Working at height is one of the most used examples when looking at the hierarchy of risk. In this article, we will be looking at how we can eliminate or reduce working at height and the many other benefits that these solutions will bring to a business.

In “Reaching the Heights of Safety”, published in HSI in January 2018, we identified what working at height actually is; breaking the misconception that you have to be above ground level to be “working at height”.

We then explored the legal frameworks which protect those working at height, and some of the protective measures that can be put in place to reduce the likelihood of a fall from height and reduce the impact should one occur. Some of these measures included selecting the right equipment for the job in hand, the correct use of scaffolding, the use of Mobile Elevating Working Platforms (MEWPs) and the dangers they pose.

When that was published, there had been 196 workplace fatalities in the five years up to and including 2016/2017, 49 per cent of which were related to a fall from height1. In the year 2016/2017, 18 per cent of the 5,055 non-fatal injuries in the UK construction industry were related to falls from height2.

Falls from height remain a key risk in the construction industry, with 20 fatal injuries reported via RIDDOR in 2017/18 (11 of these were directly employed and the remaining nine were self-employed3). These represented just over half of all fatal injuries in the construction industry in the UK in 2017/18. In the same year, there were 905 injuries reported via RIDDOR as a result of falls from height, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all injuries reported in the UK that year.

The charts below show that the risk of falling from height still poses a clear and present danger in the construction industry in the UK
and this risk is replicated around the world. In the USA, NIOSH’s Construction FACE Database concluded that 42% of fatalities in construction4 involved falls, while the World Health Organization estimates there are 646,000 deaths globally from falls5. It is for this reason that this article focuses not on how to deal with risks of working at height; but rather, how the need for working at height can be greatly reduced or in some cases eliminated altogether through good design and the use of modern techniques and technology.

“the World Health Organization estimates there are 646,000 deaths globally from falls”

Working at height is one of the most used examples when looking at the hierarchy of risk.

For many businesses, eliminating the need to work at height will bring about demonstrable improvements in safety performance and fulfils the moral imperative to look after those in their employ. This is after all what we all want, our employees to go home safe after a day or shift at work. For the business, however, there are other benefits that can be reaped from adjusting the design of buildings and processes and employing new technologies which can result in financial savings and increased productivity.

In this article we will be looking at how we can eliminate or reduce working at height and the many other benefits that these solutions will bring to a business.

Businesses are always looking at more efficient ways of doing things and the driver of not working at height can promote other savings.

Not working at height already brings in efficiencies in the following areas.

Training and ease of staff recruitment

By removing the need to work at height, the amount of training required reduces as less risky working methods are introduced. This also means that when recruiting for workers, the need for those with experience of working at height is removed.

Plant and equipment hire

Not working at height means that a business will save money on plant and equipment hire as items such as MEWPs, scaffolding and fall restraints just are not required.

Risk management

By eliminating the working at height focus can be placed on other risks in the business.


Staff resources and costs can be reduced, generating efficiencies in the business and reducing the risk profile of the business.

Staff engagement and the link to safety culture

Working at height can be difficult and often performed in cramped or awkward environments. This kind of environment can have a negative impact on staff morale and engagement. A low level of staff engagement correlates negatively with an effective safety culture. Therefore, by reducing or – even better – removing the need to work at height you can improve the morale of your staff and their engagement which will lead to a more motivated workforce and an improved safety culture. When the safety culture is positive, the likelihood of injuries reduces and there is a correlated improvement in productivity.

“when the safety culture is positive, the likelihood of injuries reduces”

Quality and production

Producing elements of the project offsite can be done in clean engineering focused environments, which reduces the risk to those involved and can be done in all weathers.

How to… not work at height

The practice of not working at height can be looked at throughout various stages of the lifecycle of a building. We will now explore how it can be used at the construction stage, inspection and maintenance regime and when repairs are required. It is worth noting, in order for all of these benefits to be achieved, the concept of not working at height needs to be considered in the design phase.

Design phase

IOSH conducted extensive research into the increasing use of building information modelling (BIM) and how digital models can be used to build safely by design. These models can be used to help both designers and safety professionals to visualise the context of the construction project and the opportunities to design out the need for working at height, which can result in a much safer construction phase given that working from height represents one of the greatest risks in construction. This can then have knock on benefits for the ongoing maintenance of the structure.

This research investigated the use of digital visualisation to address a number of problems that hamper ‘design for safety’ in construction. First is the failure to consider safety in design – the scope for design change to enhance safety declines as design progresses. Accordingly, safety should be considered as early as possible in the construction process. The second is the lack of skills to do this effectively – design for safety encompasses not only design of the built product (the focus of designers) but also design of the building process (the focus of builders). For designers to design effectively for safety, they need to bring construction process design skills to bear. A good way to do this is to engage with builders in ‘design-assist for safety’ roles. The third is the challenge of collaboration – builders and designers have different modes of ‘knowing’ (experiential versus documentary), which impedes the exchange of knowledge between them.

There are also several hazard apps which designers can use to help them identify the potential issues with their project and ensure the construction phase is considered as early as possible in the design phase. Research undertaken by IOSH and Glasgow Caledonian University has identified that half of construction accidents in the UK have a connection to the design of the building and this reinforces the need to identify hazards at the early design stages of a project.

Professor Billy Hare, Deputy Director of the BEAM Research Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “A key factor for this research was the visual nature of the digital tool’s content, which seemed to work best with new graduates.

“But its real potential lies in being able to capture tacit knowledge from more experienced designers for the next generation to counter the age-old problem of organisational memory loss and prevent the same old mistakes that cause accidents and ill health from being repeated.”

Construction phase

For contractors, the concept of building offsite can provide a considerable competitive advantage. This involves constructing significant portions of the project in an engineering environment away from the construction site itself and only brought onto site once it has been constructed. Constructing in this way enables a quality-controlled environment and improved working environment for employees.

In the construction phase it’s important to consider building offsite and top-down construction.

Constructing portions of the building can make for a reduction in health and safety risks and greater control over the construction phase as you are less likely to be delayed by poor weather, all of which is attractive to clients when tendering for projects.

The top-down construction of Aquastore and TecTank tanks means that these type tanks are constructed in the safest way possible with no requirements for the use of scaffolding and high-level work. The tanks’ upper ring and roof are constructed first and then the whole tank is jacked up to accommodate the construction of each successive ring. Once the final ring is assembled, the tank is lowered onto the starter/foundation ring and the tank is ready. Construction at ground level also boosts construction productivity since there is no scaffolding to erect and move.

Maintenance inspection and repairs

LED lighting

The first modernisation opportunity we will look at is LED lighting in a manufacturing environment.

Many people will fit LED lighting with environmental savings in mind. Comparisons with the Department of Energy in the US7 show that a single 12W LED replacing a 60W traditional incandescent generates an 80 per cent saving. Couple this to the bulb lasting 25 times longer, the efficiencies add up. Many LED lights now run for three years before failing – far greater than the five weeks of incandescent bulbs.

This life span enables us to apply the second tier of risk and reduces the need to work at height to replace damaged bulbs by 95 per cent.
Now let’s look at the further business efficiencies in manufacturing:

1. With the extended life span, maintenance of the lighting can move from a reactive operation to a planned activity with all lighting being replaced every three years, rather than a reactive activity when five or more bulbs are out. This planned operation can take place at a suitable down time, therefore not affecting production nor interrupting other activities.

2. LED lighting provides a colour spectrum that is more closely matched to natural daylight.8 Therefore, although the lumen output can be lower, the light is perceived as brighter and more natural. This in turn reduces eye strain, fatigue of staff and enables better quality control.

With this one example, you have:

  • Reduced working at height
  • Improved quality inspection process
  • Improved wellbeing of staff
  • Reduced costs of maintenance
  • Reduced the downtime of the line
  • Reduced the carbon footprint of the company

“the Royal Opera House installed a 36-ton, 28m span overhead gantry system to shift equipment and scenery removing the need to be at height”

Drone technology

Much has been talked about drone technology in the past year or so, from deliveries by Amazon to incursions into flight paths. The key aspect we want to look at here is their ability to reach places easily.

Thames Water found savings of close to £95,000 a year.9 Drones were used to support the programme of hands-on inspections by engineers, inspecting scaffolds, cranes, digesters and buildings.

With thermal imaging inspections for moisture issues, weak spots or pockets of energy waste can be found.

With thermal imaging cameras attached to the drones they are also now able to test for leakage in the trunk mains and infrastructure10.

This technology is as relevant above ground as below, with drones being used in pipeline and tank inspections. If you are standing on the ground looking down into a tank then you are still working at height.

With modern drones, the need for working at height can be completely eliminated. The need for scaffolds, MEWPs, and rope access work are completely eliminated. The precise control of the drone enables images to be stitched together, for viewing on a VR headset to immerse the client into the inspection site.

Here we have:

  • Eliminated working at height
  • Removed the need for scaffolds, cranes and MEWPs
  • Provided better data and information for clients
  • Reduced the need for hands-on inspection of temporary plant
  • Reduced the need for staff to enter PEA’s hazardous areas and confined spaces
  • Provided efficiencies in the production of the inspection programme

This is all well and good, but many will be thinking of how such solutions could be incorporated into your workplace. The Royal Opera House, now on its third incarnation, faced these challenges. The incarnation that forms the nucleus of what we recognise today opened in 1858, a time when safety was very much in the hands of the end user with people expected to be self-reliant. As late as 2010 in event safety, 20 employees died and 3,957 suffered major injuries.11

Royal Opera House indoor gantry

So, as a grade I listed building how did the Royal Opera House mitigate this?

In 2000, they installed a 36-ton, 28m span overhead gantry system to shift equipment and scenery.

It can move up to 20 tons at 18 metres per minute. The system is staffed by up to 12 technicians and can be remotely controlled from the stage or from on-board the gantry,12 essentially removing the need to be at height while also enabling the operator to be at the lifting zone.

Essential when stropping some props and scenery to prevent damage.

In summary

As we have explored in this article, falls from height still remain a key risk to the construction industry. The traditional approach to managing this is to provide mitigation and safety measures to reduce the harm of a fall should it occur. Taken in isolation these measures do have a positive effect in terms of reducing falls from height and the severity of these should they occur.

However, there is a more effective method which can be used. This other method which we have reviewed in this article is removing the need to work at height in the first place.

The benefits of not working at height go beyond the pure health and safety aspects and include the amount of training required and the ease of recruitment, a reduction in the requirements for plant and equipment hire, improved risk management which provides a significant competitive advantage, improved staff engagement and positive safety culture as well as a greater focus on quality in production.

Not working at height might seem like the holy grail to some, but the examples in this article show that it is now a reality in a wide range of industries and the opportunities to take advantage of this are growing thanks in a large part to developments in technology such as BIM, immersive technologies and hazard identification apps for designers.

“not working at height is now a reality ”

So, the question is not will you remove the need to work from height in your projects, but when will you do this as the options are out there?

1 Fatal injuries reportable under RIDDOR, 2012/13 – 2016/17 statistics/industry/construction
2 Non-fatal injuries reported under RIDDOR 2016/2017 industry/construction
3 htm#riddor
4 face-database
5 detail/falls
7 how-energy-efficient-light
8 b015390ea24e7970b-pi