Crucial Height safety

Let's eliminate fall incidents for good

by Louise Hosking, Hosking Associates


Falls from height are the second most common reason for UK workers to die, following being struck by a moving vehicle. Twenty-five workers died from falling in 2016-17, accounting for 18% of all fatal incidents that year1.

Typically, falls from height have included:

  • Falls from flat roofs
  • Falls through skylights or other fragile materials
  • Falls due to the use of inappropriate equipment, e.g. use of ladders where alternatives were available
  • Tree work activities
  • Falls from vehicles

High standards of housekeeping around workplaces where people are working from height are critical, as slips or trips in these locations can have much more serious consequences.

Standards generally should always be high, with workers well trained and closely supervised.

The Law

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 expect employers to consider hazards associated with work from height and to apply the hierarchy of risk control when considering how it will be managed.

The hierarchy of risk control2 is critical. In reality, a combination of all aspects will be considered, but any investigation following a fatality will explore whether decisions were made based on this.

Any investigation will consider whether the hierarchy of control was followed.

This means:

  • Eliminate – remove the hazard completely, for example by undertaking the work from the ground or not at height
  • Substitution – look for safer ways to undertake the work, such as using mobile access equipment rather than a ladder
  • Engineering controls – use of mechanical means
  • Safe systems of work – normally defined via a risk assessment process
  • Information, instruction, training – ensuring those who undertake the work have the skills, knowledge and experience to do so. Where specialist equipment or personal protective devices are being relied upon, this becomes more critical
  • Personal Protective Equipment – personal protection is worn on the person (e.g. use of harness systems); collective measures such as netting or air bags are widely used in construction
  • Monitoring and supervision – important to verify controls are in place. Working practices should be spot checked and steps taken if safe systems are not being followed
  • Review – a higher level management review of all roof safety arrangements should be undertaken at least annually, or when circumstances change, whichever is sooner

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) layout clear duties for the five main duty holders3:

  • Clients (those who determine what will be constructed, what will be created and they pay for it) have the most important duty to make suitable arrangements for managing their projects
  • Designers have a duty to consider: how the project will be constructed safely; how the end user will clean, maintain and use the completed project safely; and how the project will ultimately be dismantled
  • Principal designers have duties to coordinate the pre-construction phase of any project working with other designers and contractors to consider the hierarchy of risk control. They must also provide pre-construction information and prepare a health and safety file at the end of the project
  • Principal contractors have responsibilities to control site safety once on site
  • Contractors have duties to control their aspect of the project in line with the hierarchy of risk control and cooperate with the other duty holders

Clever design provides an opportunity to eliminate risk completely. Good designers will not only create a building which can be signed off by planners and building control officers, but they will also assess exactly how the building will be used, cleaned and maintained in the future.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 19984 (PUWER) requires anyone procuring or specifying Work Equipment to ensure it is suitable for intended use. In making decisions on the type of equipment to be acquired, the hierarchy of risk control must be followed. This means considering the precise details of how the equipment will be used and purchasing equipment that conforms to European Product Supply Law. Designers should always look for ways to eliminate risk first, but if equipment or engineering controls are required it is more helpful if this is easily available equipment rather than specialist supplies that the end user will potentially have difficulties in maintaining in the future.

PUWER will also determine safe use, maintenance and inspection of personal protective equipment.

The Lifting Equipment and Lifting Operations Regulations 19985 (LOLER) requires equipment used to lift articles or persons to be subject to statutory examination. Equipment used to lift the person (e.g. a mobile access platform) must be subject to a statutory thorough examination every six months. This extends to equipment used in rope access by IRATA6 qualified technicians.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is the UK’s over-arching legislation which introduced the concept of risk and managing risks “so far as is reasonably practicable”. Section 3 of this legislation covers protection for non-employees. This means that contractors, agency workers, members of the public or others who could be affected by the employer’s undertaking must be protected.

In other words, the employer (or the person in control, e.g. client under CDM) cannot delegate all their responsibilities if they use a contractor. Anyone working for them should have a safe place to work. Controls should be jointly agreed, and clients should not use contractors as a way to avoid complying with the hierarchy of risk control. Clients are obliged to determine their supply chain on the basis of those they use having the skills, knowledge, experience and if they are an organisation, the organisational capability for the job.


It is rare for individuals to be prosecuted but, as we all leave behind us a digital footprint, it is becoming increasingly common and there was a big jump in the levels of fines following the review of the sentencing guidelines7 in February 2016. Fines of £1million are no longer rare. With the levels of fines based on turnover (not profit) larger organisations are applying pressure on their supply chains to conform as the financial risk is becoming ever more apparent.

Organisations can be prosecuted for unsafe working practices even if an incident has not occurred.

The sentencing guidelines have been consulted upon again to incorporate stricter guidelines for those found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter8. These changes will mean an increase in the number of potential custodial sentences passed down where managers make negligent decisions – especially those based on cost or convenience.

In March 2017, construction company SR & RJ Brown were fined £300,000 under corporate manslaughter offences after a worker, Benjamin Edge, suffered fatal injuries whilst working on a roof in wet and windy conditions without fall protection9. Directors of the company falsified records to make it appear risk assessments had been undertaken and ordered another worker, Peter Heap, to fetch a lanyard and harness to make it appear the individual had access to equipment but chosen not to use it. The directors were sentenced to 20 months in jail. The firm who employed Benjamin, MA Excavations, was fined £150,000. Peter Heap received a four-month suspended sentence for acting in a manner the judge described as “foolishly, weakly and criminally – as he now realises” to carry out the orders.

Eliminating risk

The hierarchy of risk control says we should identify methods of eliminating risk and many of these can be achieved by good design. In specifying a design that is safer to install, clean, maintain or use the whole life should be considered.

While the specification may be more expensive at installation, costs are saved on the overall running and operation of the facility because the work becomes easier to do, quicker to complete and does not require specialist equipment or contractors.

Examples will include:

  • Specifying windows that can be cleaned from the inside rather than use of access equipment or rope access which is much further down the hierarchy of control
  • Use of reach and wash undertaken from ground level
  • Prefabricating components off site which can be mechanically lifted into position
  • Use of drones to survey high level areas
  • Considering the positioning of maintenance access points so they can be reached without working at height away from unprotected edges with stepped access rather than vertical ladders
  • Designing lighting that can be lowered for replacement or positioned away from significant drops or openings or over swimming pools
  • Installing skylights and glass that is sufficiently robust to take the weight of someone falling onto it
  • Use of automatic sheeting devices which negate the need for an operator to stand on a trailer
  • A workplace which is enclosed is no longer involving work at height, so placing sufficiently robust barriers around openings or high level maintenance areas

Risk assessment

Once eliminating the risk has been considered, an assessment should be undertaken which will explore how a fall can be prevented and, following on from this, how the consequence of a fall can be reduced. In determining controls, collective measures should always be considered above personal ones.

Examples of collective controls are:

  • Provision of edge protection or physical protection over fragile surfaces such as skylights or asbestos cement sheeted roof surfaces
  • Use of fixed scaffolds
  • Work from within the confines of a tower scaffold or enclosed platform
  • Work from a mobile elevating platform

Personal controls include the use of harness systems connected to either a safety line or an eye bolt which will be subject to testing.

Fall prevention should be considered initially using a device which prevents the user from reaching the edge.

Where this is not possible, there may be no other alternative but to use fall arrest. Fall arrest systems mean the user could potentially fall out or over, thereby being left suspended from their line. Where used, rescue measures must also be in place and must be detailed in the risk assessment.

Once these considerations have been explored, the risk assessment should consider how the consequence of a fall can be reduced.

There are many cases where workers fall while reattaching their harness systems. Anyone using a system such as this will be expected to undertake rigorous training in the equipment they will use, but mistakes do still happen. The provision of netting under locations where high-level work is undertaken is widely used in construction. Air bags provide cushioning under workers. However, injury can still be sustained which is why these measures are in the lower end of the hierarchy of risk control.

Anyone working where there is a risk of a fall from height should wear head protection. When an individual falls their head will inevitably hit the surface hard and in this instance, head protection can save lives. The most appropriate hat for the task should be considered and hats are worn, subject to risk assessment, during ladder work for this very reason.


Ladders have not been banned, but they are often not the most appropriate work equipment to use. Over reaching will unbalance the ladder and ladders can slide or move whilst in use. Many clients will not allow ladder use on their sites as a result.

Anyone involved in building design should look to design out vertical access ladders in favour of stepped access, which will be used by operatives also carrying tools or equipment. Designers should consider all access requirements for maintenance activities, keeping in mind how plant and equipment will be reached.

Ladders may be necessary for access, especially in restricted locations or between levels where there is no other alternative. Then, ladders should be tied or fixed so they do not move. Footing is prone to human error and longer ladders cannot be safely footed. There is also a risk to the person holding the ladder if the user falls. Stabilising devices specifically designed for the task will ensure the ladder is always positioned at the correct angle and stabilised during use.

Flat roofs and practical applications

Unprotected flat roofs are commonplace. In schools, it is not uncommon for caretakers to regularly access them to deal with an array of objects which mysteriously find their way up there such as gym kit, or tennis balls which fit neatly into down pipes – blocking drains which then require emergency attention.

Even when external contractors have refused to undertake work close to unprotected edges, employees may be more likely to take a chance to get the job done. Teaming with typical trip hazards such as cables, aerials, vents and uneven roof surfaces, a flat roof quickly becomes a hazardous place to be – particularly when surfaces are wet or flooded.

Access arrangements may also involve the use of a dubious ladder over a stairwell.

It is simply not practical or necessary to provide edge protection around vast expanses of flat roof. Conversely, organisations cannot rely purely on safety lines and the use of harness systems (which should be considered a last resort solution).

It is therefore critical for anyone with a flat roof to match access needs to controls. Where there is plant or equipment that needs more frequent access, these areas should be edge protected.

Where there are areas that require much less frequent access (e.g. twice a year), safety lines positioned in the right manner used by skilled operators are appropriate. In considering where safety lines are positioned, the need for potential emergency rescue access must also be considered.

If access is required more than 2m from the edge, a demarcation barrier indicating the safe walkway is an appropriate control.

For buildings with extensive flat roofs a plan should be used to mark out and agree safe access solutions with those undertaking the work. This type of assessment may highlight the areas where edge protection is needed, safety lines can be installed, or the areas that should be sealed off with a barrier as not requiring access.

The hierarchy of risk control should always be considered:

  1. Eliminate the hazard – look for alternative ways to undertake work without having to physically step onto the roof. For example, fit guards over downpipes to prevent them being blocked, and manage trees nearby that could block drainage channels. Generally, access to roofs must be restricted with strict key control to prevent unauthorised users or intruders reaching it. Access in inclement weather must be avoided.
  2. Substitution – for example, the use of mobile access equipment operated by a trained, well supervised person will be a safer way to clear a roof edge gutter than sweeping it clear from the edge of an unprotected roof.
  3. Engineering controls – isolation of the worker from harm via the use of barriers. Where access hatches or regularly used walkways are adjacent to the edge, there is a greater risk of a trip leading to a fall in this location, so these areas should usually be edgeprotected. All skylights should be considered as fragile unless confirmed otherwise. Skylights should almost always be protected by a grill, or separated from work locations by edge protection. In themselves, they can be a trip hazard. The perception is they are not necessarily a fragile surface, and nothing further is required. Signage warning of the hazard will not be sufficient in isolation.
  4. Good housekeeping – many falls occur due to slips, trips and falls whilst working. Uneven, slippery surfaces and low-level obstacles such as cables, wires or work tools all increase the risk of falling. Risks associated with a simple trip on a flat roof are potentially far more serious. A tidy work ethic, and non-slip walkways, will therefore be required.
  5. Safe systems of work – these are arrangements, procedures or instructions in place to agree how work will be undertaken safely. Safe systems will normally be determined via the risk assessment process, and from this a method statement is created which will determine the safe sequence of work and exactly how it will be undertaken. If work is being undertaken by a contractor, there is a joint obligation on both the client and the contractor to ensure the work can be undertaken safely. Risk and method statements (RAMs) should therefore be exchanged and agreed.
  6. Information, instruction and training – anyone and everyone involved in the work should be highly skilled, know how to use their equipment and work safely.
  7. PPE – the use of personal protective equipment should be considered as a last resort control in favour of fall restriction. Also, other PPE will include gloves and safety headwear.
  8. Monitoring and supervision – once arrangements are agreed and in place, managers and supervisors must ensure safe systems of work are being followed. Working practices should be spot checked and steps taken if safe systems are not being followed.

Author Details

Louise Hosking, Hosking Associates

Louise Hosking is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner and the Director of Hosking Associates.

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