Sadly, the ‘Great British Summer’ has been something of a flop this year, with June 2012 being officially recognised as the wettest on record. While the weather may inconvenience the summer plans of many, the repercussions are felt even more acutely for individuals who work in the construction trade. Those with jobs to do outside will have seen many projects delayed, or even cancelled. It may, therefore, be tempting for workers to want to get stuck into a job as quickly as possible on those rare sunny days, but under such circumstances, it is essential that health and safety isn’t relegated to second place in the race to get the job done - particularly when it comes to working at height.
Flexibility not folly
In fact, it is of perhaps even greater importance that health and safety best practise is followed to the letter when working conditions are likely to be wet and, therefore, slippery. Working at height will never be without risk, but it poses a particular danger in wet and windy weather conditions and the most stringent safety precautions will be necessary. As long as jobs are properly planned and managed, however, with the right combination of equipment and training, the risk of an accident can be significantly reduced.
According to independent regulator the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), falls from height still account for 16 percent of the 24,000 major workplace accidents that happened last year. In total, there were around 6,000 injuries resulting from working at height accidents that caused the injured person to be off work for a minimum of three days - so the implications are huge, not only for the wellbeing of your workforce, but to its productivity too. The disastrous consequences of not ensuring adequate health and safety measures became all too clear recently for a demolition company, fined £20,000 for neglecting to follow legislation. For the employee affected, however, the consequences were even more damaging. The company was fined in relation to an incident that occurred when a 67-year-old employee was left completely paralysed after falling from a roof. The employee was working on the demolition of a pub and was removing the slates and timbers from the pitched roof by hand. Although a mobile access platform had been provided to give the worker access to the roof, and to act as a barrier to prevent falls from the roof edge, the platform did not cover the whole length of the roof. The man fell 18-20 feet - equivalent to the height of a two-storey building - causing serious injuries including fractures to three vertebrae, his right elbow and both bones of his lower right leg. He also suffered a dislocated right hip and the collapse of his right lung. Cases like this provide a horrifying illustration of the devastating consequences that can result from failing to take all the necessary precautions when preparing for and working at height. The good news is that we are seeing a significant decrease in the number of working at height accidents year on year - better awareness of the risks involved, the training required and greater equipment choices, perhaps - but there is still more to be done to help protect our workforce.
The way forward
So what can we do about it? Working at height is undoubtedly a highly risky business, when not prepared for properly, but that doesn’t mean the job can’t be done. While there is always the possibility of an accident happening, there is a lot employers can do to minimise, if not eliminate, the likelihood of such incidents occurring. It’s crucial that contractors have the right guidelines and equipment in place to ensure that work is completed safely and effectively. It’s the right thing to do and employers have a legal obligation to do it anyway - but a safe workforce is also a productive workforce, so it makes sense whichever way you look at it. Working at height legislation has undergone significant change over the last two decades, and in 2005 falls from height were addressed specifically in the ‘Work At Height’ (WAH) regulations. These regulations focus on a ‘fall protection hierarchy’ and cover a comprehensive range of situations - from a worker on scaffolding on a building site, to a shop employee using a ladder to change a light bulb. They must be followed when undertaking any work at height to reduce the associated risk. The underlying principle of the hierarchy is this: when confronted with a potentially risky work at height situation, it’s important to first consider making it, as much as possible, less of a work at height situation. This principle is perhaps the one that is too often overlooked, but it’s simple. Don’t work at height if you think the job can be completed in any other way - and remember, working from height is defined as working from any place above ground level, which includes standing on the first rung of a step ladder. The HSE suggests workers should consider alternative working methods or equipment that help them get into those hard to reach areas without actually having to leave the ground. This may sound basic, but prevention really is better than cure, so it is essential that all other options are exhausted, and that the decision to undertake work at height is only as a last resort.
Actively seeking safety
If this is not possible and you must work at height, make sure you make it as safe and stable as possible. Employers should ensure that their workforce is fully and competently trained to do the job and provide them with the appropriate equipment in order to manage and control the risk and/or the consequences of a fall. But what exactly constitutes ‘appropriate’ equipment? You may be surprised, but there’s actually a really wide range of equipment that workers can use, each supporting different work at height scenarios in different ways. It’s important to choose the most appropriate method for the specific task at hand. Of course, ladders remain an extremely popular choice for workers. According to the HSE, ladders are often regarded as the easiest piece of access equipment to turn to due to the convenience factor. Although the ladder provides an immediate, no-nonsense access to a specific height, however, it isn’t always as appropriate as you might think. In fact, it might not necessarily always be right for the task at hand, particularly if you are working at height for long periods of time, or need to stretch to reach the working area. What’s more, according to the HSE, a third of all reported working at height incidents involve ladders, accounting for 14 deaths and 1,200 major injuries to workers each year - so it’s definitely worth weighing up the options first. It’s always important to consider ladders as perhaps safest used as a means to access a work platform, rather than as the work at height platform themselves.