objects or materials, e.g. tools fitted with lanyards, installation of toe-boards, and sheeting and fans on scaffolding. Where this isn’t reasonable, measures should be implemented to ensure that persons are not struck by falling objects, e.g. barrier-off danger areas below and prevent unauthorised access. Chutes must be used to control the transport of materials and waste from a height to a safe location.

Variety of risks

The reality is that the few examples of working at height risks covered in this article just scratches the surface. The potential risk to those at height, as well as those operating below, are many and of varying nature.