The Work at Height Regulations 2005 is the primary piece of UK legislation relating to working at height and the associated risks. This legislation's aim was to reduce the numbers of workers being injured and killed by workplace falls from height, which were – and sadly remain – quite common. It requires employers to take every practical step available to identify the hazards facing their employees when they're working at height and to remove or minimise the risks so that accidents are less likely to take place.
Part of an employer's legal and moral duty towards its workers is the creation of a thorough risk assessment. This identifies the relevant hazards and sets out the control measures that tackle these.
What are Control Measures?
Control measures are any actions taken that can eliminate the risk of a hazard or reduce employees' exposure to said hazard.
The most effective control measures remove the hazard entirely. An example of this is replacing a task that typically involves working at height with one that takes place at ground level, perhaps through the use of extendable tools. Window cleaners can reach some higher level windows this way and avoid any additional risks to their safety.
Sometimes, working from height is unavoidable and the task can't be done remotely or from ground level. In these cases, control measures can include limiting the time employees spend working at height, providing sufficient training for the job, ensuring they have the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for their work and setting up features such as safety nets. Which of these is the appropriate response will depend on the project itself, the individuals involved, and other circumstances. The most effective control measures can change over time – one of the reasons it's so important to review risk assessments regularly and on an ongoing basis.
Choosing the Right Equipment for the Job
As a rule of thumb, collective and passive forms of safety measures are preferred over personal forms (such as PPE) or measures that rely on individuals' behaviour to work. Safety railings, for example, require no action from workers (other than to refrain from climbing over the railings) and safety nets work regardless of how much the person falling into them is following a specific protocol.
In one case, an employee cleaning extraction fans in a poultry unit fell 3 metres from an unguarded roof, causing permanent spinal injuries. Roof edge protection or a safety harness would have likely led to a better outcome for the employee, as would a host of other health and safety preparation that was not done in this instance.
In terms of accident prevention, choosing the correct equipment for a job at height is vital. It's very important for all access equipment to be inspected by people trained and competent to do so, both before and after each use.
When selecting access equipment, bear the following in mind:
- What risk level is the task? This may well influence the type of equipment you choose.
- How long will the task take? Longer duration jobs require different equipment. Generally, workers shouldn't be expected to work up a ladder for anything longer than half an hour.
Reviewing your Control Measures
Your working at height risk assessment, like all others, should be reviewed as regularly as possible. It should also be changed whenever circumstances alter, including staff changes.
Unlike some other health and safety hazards, the risks posed by working at height are likely to be different with each project you take on, due to the fact that each site is different and has its own issues to consider. A barn renovation, a roof replacement job and routine maintenance work on a skyscraper are all going to involve different hazards and require very different control measures.
Risk assessments are generally more effective when they're written with the input of the employees who are doing the work in question. Workers will often raise practical points that haven't been considered and be able to suggest the control measures that would best solve the problems. Documents written in a collaborative way with workers are far more likely to be followed than if they had been imposed without any consultation.