Working at height can be particularly challenging and, in some cases, can be dangerous if risks aren’t assessed and mitigated successfully.
Tragically, around 34 workers are killed by a fall from height in Britain each year. Falls from height accounted for 25% of worker deaths in 2020/21, so to say it’s vital these accidents are prevented would be an understatement. Understanding and preventing risks when working at height could quite literally be lifesaving.
In this blog, we’ll take a look at the most common risks that workers face when working at height and the best ways to prevent them.
What Are The Most Common Risks When Working At Height?
Anyone working at height should be able to identify common hazards and put suitable control measures in place to prevent accidents from occurring.
Common hazards of working at height include unprotected edges enabling a fall to occur, as well as working on fragile surfaces, working on unsuitable ground conditions, and working in poor weather.
Being aware of the conditions around you will also help to prevent accidents or falls from height. This includes looking out for obstructions overhead (particularly relevant when using an access platform), other mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs), or moving objects and vehicles. There may also be people working above you, which could increase the risk of objects falling and causing injury.
The Importance of Risk Assessments
Good planning is the most effective way to prevent accidents from happening when working at height. The competent person carrying out the assessment will identify potential risks and should put suitable control measures in place to minimise the chance of an accident or injury occurring.
The key document is a safe system of work or method statement, which is the outcome of the risk assessment and outlines how the work is intended to be performed to keep everyone safe.
HSE advice is to avoid working from height where possible. However, in certain situations, working from height is an absolute necessity. How could we construct buildings, maintain hard-to-reach areas or install electrical cables without working at height? In these instances, it’s recommended to use access platform equipment to help carry out the job safely.
The following problems are among the most common that can occur when there is a need to work at height. To help you prepare for managing these potential problems, we have also put together short descriptions of how to start thinking about mitigating these risks:
Problem One: Minor Jobs Are Underestimated
Falls from a low height can be extremely dangerous, yet this risk is often overlooked. ‘Work at height’ is defined by The Work at Height Regulations as:
(a) work in any place, including a place at or below ground level;
(b) obtaining access to or egress from such place while at work, except by a staircase in a permanent workplace, where, if measures required by these Regulations were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.
It may seem as though the higher the job, the riskier the role is for the operator. This is, however, not correct – a significant number of fatal falls are ‘low level falls’, often happening below two metres from ground level.
Remember – it only takes a short fall to cause considerable damage, so you should always take the risk of a low-level working at height job as seriously as if you were working at the top of The Shard.
Fragile surfaces should not be underestimated, either. Even if the height isn’t particularly great, a small fall from a flimsy or uneven surface can cause significant damage. If you need to carry out work on a fragile surface, such as a roof, use a MEWP where possible to access the area. If a MEWP isn’t suitable, consider safety precautions such as work position or work restraint then fall arrest measures such as safety nets.
Preventing Falls From Low Heights
Treat all working at height jobs with caution, conducting a thorough risk assessment even if you think the risk may be insignificant.
Whether you’re working from a ladder, scaffolding, a roof, an access platform or even just on a flight of stairs, it’s important to assess risks seriously. Ask yourself what could happen in a worst-case scenario and what measures could be taken to minimise the risk.
Problem Two: Untrained Operators
All operators, demonstrators and instructors must have relevant training. The law (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regs – PUWER) requires all work equipment to be operated by competent operators, which means the operator must have the right skills and training. Though this is open to some interpretation, it’s considered best practice for operators, demonstrators and managers to undertake a recognised training course. Industry-standard IPAF training courses ensure MEWP operators have the knowledge and practical skills they need to operate a powered access platform safely.
Protecting Staff From Harm
Follow legislation and ensure that all operators and managers have the training they need to work at height safely. Assess which training course is most suitable for their role and ensure IPAF and PASMA certificates are renewed every five years. For more information, check out our guide to access platforms training.
Suitable supervision must also be in place to minimise the chance of an accident happening. Coordinating a project that requires working at height is a skill in itself, and specific manager / supervision training should be undertaken to ensure supervisors on site are aware of relevant regulations, health and safety protocols and accident prevention.
Problem Three: Equipment Issues
Pre-use inspection should be carried out on all equipment prior to use so you can be sure all machinery is working adequately and safely. Regular maintenance and a full equipment inspection prior to use will ensure there are no issues with the chosen access platform and can also identify any defects at an early stage which may reduce any potential downtime.
Work-at-height equipment is subject to section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act, as well as the PUWER and the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER). These regulations detail that it is imperative to repair, maintain and examine powered access equipment. The employer is responsible for ensuring that all work-at-height equipment is tested and inspected regularly.
Preventing Equipment Problems
A pre-use inspection should be carried out to ensure the access platform equipment is fit for purpose. This inspection will highlight any defects and will verify that the equipment is safe to use. In addition, any MEWP should have a complete and up-to-date service history and maintenance logs, including regular LOLER examinations every six months.
Make sure you choose a reputable MEWP provider such as Horizon Platforms. We make sure that all of our equipment is adequately maintained and in good working order. Our blog on access platform maintenance goes into more detail about the importance of equipment inspection and servicing.
Problem Four: Poorly Chosen Platforms
One might assume that all MEWPs are designed for the same purpose. However, you should always use equipment designed for the right job.
Different cherry pickers or scissor lifts are designed for different purposes. Several factors will need to be taken into consideration, such as whether your job is outside or on rough terrain, what height distance needs to be reached, the type of space you’ll be operating in, and what the load capacity will need to be.
It’s also important to know what equipment to use and when. For example, it’s not recommended to use a ladder for more than 30 minutes at a time. If the job is more complex and requires working from height for an extended period of time, consider alternative means such as hiring or buying an access platform.
Choosing The Right Equipment
It is a legal requirement to ensure all jobs are properly planned and organised. This includes assessing what machinery and equipment is most appropriate for the job. Use a tool such as Horizon Platforms’ Platform Finder to discover which equipment you need for your job.
Problem Five: Lack Of Safety Equipment
Using a MEWP will introduce specific additional hazards and risks which need to be addressed by way of risk assessment and planning, so it’s important to consider additional work equipment to limit the chances of a fall from height causing injury.
From handrails to working at height restraints – such as a safety harness – it’s important operators have all they need to stay safe. Fall protection equipment should be used when operating a boom lift, though it is not normally necessary to use a full body harness when operating a scissor lift.
You should also take care to prevent objects from falling and injuring those below you, too. Putting in place an easy and effective measure such as wearing a tool belt could easily minimise this risk.
Putting Control Measures In Place
Minimising the consequences of any potential fall is key, and preventative equipment will help to do this. Providing protective measures such as guardrails is particularly important, though personal protective measures such as fall arrest equipment can be vital too.
The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 requires operators to be trained on how to use and maintain personal protective equipment (PPE). Full safety harness training, for example, ensures the equipment is correctly used and inspected. After all, it’s no good having additional safety equipment if it’s faulty or it isn’t fitted properly.
This training will help operators understand what they need to look out for when inspecting their safety equipment, such as ensuring there’s no physical damage, or signs of excessive wear. In addition, operators will learn which safety harness to use in different situations and how to fit them correctly.
Problem Six: Human Error
Working from scaffolding, ladders or platforms carries a certain element of risk. However, trips and falls rarely happen without reason. Often, it can be the result of the edge of a platform not being protected with guardrails, or items being poorly stacked.
Using a stepladder incorrectly or an individual stretching to reach a certain area can cause accidents. Slips and trips happen at height, too, particularly slips from the top of platforms or stairways.
Preventing Human Error
Conducting a thorough risk assessment will help to identify potential hazards. Inspect the working area, evaluate risks and decide what precautions should be taken to minimise those risks.
For example, ensure the working area is clear of obstructions or slip hazards. Providing workers with the PPE they need, including safety footwear, will also help to minimise the risk of slips and trips.
As we’ve mentioned before, all operators should have relevant IPAF or PASMA training certification to minimise the risk of human error. Fully trained professionals are more likely to be alert to potential hazards.
Problem Seven: Not Knowing What To Do Next
Sometimes accidents do happen, but knowing how to respond swiftly and professionally could prevent a situation from escalating.
It is a legal requirement to have a rescue plan in place so that:
- If someone does fall, they’re able to be assisted as soon as possible.
- An occupant of a MEWP can be brought back to ground level safely (due to medical emergency, mechanical fault, platform overload etc).
Your rescue plan should include foreseeable emergency situations and the correlating rescue options.
Understanding Emergency Procedures
All risk assessments should cover what to do if an accident does occur or an additional risk is identified. In the event of an incident, work should cease immediately until the situation has been dealt with and work can recommence safely.
Your rescue plan should take into account what type of rescue may be required, providing a step-by-step action plan, including what equipment may be needed to conduct the rescue right through to what needs to happen following the rescue. IPAF’s useful rescue plan template may help you to get started creating your own.
Remember: A rescue plan should be a live document that is regularly practiced, reviewed and updated. This will help to ensure it is relevant and helpful should a rescue need to take place.
The Best Way To Mitigate Risk…
Is to be prepared. Never ‘hope for the best’. With a comprehensive risk assessment conducted, control measures in place and training courses booked in, you can have total peace of mind that you’ve done all you can to minimise the risk of a fall from height.