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Height Safety

Published: 10th Jul 2011


According to figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 35 people died and a further 4,654 were seriously injured in 2009 due to a fall from height. These shocking statistics seemingly increase year on year and transcend the wide spectrum of industries which require employees to work at height during some stage in their profession.

What is even more alarming, however, is that almost all deaths and injuries resulting from a fall could have been prevented through the provision of adequate height safety training, and from undertaking effective risk assessment procedures.

The many attempts by the industry to raise awareness of the potentially life threatening risks associated with working from height do, at the time, improve the situation and for a period the statistics decrease to reflect these efforts. Unfortunately this seems to be just a short term solution to a long term problem, as the number of people being injured due to a lack of height safety creep up again soon afterwards, and unsurprisingly falling from height remains the main cause of workplace illness, injury and fatality in the UK.

So just why is height safety such a problem? What more needs to be done to address the issue and ensure that these dangers are not only recognised, but prevented? One thing is certain: height safety needs to be placed higher up the agenda of employers and I believe to achieve this, training and education should be placed at the very top.

Risk assessment and education

There are obvious trades where the risks from working at height are increased; for example, arboriculture, scaffolding and window cleaning. In these professions training should be a fundamental part of the job to?enable daily tasks to be completed successfully and safely.

That said, it’s not only the obvious trades that need this training. In fact, there are very few industries which don’t require their employees to work from height at some stage in their career, albeit infrequently. Plumbers, electricians, shop assistants (especially those with shelf replenishment responsibilities) and even IT staff will need to work from height at some point.

Just because the perception of the risk from using a step ladder to change a light bulb, for example, isn’t seen as serious in comparison to completing utility line maintenance, doesn’t mean training isn’t essential to carry out such tasks equally safely.

It is this very lack of awareness and complacency that leads to injury. Because few employees will recognise that they are putting themselves into harm’s way, they don’t feel the requirement for training. Ultimately the responsibility isn’t theirs to ensure this is delivered - it’s down to the employer or the person responsible for the employee’s duty of care, and problems will arise if these people are not aware of the training requirement.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 came into force on April 6, with the aim to clarify the responsibilities employers have for employees who may be required to work at height. The regulations place duties on employers, the self employed and any person that controls the work of others, such as facilities managers or building owners. These fall under the term of ‘duty holders’.

As part of regulations, duty holders are responsible to ensure:

• All work at height is properly planned and organised

• Anyone engaged in work at height is competent

• The risks from work at height have been assessed sufficiently and the correct and appropriate work equipment is available and used

• The risks from fragile or hazardous surfaces are properly controlled

• The equipment provided is inspected and maintained frequently

The HSE stipulates that if these areas are fulfilled by the duty holder, liability in the event of a fall will be diminished and, more importantly, the risk of a fall from height will be significantly reduced.

Ultimately no responsible employer wants to put a member of their workforce at risk. From a commercial perspective it doesn’t make sense to cut corners when it comes to carrying out health and safety procedures, as you could end up facing damaging legal action, operating with a reduced workforce, risking income and from a human interest viewpoint, someone could lose their life or be seriously injured because of your actions.

To prevent this, a simple hierarchy has been established to ensure height safety through the management of the activity and the selection of equipment:

• Avoid work at height if it is not a necessity to complete a task

• Use work equipment or other measures provided to prevent falls where employees cannot avoid working at height

• Where a risk cannot be eliminated, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall should one occur

These regulations not only highlight the measures which duty holders must comply with, but also emphasise that employers cannot use ignorance as an excuse. If working from height isn’t one of their employee’s usual tasks, using this as an excuse for poorly trained, equipped or educated staff simply does not qualify - especially when there is an abundance of advice, guidance, training and support available.

Can anyone work at height safely?

There is one grey area which troubles duty holders; that is, the guidance does not fully take into account the ‘person’ doing the task from height - an element which even the most height safety conscious individual can overlook due to its subjective nature.?

Usually an employee is selected for a job because they have the practical skills to complete it successfully; for example, ‘we need an electrician to rewire the boardroom’. In this situation an electrician is the obvious and correct choice, as they have been trained to deal with electricity and are qualified to meet legal regulations.

However, when the element of height is introduced to the job, the employee is still only considered for the practical aspect of the task; for example, ‘we need the electrician to rewire the overhead projector in the boardroom’. They can of course successfully complete this job, but do they really have the correct training, the experience and are they physically capable to work from height?

In the heat of the moment it is often easy to put yourself or another person in danger, especially when working at height is a rarity in the process of getting the job done. It’s critical that before taking the steps to work from height the duty holders revert to the guidelines and the Code of Practice which are established. BS 7985:2009 Code of Practice clearly states that those working at height should have an appropriate attitude, aptitude, physical capability, training and the fact that they can be relied upon to behave in a sensible and responsible manner. But of course these are all subjective qualities to assess.

What one person considers physically capable may not be the view of another - this is where common sense needs to kick in and the emphasis needs to lie on a duty holder taking all the precautions possible to prevent a fall.

Counting the cost of common height safety failures

The stepladder is a tool which most industries and organisations will have access to, and it’s no coincidence that this method of working from height contributes significantly to the high injury statistics. The wide range of ladders available to buy can lead to a fall from just off ground level to approximately three metres high, escalating the risks from minimal to potentially fatal injuries.

Common failures in usage which result in falls are incorrect ladder selection; for example, stepladders which are too small raise the risk of the person at height overreaching, which can result in a loss of balance. Also, ladders which have been poorly positioned against temporary structures can result in accidents.

The impact from falls from height can be extremely costly, for multiple reasons:

• A fatality of an employee - each year 152 workers suffer a fatality at their place of work

• Potentially thousands of pounds are lost to heal even minor injuries

• Possible legal action taken if the duty holder is accused of failure to meet requirements

• Lost time and production due to an employee’s inability to work - on average a person injured from a fall?from height will be off work for three days or more, with a staggering 28.5 million days per year lost overall from work related incidents

• Impact on a business’s reputation - those who don’t appear to demonstrate a duty of care to their workforce are rarely viewed as an organisation others want to do business with

Effective training is key

In our industry of arboriculture, utility maintenance and construction, effective height safety is paramount. On a daily basis we undertake tasks such as maintaining overhead power lines and vegetation management, making the immediate risk from working at height obvious. The training needs are many and proof of competencies is required.

In industries such as this, working from height cannot be avoided and consequently employers place great emphasis on training as a key part of their business processes. Because of this, seven years ago we started to look more closely at the training needs of the whole industry, identifying where improvements could and should be made and also enabling best practice to be shared.

Effective training therefore needs to be delivered at a level appropriate for purpose. While someone in our industry needs continual and intensive training to ensure complacency does not impinge on safety, it’s vital to use training as a tool to educate in the use of the latest industry equipment, technology and practice - a principle which should begin, and in fact has now begun, to filter out industry wide.

Health and safety managers, those in charge of work site operations and line managers need to be the first to gain training on the topic of height safety. They need to be educated in the law, responsible for fulfilling the relevant compliance and also for ensuring employee welfare through the delivery of safe practice.

This can be achieved through on or off site training courses by internal members of the team with the relevant qualifications and experience, or by third party providers.

Preparation is easier than cure

In essence, no one wants to be hampered by health and safety provisions - and remember, that’s not the intention of such provisions. Instead we want to be supported by them and to be protected from risk - which is, after all, what they are designed to do. Training is a vital element in ensuring duty holders and employees alike understand their responsibilities, and feel confident that they can act in accordance with the regulations and in complete safety.

In conclusion, the secret to height safety lies in preparation. Whether you’re a tree surgeon, window cleaner or plumber you must be trained, educated and capable.

Author Details:

Mark Poppleton is a director of The BTS Group and is based at the operation’s Needham Market office in Suffolk. Since 2005, Mark has headed up procurement and retail activity at the BTS Group, in addition to actively promoting and establishing the group’s unique indoor training facility dedicated to height safety.

The BTS Group estimates that each year approximately 1,800 tree workers will undergo intensive assessment through its state of the art training centre -

The BTS Arboretum, partnered with Husqvarna UK - which features the UK’s only indoor training tree (which stands 6.3 metres high) for all weather training and has been announced as the UK’s first assessment centre for the European Tree Workers’ Examination.

Courses delivered at The BTS Arboretum are supported by professional bodies such as the Ladder Association, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), City & Guilds NPTC and LANTRA Awards.

About the BTS Group

Founded in 1996 as Broadleaf Tree Specialists, The BTS Group has grown dynamically and now employs 200 staff.

BTS Group is a leading utility contractor offering vegetation management, overhead line maintenance and construction including hot glove work. BTS carries out vegetation management across East Anglia both for utility companies and other major clients. It also works across eastern England on the overhead power lines for various clients.

In addition to the above services, BTS offers a comprehensive range of arboriculture and utility arboriculture nationally accredited training courses and assessments through the BTS training offering. This division offers a wide range of courses from chainsaw use to assertiveness; tree climbing, aerial rescue and its most popular, working at height seminar.

BTS holds accreditations to the three international standards ISO 9001:2000 the quality management standard, ISO 14001:2004 the environmental management standard and OHSAS 18001:1999, the health and safety management standard, and has recently been recognised as Committed to Excellence by the EFQM. These standards are seen by many procurers as prerequisites to working with their contractors and suppliers.

BTS’s retail operation sells a wide range of arboriculture equipment. For more information log on to

Published: 10th Jul 2011 in Health and Safety International

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