It is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, causes of workplace fatalities the world over. It only needs to happen once, and the consequences are catastrophic. Unlike some workplace incidents, people do not generally get a second chance to learn from their mistake, as – to be blunt – they’re generally dead or maimed.

What am I talking about? Falling from height, of course. It is regularly classed as one of OSHAs (Occupational Safety & Health Administration of America) “Fatal Four” and in UK workplaces was responsible for 40 out 147 fatalities (that’s 27%!) in 2018/2019.#

Whilst this is terrible enough, we have not even begun to think about the amount of employees, contractors, members of the public and so on, who get hurt or killed by falling objects, collapse of structures and other work at height related incidents. In my previous articles on this topic, I have discussed the hazards and controls, and some of the reasons why these incidents keep happening. Today though, I would like to look at some other
elements of this topic that people may not necessarily consider, or gloss over altogether, but which are just as important. First, let us all agree what we are talking about. What is “working at height?”


Working at height can be defined as “work being undertaken in any place where, if someone were to fall, they could be injured. This place could be on ground level, as well as below ground, not just above ground level”. This is a basic definition, and it does vary a little, depending upon which countries’ legislation, guidance and standards you are using. The important point to remember is that someone standing on a chair to reach a projector is “working at height” just the same as someone making repairs on a fragile roof, eight metres from the ground. A common source of confusion can also come from some companies own rules about when someone needs to use a fall-arrest system (harness and lanyard). I have seen 1.5m, 1.8m, 2.0m and so on. These are not working at height definitions; they are just rules about when a certain control measure is required. It is important to understand the difference between these two things, as in certain circumstances, the fall-arrest system may not even be needed at all. For example, you do not need to wear a harness to inspect a 20-metre tall chimney, if you are stood on the ground using a drone with attached camera to perform the inspection instead. Number of persons falling from height? Zero! Hazard totally eliminated!

“working at height is not a hazard, but a “hazardous activity”, with falling from height only being one hazard”

Something else that is key to remember is that working at height is not a hazard, but a “hazardous activity”, with falling from height only being one hazard. Poor weather, collapse of structures, and dropped objects are just three of the many hazards that could be involved. If people continue to not understand this, hazards will continue to not be identified during risk assessments, meaning incidents will continue to happen.

In depth analysis

As I mentioned earlier, fall-arrest systems seem to be a big thing when it comes to working at height control measures. “Here you go folks, here is your harness and lanyard. Crack on!” Harness and lanyard system certainly do have their place, if used correctly and effectively, but many issues come from over-reliance on them. For a start, many people issued with these have no idea how to use them.

Not only is poor (or a total lack of) training and competence bad for individuals, it is bad for business, mainly due to the fact that the company is probably breaking Health & Safety Law. At least internationally, this would be a breach of article 19 (d) of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) C155 Convention on Occupational Safety and Health, 1981 which states that:

“workers and their representatives in the undertaking are given appropriate training in occupational safety and health”

Some of you may have heard the expression IITS before, which is Information, Instruction, Training and Supervision. So, these things should combine with the laws of your country, to see if the workforce has the knowledge and skills they need.

Training is just one part of it though. As I mentioned before, the workers may not even need this training, as the fall-arrest systems may not be needed at all. By doing a thorough, in-depth analysis of the job, the hazards involved, and the potential consequences, we can come up with the right solutions. Again, issuing someone a fall arrest system with the standard 6m Rescue Pack would be pointless if they were working at a height of 4m. They would hit the floor well before the rescue pack deployed, and halted their fall. So as part of this analysis, we could utilise something called “The Hierarchy of Control”.

Working at height hierarchies

There are various forms of “hierarchy of control”, but the one most people are familiar with is:

  • Eliminate – get rid of the hazard alltogether. No hazard, no risk, no problem e.g. use long-handled tools to clean windows, rather than someone stood on a ladder
  • Substitute – swap something harmful, for something less harmful. (Note: this is not getting rid of the hazard altogether, as that would be elimination) e.g. use solvent based paint, rather than lead-based paint
  • Engineering – use a system, device or other form of engineering to help mitigate the hazard e.g. add a silencer to the exhaust of a noisy piece of equipment
  • Administration – any paper-based control measures e.g. Training, PermitTo-Work, SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and so on • PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – the last line of defence e.g. gloves, coveralls, boots, etc

You can apply the above hierarchy to the working at height issue, and it would certainly help you. However, we can go one step further and use one that is specific for this type of work:

  • Eliminate falls from height – totally remove the risk of falling
  • Prevent falls – if elimination is not possible, try your best to lower the chances of falls happening
  • Limit distance and consequences of falls – have a plan in place, just in case there is a fall, to mitigate the consequences

This can be found in the UK Work at Height Regulations (WAHR) 2005 (Work at height – The law ( SG4:15 “Preventing Falls in Scaffolding Operations”, a document produced by the NASC (National Association of Scaffolders), is also a very useful reference for the Hierarchy, and the subject of Working at Height as a whole, even if you use it for something other than scaffolding. (You can download a free PDF of this document here: uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/ SG4_15-%E2%80%93Preventing-Falls-in-ScaffoldingOperations-3_compressed.pdf)

By following the above, we can immediately solve a whole host of headaches and issues. An example I always love to use is one site I know here in Brunei Darussalam. When they change their streetlight bulbs, there is no working at height at all. This is achieved by having the ability to actually lower the streetlight to ground level, swap out the bulb there, then hoist the streetlight back into place. An incredibly novel and simple idea, that I never get bored of sharing! A great example of safety innovation.

Other issues with reliance on harnesses

You can already see there are other approaches to just chucking people a harness for working at height. They can save people’s lives, do not get me wrong. There are some other things to consider though, that people often do not realise. For example, if people do not wear the harness correctly, this can cause major issues. If the Harness is too loose when fitted, workers can simply fall out of the shoulder straps of the harness, or even worse, major injury can be caused to the groin area by the loose leg straps pulling up the legs into the groin. There has been a safety alert issued by a company on this before, but I am not going to link you to it; the pictures are quite graphic. If you want to go find that yourselves, just remember…. what is seen, cannot be unseen. Damaged metal pieces (such as the buckles) can fail, and twisted, tight straps can cut into the wearer. Even if these injuries and scenarios were not bad enough, if left for too long, a harness can kill you! This is something called Harness Trauma, or Suspension Trauma.

As a worker is left dangling in their harness, the force of gravity can cause the blood in their body to pool in the legs. Lactic Acid and other toxins can then build up in this blood. If the blood then starts pumping round the body, it can poison the worker, as they cannot filter out the acid quickly enough before it causes damage. There is a particular risk of this when a victim is first rescued, as most people will want to lay the victim down, or put them in the recovery position. Do not do this, there is a very good chance it will kill them. Even if the toxins do not kill the victim, they could suffer a heart attack due to the sudden demand placed on the heart. Ideally, when someone is rescued from a dangling harness, they should put in a sitting or “w” position, to help the blood flow to return to normal slowly, giving the body chance to get rid of toxins and so on, and safely restart normal blood flow. When hanging by the harness, this gravity pull can also cause a lack of blood (and therefore oxygen) to the brain. In particular, if our worker is unconscious, there is no way they can stop this. If the brain dies, our worker dies.

Depending upon which research or information you read, workers can start to feel these effects anywhere between 10-30 minutes after a fall, and die within that same time.

Here is a Wikipedia article with some good information on this subject:

This “victim suspended in harness” scenario is a definite emergency situation, but there could be several other working at height emergencies. So what are they, and how do we deal with them?

Emergency rescue

I love helping you, the readers, by trying to give you simple answers to sometimes complex problems. Unfortunately, when it comes to rescuing people from height, there is no easy straight forward answer.

The first issue is, what exactly has happened? Is someone dangling from a harness after falling from some scaffolding? Are they working on a roof, but the metal staircase that they used to get up there has given way? Are they working on an MEWP (Mobile Elevated Working Platform), and it has failed in an upright position?

Even if you know what the scenario is, there are a lot of factors to consider. Is the victim injured? Are they conscious and responsive? Is there a hazard that could interfere in their rescue? Is help close by?

For any rescue at height scenario, you must do a specific rescue plan. You might end up with several different or similar scenarios, but you must have individual plans, as copy and paste will cause you to miss vital information. Even worse, you might get more people hurt and killed by trying to rescue people in a dangerous way. Your local fire brigade are not your rescue plan! They should only be a part of it. Consider having your own rescue team, fully trained and competent, with the necessary rescue equipment. Quite the investment, but certainly worth it. Someone once said to me “better to have it, and not need it; than need it, and not have it”.

Another assumption people make is that they must bring victims down to the ground. Very often, the place of safety might be on the same level, or higher than where they are now. For example, if a scaffolder is within reach of other scaffolders on their level, they may be able to pull the fallen victim to where they are. Even if they cannot get them fully inside the scaffold, they might be able to support them temporarily, taking the pressure off their body from the harness. Sticking with scaffolding, you may have people who can deploy a “Gotcha Kit” to pull a victim up to safety.

There are quite a number of specialist companies who can help you plan your rescues, train your people and provide the necessary equipment. So do not be afraid to reach out to them for help and assistance. Again, the best rescue plan is the one you do not use, as you have planned the work to be safe enough to not have the working at height incident in the first place. As always though, “plan for the worst; hope for the best”.


Working at height incidents continue to plague the industrial and working worlds. Myself and others have written extensively on the hazards
and consequences involved, and what control measures can be employed to combat this menace. I hope today though I have given you some more clarity on areas which, as I said at the beginning of the article, are often overlooked in working at height, but are just as important as everything else. As always, use legislation, standards and guidance to inform you of what you should and should not do. Speak to experts, consultants and suppliers, to arm you and your workers with the equipment, skills and knowledge to work safely at height, but also be able to deal with work at height emergencies should they arise.

People often say “the sky is the limit”, but why go to the sky in the first place, if you can do the work with your feet firmly on the ground.