The height of safety

Falls from height remain one of the main causes of injuries and deaths among workers in UK construction. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) highlight some of the potential lessons to be learned from across the globe

Working at height is often an essential part of the life of a construction worker. Yet, despite great efforts to tighten regulations and numerous campaigns to raise awareness about the issue, it remains the most common cause of workplace fatalities.

In the UK alone, 41 workers died as a result of falls from height across all industries in 2014/15. Twenty of these fatal falls took place in construction, while half of all the cases involved workers aged 55 or over.

More than 12,000 construction workers are also injured in falls from height every year, according to the Labour Force Survey. The causes are varied, as recent Health and Safety Executive prosecutions emphasise. Firms have appeared in court and been fined after workers were, for example, injured in falls following a cold store collapse, use of a platform with unguarded rails and having fallen through an unprotected skylight.

Legislation and processes have evolved over time to help mitigate the risks of working at height, including eyebolts to secure the ladder via straps, fall protection equipment with personal rope and harness systems and safe chimney and roof processes. Indeed, major organisations, such as BskyB, started in the early 2000s to attempt to ensure the safe lone working of its staff by introducing Working at Height (WAH) training and basic standard equipment, such as ladder stabilisations, battery-powered hammer drills and basic PPE such as hard hats and working boots.

However, the provision of the right equipment is worthless if the right worker behaviours are not in place, and this is why accessible advice and guidance is an imperative.

Guidance for workers and their bosses needs to be simple, short and succinct. It has to make the biggest impact in the right way to ensure that working practices are safe. When looking at working from height there is a huge range and variety of tasks being carried out every day, from engineers scaling wind turbines to builders’ apprentices using ladders in domestic settings.

One of our key challenges is to engage with those who might not always hear our messages such as the young and those new to work. Health and safety is moving into a new era, we need to ensure that our information reaches those that need it, and that it is in the right format to be translated into knowledge and practice.

Looking at guidance around the world, a report was carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, in 2014 which highlighted how ladders were the leading cause of unintentional fatal injuries, and that 81 per cent of fall injuries in the construction injury involved a ladder. This is why a number of US agencies – the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Center for Construction Research and Training – announced a national campaign to prevent workplace falls, and why NIOSH is developing innovative technologies to complement safe ladder use.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi environmental, health and safety management system regulatory framework (AD EHSMS RF) is an integrated system that takes into account all aspects related to protection of the work environment, and the health and safety system of the workers. It features a code of practice relating to working at heights, which covers the requirements relevant to planning, preparation and conduct of health and safety work practices in connection with working at heights. In 2012, a campaign was launched which aimed for a five to ten per cent reduction in fatal occupational injuries from falls and falling objects. This has been credited with helping to achieve a 32 per cent reduction when compared to the previous 12 months, or 16 less worker deaths after implementation of the programme.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EUOSHA) has also published guidance on its website on how to work at height safely:

The best way to prevent a fall from or through a roof is not to go on it in the first place. If the work needs to be done, ask whether it can be done without going on the roof or whether the amount of time on the roof can be reduced? It may be possible to partially assemble roof sections at ground level;

Protective measures may be required at the roof edge, openings, access points to the roof and where there are fragile roof lights;

Weather conditions should be taken into account as icy, wet or windy conditions can significantly increase the risk of people or material falling;

Falling material can kill – nothing should be thrown from a roof: use enclosed rubbish chutes or lower material to the ground; do not let material that could fall accumulate; prevent access to danger areas underneath the roof; use debris netting, covered walkways or similar safeguards to stop falling material causing injury; where possible, avoid carrying large and heavy objects onto roofs;

Work on old roofs needs careful planning. You should: identify fragile parts of the roof; identify preventative measures; where necessary, liaise with the client; carry out a structural survey in some cases; and in all cases carry out a risk assessment.

When assessing the work at height there are many types of equipment to consider. For people who occasionally work at height, the HSE has developed a toolkit which is available through its website and can be used to find out what type of access equipment to use –

The common types of equipment are:

  • Ladders and step ladders
  • Podiums and tower scaffolds
  • Scaffolding
  • Vertical (scissor) lifts
  • Boom-type lifts (cherry pickers)

The HSE’s brief guide also provides information on how to decide if the people working at height are competent; only people with sufficient skills, knowledge and experience are employed to perform the task, or, if they are being trained, that they work under the supervision of somebody competent to do it.

IOSH is the Chartered body for occupational safety and health professionals, with more than 44,000 members across 120 countries. Its Construction Group comprises over 12,000 members who work in the sector. Among current strategic aims is to provide members with knowledge and information around a number of key themes, including working at height.

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