Working at height is one of the most dangerous working tasks. The construction industry, in particular, has many scenarios where a fall from height could occur.

Whether it’s during the erection of a scaffold, when working from a crane, or due to misuse of protective equipment, year after year we see all too many accidents resulting directly from persons falling from height. These come about for many, varied reasons, including the violation of rules and procedures, poor risk assessments, incompetent use of safety equipment, and a lack of information, training, instruction and supervision. So what measures and controls can we put into place to prevent these falls from occurring? First, let us look at the task.

Hazard or hazardous activity?

One of the common issues with working at height is the confusion that comes regarding its definition. A lot of risk assessments identify the hazardous nature of the task, but only as one single hazard. Working at height should actually be defined as a hazardous activity. This is because there is more than just the one hazard of height. This is always identified as the main hazard, but others are neglected. These include falling objects, slip and trip hazards and environmental hazards, particularly high winds. Let’s face it – being at height does not cause a fall. It certainly contributes to the consequences of a fall, but it does not actually trigger the fall itself. Triggers are other events, such as a slip or trip on a trailing cable or a slippery surface, the collapse of a structure (such as a scaffold) or even a dynamic change in an environment, such as a sudden increase in wind speed, or a spillage.

The task

The ideal thing to do with a task of working at height is to use the hierarchy of control and eliminate it. Through elimination, we get rid of the hazard altogether, which therefore means we also get rid of the associated risks. For example, if we were a roofing company, rather than lifting the trestles, beams and other items into place, then working on them, we could do most of the roof construction on the ground. Not only does this reduce the amount of time workers are at height, it also reduces the exposure of workers to other hazards and risks, such as the number of crane lifts required. As any health and safety professional knows, however, the real world does not always allow us to opt for the best and safest method, as much as we would all like to. So realistically, some tasks involving work at height will always be necessary. With this being the case, what can we do to protect our workforce?

Protection and prevention

When work at height is unavoidable we need to analyse the task thoroughly and implement appropriate control measures. This will depend upon many factors, including the nature of the task and the conditions in which the work is being carried out. If we cannot use elimination, other parts of the hierarchy of control could be used, such as engineering and administrative controls. To allow our workforce a steady platform to work on, we could erect scaffolding systems or use mobile access equipment. Easy enough? Well, not really. While these methods help to limit the risks posed to our workforce, we still need to ensure that these systems are safe to use (e.g. access equipment being inspected by a competent third party, as well as a daily inspection by the operator of the equipment), and our workforce is fully trained and knowledgeable on their use. Supervision is also crucial, to ensure compliance with any local and national legislation, as well as to prevent the misuse of the equipment provided. We also need to choose equipment that is appropriate for the tasks. For example, we would not use a cherry picker with a 50 metre reach for a job at an elevation of just 10 metres. Fall prevention and arrest methods may also be required; for example, in a lot of countries legislation mandates that any worker using a mobile access platform must wear a personal fall arrest system. This usually consists of a full body harness, lanyard, safety hook, and an approved attachment point on the equipment or structure. The lanyard may or may not have a deceleration pack attached, but this will depend upon the height they are working at and what is deemed appropriate by a risk assessment. Other types of lanyards act like seat belts, halting a fall suddenly. Workers could also use fall prevention systems. These include harnesses and very short lanyards that prevent the worker reaching an area they can fall into. Also, scaffolding will have barriers in place to prevent falls, and workers will be able to access the different levels through secure ladders built into the system. They also may wear harness and lanyard systems. Other safety systems include mast climbing platforms and lifts and hoists to allow safe access to height and netting systems, which can catch a worker who has fallen.

Dangers of a fall

As health and safety professionals, we always try to plan for the worst and hope for the best. So what happens if it all goes wrong, and we have a fall from height? On many occasions workers have worn a fall arrest system and had a fall from height. The system has worked perfectly, preventing them from hitting the ground by stopping their fall, leaving the victim suspended. This is all well and good, but due to a lack of planning and knowhow in an emergency or rescue scenario, workers often end up suffering harness trauma and other conditions and injuries.

Harness trauma comes about through the pooling of blood in the lower part of the person’s body. This feels very much like pins and needles, only on an extreme scale. Not only is this painful, but once lowered to the floor many victims are immediately put into the recovery position. This can be disastrous, as the sudden surge of blood flowing to the heart can overload it, causing heart attack and subsequent heart failure. Injuries can occur through striking an object, due to the pendulum effect of the falling victim, swinging into a structure or object. At relatively low heights, persons who fall can strike the ground before the deceleration pack on a lanyard has time to take effect. To be effective, most deceleration packs on lanyards require a fall distance of at least six metres. This information can be found on the pack itself. Injuries can also be the result of incorrectly fitting the harness. If workers wear the harness too loose, they could potentially fall out of the shoulder straps. Also, loose leg straps can be pulled sharply upwards into the groin region with particularly nasty consequences. Conversely, straps that are too tight can cut into a victim’s body like a knife, particularly if the straps are twisted. The metal buckle on a chest-strap can also damage the wearer’s breastbone – imagine striking someone in the chest with a hammer. The bone cracks and breaks, damaging the lungs and causing them to fill with blood making breathing difficult. Another issue is that components of a fall prevention or arrest system can fail; for example, damaged components can break, sharp metal edges can cut through strap webbing, or the tie-off point, structure or equipment for the safety hook can fail. Ultimately, many persons have to be rescued by the emergency services. The danger here, however, is that the fire brigade does not always have the necessary information, training, instruction or equipment to carry out a rescue at height. This means that they put themselves at unnecessary risk, introducing the potential for avoidable additional casualties. So what can we do to avoid these nightmare scenarios?

Dealing with a fall

If we cannot realistically eliminate the fall altogether, then let’s make sure that any fall protection and arrest equipment, access equipment and structures are suitable for the task at hand. Make sure they are in good working order through any necessary in house and third party inspections, as required by company policy, and/or local, national and international legislation. Give the workforce the necessary instruction, training, information and supervision in order for them to be able to use the equipment safely every single time. In the previous paragraph I painted a picture of the sorts of things that can happen when fall arrest equipment is misused. Used properly by competent people, however, these systems are very effective. While we do not want the fall to occur, let’s train our workforce on how to react should a fall or emergency situation come about. Give the required specialist training to any potential members of your workforce who would need to perform rescues, and supply them with the equipment required. There are many rescue systems on the market that can be used to rescue personnel while awaiting the arrival of emergency services. As always, however, it is necessary for the users of such systems to be competent in their use. There are many companies who can provide this specialist training and knowledge, or you could approach the supplier of the rescue equipment. Include in your rescue plan any necessary response from emergency services that may be required to give specialist treatment to the victim, or to bring in specialist rescue equipment, before transporting any injured workers to a medical facility. Liaise with these services to see what expertise and equipment they have, where it is located and what you would require should you need to utilise their services. Rehearse this plan with workers whenever possible, noting whether it is sufficient and if anything needs to be changed.

Follow the PDCA principle – plan, do, check and act – until you are satisfied that the plan performs as it should. Health and safety is a massive and varied field, which can include complex subjects such as recues at height. While lots of people possess general health and safety knowledge and experience, there are people and companies who specialise in one particular area or field. If you feel you lack the expertise in such matters or you have any doubts, approach these consultants and experts to help you become informed on what systems and controls you would need to put into place for your particular industry, job or task. Remember, the only stupid question is the one left unasked.


Falls while working at height are severe not only for the victim, but also their colleagues, the emergency services and all other persons involved. At best, the victim could develop a psychological condition, such as a fear of heights. At worst, we could lose a skilled, experienced and valued member of our company, maybe even a friend. With the appropriate planning of the task, knowledge of what action to take in an emergency situation, and competent use of fall prevention and arrest systems and equipment, we can ensure that we do all that is necessary to eliminate falls from height, or at the very least, mitigate the severity of the consequences.

There is always going to be a monetary cost involved with trying to prevent or mitigate the severity of falls from height. This cost, however, is minimal when compared with the psychological and human cost of losing a colleague in an event that is entirely preventable.

Published: 21st Jul 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East