Safer practices: working at heights and ‘staying alive’

It is an unfortunate fact that falls from heights have long been – and remain – a leading cause of death in the workplace. Accounting for 18% of all workplace deaths, and a staggering 48% of all fatal injuries in the construction industry*, this important health and safety concern is now the focus of a new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG).

Published on 26th January 2019, Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities while Working at Height** is the output of a 12-month inquiry into working at height cultures. The report outlines six recommendations devised by the APPG to reduce the total number of workplace falls and demands a major review of working at heights policies. It also asks what Government and industry leaders can do to ensure workers return home safely to their families after each working day, and to ultimately reduce the number of falls to zero. The work of the APPG has already received interest and support from a diverse range of stakeholders, from trade associations and industry leaders to SMEs and contractors; all keen to make safer practices a reality.

Here, we look at what protection current legislation provides and what the new recommendations may mean for businesses and employees in the future.

The current situation:

The primary legislation governing work at heights is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for enforcing the Act, along with the Work at Heights Regulation 2005.

One of the most notable aspects of the 2005 regulations is the hierarchy of measures, which asks three essential questions to guide working practices – also providing practical solutions for safety measures at each step. It’s a useful starting point for employers and employees in every sector and asks:

Can work at height be avoided?

Do as much work as possible from the ground. Some practical examples include:

  • Using extendable tools from ground level to remove the need to climb a ladder
  • Installing cables at ground level or lowering a lighting mast to the ground level
Can you prevent a fall from happening?

You can do this by using either of the below:

  • Using an existing place of work that is already safe e.g. a non-fragile roof with a permanent perimeter guard rail
  • Using work equipment to prevent people from falling
Can you minimise the distance/consequence of a fall?

Practical examples include using:

  • Safety nets
  • Soft landing systems
  • Rope access and fall-arrest systems

The guidance provided by the 2005 Regulations has already had a significant effect on reducing the number of falls in the workplace, but there is still much to be done to drive better protection for the estimated 10 million UK employees involved in work at height each year. This is where the work of the APPG will come in – and where businesses have an important role to play.

Raising future standards

Changes in workplace culture will be crucial to improving future safety standards for UK workers. All too often it is complacency that creates a problem – particularly where bad habits have formed over time or where less formal work environments mean that the correct processes don’t exist. Recent examples of avoidable tragedies include an electrician who fell from a potato box attached to a forklift truck on a Yorkshire farm and a school caretaker who fell from an unsecured ladder whilst cleaning a bike shed. In the first case, the correct equipment was available but not used; in the second case there was no risk assessment process and no training had been provided. In both cases the height in question was not what might be considered significant, yet both circumstances resulted in an unnecessary death.

In practice, an ‘it’ll never happen to me’ mentality can be difficult to overcome, and time pressures or client expectations need to be carefully managed. Raising awareness of the issues is an important first step to getting everyone committed to change – and fully understanding where and when the issues arise requires careful collection and analysis of data.

The recommendations of the APPG Staying Alive report support this approach, providing four key recommendations:

  1. The introduction of enhanced reporting without an additional burden, through RIDDOR, which at a minimum records the scale of a fall, the method used and the circumstances of the fall.
  2. The appointment of an independent body that allows confidential, enhanced and digital reporting of all near misses and accidents that do not qualify for RIDDOR reporting. The data collected by this independent body will be shared with government and industry to inform health and safety policy.
  3. The extension of the Working Well Together and Working Well at Height safety campaigns to industries outside of the construction sector.
  4. An equivalent system to Scotland’s Fatal Accident Inquiry process to be extended to the rest of the UK.

Better regulation and more effective reporting are only the first steps on a journey towards optimal health and safety culture for working at heights. Over time, technology may also help – and the development of drone and augmented-reality technology may mean that less work at height will need to be done manually. The most important step, however, will be for organisations across all sectors to recognise their individual responsibility, to create safer working practices for their own employees, and to insist that third party contractors can demonstrate the same level of commitment. With work at heights under the spotlight, there’s never been a better time to make sure your processes are ship shape.

Acclaim accreditation is a practical and straightforward way for organisations to improve their health and safety culture and to demonstrate to partners, clients and stakeholders that they can meet or exceed current safety standards. To find out more about Acclaim click here.

*Read more on the 2018 HSE Great Britain Construction Statistics here.

**Download the ‘Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities while Working at Height’ report here.

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