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Elevation Evolution

Published: 22nd Sep 2014


The history of work at height and the correct use of safety equipment

With 2014 marking the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act, Jo Carter considers the history and evolution of height safety.

Falls from height are one of the biggest causes of death and serious injury at work1.

More than 40 people are killed and more than 4,000 suffer major injuries every year in the UK2 as a result of falls in the workplace. In excess of one million businesses and 10 million workers are estimated to carry out jobs involving some form of work at height every year in the UK.3

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that between 2001 and 2013 more than half of the known occupations of workers killed by falls were construction related. The most common occupations of workers killed by falls from height in 2012 and 2013 were:

  • Construction and building trades - 11%
  • Farmers - 9%
  • Roofers, tilers and slaters - 7%
  • Electrical and electronic trades - 4%
  • Carpenters and joiners - 4%4

Historic timeline

The history of health and safety legislation can be traced back to the passing of the first factory statute in 1802, which was enacted as a result of appalling working conditions. Various laws and legislations were then introduced and amended for the next 170 years.5

During this time there were very few safety precautions in place. Helmets were not even used underground until the 1930s. To a coalmine operator, a mule was more vulnerable than a man, because if a mule died underground a new one would have to be purchased to replace it, whereas if a man died the company would simply hire another man.6

At times of strong economic growth during the late 20th century, the UK construction industry employed near to 1.5 million workers, but it was usually one of the first industries to shrink during recession. Numbers of reported injuries tended to rise and fall in step with levels of economic activity.7

Development of construction regulations

The first serious attempt to regulate the industry was in 1937, when the scope of Factory Law was extended to engineering and construction workers by the Factories Act.7 With progress interrupted by the war, however, the Building (Safety, Health and Welfare) Regulations were not made until 1948.7

Despite the new regulations, by the late 1950s the industry’s poor health and safety performance was attracting mounting criticism. A further attempt was made to improve matters through regulation and following consultation and public inquiry, the 1948 regulations were replaced, in 1961, by the Construction (General Provisions) Regulations.7

The 1961 Regulations remained the standard for more than 30 years. Although focussing narrowly on hardware issues such as scaffolding and associated hazards rather than systems for safe design or managing risks, at the time they were believed to be a significant step forward. Their impact on improving the industry’s woeful safety performance, however, proved disappointing.

That year 23,356 accidents were reported on building and civil engineering sites, an increase of 10% from the previous year.7 Of those, 264 were fatal. By 1974, annual fatalities had dropped to 166, but reported accidents had increased to 34,598.

In 1972 Lord Roben published a report due to high levels of occupational accidents and disease. This report went on to form the legal framework of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.5

In 1974, 651 fatal injuries to employees were recorded. At this time the Health and Safety at Work Act only applied to those employed in production and some service industries, which excluded public administration, education and health and social work sectors.8 After the act’s introduction, an important step was taken in 1975 to engage more closely with the construction industry when the newly established Health and Safety Commission set up a Construction Industry Advisory Committee, known colloquially as CONIAC.7

It would still take a long time and much effort to improve the industry’s safety culture. As an example, the attitudes of foremen and workers towards the wearing of protective equipment on building sites was, for a long time, relaxed and bordering on the dismissive.7

By the late 1990s the health and safety agenda became noticeably less driven by legislation. The Health and Safety Commission (HSC), however, continued to amend and rationalise existing regulations where necessary, as well as working on new proposals in specific areas such as the work at height regulations, with a view to implementing the EU’s temporary work at height directive.10

When the mid 2000s came, the safe working at height process evolved to include many other components: eyebolts to secure the ladders via straps; fall protection equipment including personal harnesses and rope systems; safe chimney and roof working systems; and enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) including respiratory, ear, eye and knee protection.11

Work at height regulations

When consultation for the working at height regulations started in the UK in 2001, concerns were raised over proposed changes to the two metre rule. This rule allowed working at a maximum elevation of two metres without any controls. Those in industry claimed this rule was needed, as without it jobs would be lost and certain contracts would be rendered no longer cost effective.12

Previously there were various regulations that covered working at height with different rules, one of these being the two metre rule. It was found, however, that the majority of major injuries were caused by low falls and a significant proportion of these were falls from ladders.12

It is now recognised that injuries can occur from a fall of any height, not just more than two metres. In addition, falling objects can cause injury from a drop distance of less than two metres. Precautions such as guardrails and toe boards should therefore be considered, based on a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.12

A few years later, the HSE implemented the 2005 Work at Height Regulations.13 Still current, this law requires employers and self-employed contractors to assess the risk from work at height and to ensure work is organised and planned so it is carried out safely. These regulations apply to all works where there is a risk of a fall liable to cause personal injury. The duty is placed on employers and those who control work at height activities.1

Research andcase studies

The HSE commissioned research to assess the reasons why individuals take risks when working at height. Detailed interviews were held with a range of people involved in the construction industry: those who had suffered injury as a result from falling from height; those who work at height, but have not suffered a fall; and those who supervise the work at height. The results suggested that some people have a higher sensation-seeking tendency and, therefore, an elevated risk-taking propensity. The research identified a range of interventions aimed at reducing risk taking behaviour and the obstacles to implementing these techniques.14

A case study from the HSE revealed a farm worker who suffered major injuries when he slipped from the base of the ladder he was working on. The worker was inside a building with a ladder that was too long, which had no feet and was at an angle that was too shallow. The accident could have been prevented if the worker had considered alternative measures or had used the ladder correctly.15

Steve Cannon of the Registered Digital Institute (RDI)11 well remembers how unsafe industry used to be, from his experience in the signal reception and installation industries. The ethos from many organisations was ‘work safely’ - while at the same time equipping workers with only a mains powered hammer drill and a mains extension cable, with no residual-current device (RCD) or earth leakage circuit breaker ELCB) to work outside in the pouring rain. If any questions of safety were asked, a common response in Steve’s experience was that workers should use a plastic bag to cover the drill so that it didn’t get wet.

PPE was just another three-letter acronym that often didn’t mean a great deal to installers or organisations. Basically anything was possible: installers could gracefully skip over the wet roof tiles in plimsolls while being simultaneously battered by gale force winds and pummelled by hailstones.

Things have certainly changed over the last twenty years - none more so than in the area of working safely at height. Whether working from ladders or on roofs, best practice needs to be embraced by all those in the height industry so that, with training and safe working processes, risk of injury can be reduced for everyone.

In the early 2000s some major organisations started attempting to ensure the safe lone working of their staff by introducing work at height training and basic standard equipment11 including ladder stabilisations, battery powered hammer drills and basic PPE such as hard hats and work boots, enabling them to evolve further and to be replicated and enhanced by other organisations.

Development of equipment

Developments in equipment and techniques for climbing and potholing during the 1970s led to new, faster and lighter ways of moving around in vertical environments.16 These sporting developments were adopted for use in the workplace after appropriate modifications and development of the techniques, including the addition of extra safety measures. This method of work became known as rope access.

It has taken the last decade for rope access to become generally accepted as a valid way to work at height. Initial reservations were fuelled by a perceived danger of workers dangling from insubstantial ropes and by the employment of cavers and climbers without specific industrial training.

The approach adopted by the UK’s Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) may be summed up as the integration of rigorous work procedures and operator training. This, coupled with a growing statistical record of safe work, has led to a gradual reassessment of rope access in the workplace. It enables workers undertaking temporary work to access difficult places quickly and relatively cheaply, and to undertake inspections and a wide range of stabilising and other works.

In addition to rope access, the versatility of the new methods and equipment has influenced the techniques used for many other applications, including use by arboriculturalists, steeplejacks and theatre riggers.

Like any work system, the rope access work system must be inspected at regular intervals so that any problems can be eliminated. To make all the equipment used in work at height intrinsically fool proof would be to make work methods impractically slow, cumbersome and expensive, which would inhibit innovation and development. As a result, all the equipment is open to misuse, making proper training vital. With the right training, work situations that are perceived as potentially dangerous can be tackled with minimal risk.

Types of equipment

In recent decades progress in design has brought about a great variety of access equipment for work at height, including the use of safety nets, harnesses, scaffolds and platforms.

There are various types of towers and platforms:

1. Self erecting towers are collapsible flat pack tower systems that can be erected from ground level, with three set working heights up to four metres.

2. Telescoping access towers offer another way to access work at height. This is a collapsible, telescopic scaffold tower and is available in aluminium or glass reinforced plastic (GRP). This tower has seven heights up to a working height of four metres.

3. Smaller powered access equipment is usually manually manoeuvred into the work position with powered vertical operation. Most platforms are partially user assembled. They are transported in three parts (base, mast and cage) and put together in situ. They are unsuitable for use on soft or uneven ground.

4. Trailer-based access towers are manually operated telescoping towers, in which the tower is integrated into the trailer for transport. They have a reasonable level of adjustment on outriggers and therefore a greater tolerance for use on uneven ground. The platforms are winched into position from ground level.

5. Scissor based access towers are also manually operated and have a similar base arrangement to scaffold towers.

6. Enhanced steps are similar to steps and ladders, but incorporate small working platforms. The height adjustment is likely to be limited, which will severely impact on the versatility of the product.

7. Podium steps are a low height folding platforms with steps. Different to adjustable steps, podium steps are an adjustable step ladder with a caged working position and outriggers.

8. Proprietary roof access systems use a leaning platforms system, which is based on both ladder and scaffold tower principles. This system is available in a number of different configurations that are suitable for different types of work activity.

9. Lifeline systems require a permanent or semi permanent installation, the issue being the strength and availability of anchorages.

10. Ladder restraint and fall arrest systems provide additional protection to users of conventional ladders. This system may consist of several separate components such as a harness, lifeline, ladder restraint, strap and wall anchor belt.

11. Scissor and boom type platforms also enable work at height access.

Hierarchy of controls

There is a simple hierarchy for managing and selecting equipment for work at height. It follows the risk assessments that have been carried out for work at height activities and ensures all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by competent persons.

Following the hierarchy for managing risks from work at height, steps must be taken to avoid, prevent and reduce risks and choose the right work equipment. Collective measures to prevent falls such as guard rails and working platforms must be selected before other measures that may only mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall such as nets or airbags, or that may only provide personal protection from a fall.12

Future changes

An extract from Professor Lõfstedt’s review of health and safety included recommendations for a review. It stated evidence had suggested that only a small number of managers were able to correctly define working at height and very few actually understood the regulatory requirements. The blanket requirements have also led to some employers complaining that the requirements are onerous and unrealistic. Its due to this that Lõfstedt recommended a review of the work at height regulations by April 2013 to ensure that they did not lead to people going beyond what is either proportionate or beyond what the legislation was originally intended to cover.17

An overhaul of guidance on working at height was launched in January 20143 as part of the government’s long term economic plan to abolish or improve out-dated, burdensome and over-complicated regulations. The HSE has now overhauled its guidance for such activity, setting out in clear and simple terms what to do and what not to do, as well as debunking common myths that can confuse and mislead employers.

Key changes include:

  • Providing simple advice about dos and don’ts when working at height to ensure people are clear on what the law requires
  • Busting some of the persistent myths about health and safety law, such as the banning of ladders when they can still be used
  • Offering targeted advice to help businesses in different sectors manage serious risks sensibly and proportionately
  • Helping workers to be clearer about their own responsibilities for working safely


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Published: 22nd Sep 2014 in Health and Safety International

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