Working at height is still considered to be one of the most dangerous occupational activities. In the United Kingdom (UK) alone, it is the most common cause of fatal injuries and has been for over the past five years. Conversely, it only accounts for 8% of all non-fatal accidents in the UK1.
Recent statistics from Qatar also show that falls from height are not just a prominent issue in the UK. In Qatar, falls contribute to 44.7% of severe occupational injuries. And in the United States (US), 2020 figures saw falls as the second largest contributor to fatal accidents.
The UK’s food and drink sector
In this article, we will be exploring working at height principles, but focused on the UK food and drink sector. In this sector, falls from heights are the third highest cause of fatal injury, comprising 20% of fatal accidents and resulting in over 80 major injuries (broken limbs, fractured skulls etc.) each year.
So, what are the reasons behind these figures? To give an idea of the causes of these deaths and injuries, we need to explore the places that these workers fell from.
An analysis of 150 falls from height accidents investigated by UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE)2 over three years indicated the following places from which workers fell:
- Ladders: 40%
- Vehicles/FLTs (see below): 17%
- Machinery/plant: 10%
- Platforms: 10%
- Stairs (see below): 8%
- Roof/false ceiling: 7%
- Scaffold/gantry: 4%
- Warehouse racking: 4%
Where workers fell from vehicles, 35% fell from the back of a lorry, 31% fell from FLT forks, 13% from cab steps, 9% from the top of a vehicle and 4% from tanker steps.
Falls on stairs are more frequent than that indicated in the investigated sample above. One third of over-3-day absence injuries caused by falling in the food and drink industries occur on stairs.
Let’s look at some examples3 of how these accidents can occur in practice:
- A night-shift hygiene operative was cleaning the walls of a chiller using a 5m aluminium ladder that contractors had left against a wall. He lost his balance and fell 3.5m to the floor, fracturing his arm. The work should have been carried out from ground level using a foam jet cleaner.
- An employee washing a food machine at the end of a shift climbed a ladder and crossed onto the top of the plant to get a better angle from which to hose the plant down. She slipped and fell 2m, breaking her arm. Standing on the plant for cleaning had been condoned within the factory. Safe access arrangements are now provided.
- A worker fell over 2m after standing on a pallet balanced on the forks of an FLT while attempting to retrieve dislodged tea sacks. Pallets of sacks were stored three-high and, due to the nature of the sack contents, they settled unevenly – making retrieval of the top-loaded pallet impossible on occasions. Pallet racking should have been provided.
What do all of these food and drink case studies have in common? They all selected the wrong access equipment. Why is that? Were their risk assessments inadequate, did they fail to identify the working at height hazards, or did they select the wrong control for the identified hazard?
To do that we need to look at the risk assessment process.
Working at height risk assessment
As with any risk assessment, those for working at height are usually undertaken using the following six steps:
- Identifying the hazards
- Identifying who can be harmed and how
- Assessing the risks
- Deciding on what controls are needed, reassessing the risks
- Recording the significant findings and communicating them
- Reviewing the assessment as necessary
The hazards in these case studies are self-explanatory, they all involved a fall from height. However, they all required different access controls for the work to be done safely. These can be ascertained by using the hierarchy of control (HoC) model.
Working at height hierarchy of control
Working from the ground level is the safest option and highest on the HoC model. In the first case study, cleaning the walls of the chiller could have been done from floor level, eliminating the hazard at source by using equipment that can extend to the point of work.
Reach and wash systems have become increasingly popular tools, especially in the window cleaning industry, to prevent leaving ground level. These can also be used in sectors that prioritise good hygiene standards, such as the food and drink industry, to disinfect surfaces above ground level.
Automation has also been used to eliminate the need for people to work at height, cleaning machinery manually. The use of a process called ‘Clean-in-Place’ is used to clean and sanitise the wetted materials of various forms of production equipment, used in the food and drink industry, such as tanks, pipes and pumps. This is defined as ‘cleaning of complete items of plant or pipeline circuits without dismantling or opening of the equipment and with little or no manual involvement on the part of the operator’4. Not only does this process reduce the need for workers to work at height, but it also prevents confined space working and is more efficient, thereby saving time, money and improving safety5.
In the second case study, an automated approach to cleaning the food machine could be a way to eliminate the risk of workers undertaking this work at height. Alternatively, if this is not practical, then alternative access equipment would be needed.
These are not the only ways to eliminate working at height in the food and drink sector; farmers can use drones to get an ‘eye in the sky’ perspective of crops, without needing to use aircraft or other means to actually get to that perspective in person6.
The third case study showed that working at height was required, but the correct access equipment was not used. This is where the correct use of engineering controls is needed.
So, how can we select the right access equipment for the job?
One way of looking for the correct equipment is to look at the most effective fall prevention solutions, before looking at fall mitigation equipment and then finally other access equipment.
WorkSafe New Zealand has produced a hierarchy of working at height equipment controls, to show the most effective, to the least effective7.
This model prioritises controls that isolate workers from the height hazard over those that minimise either the height that a worker could fall, the consequence of the fall, or the use of more ad-hoc work equipment, such as ladders and trestles. It also prioritises group control measures, that affect more than one person, rather than individual controls.
So why are ladders, trestles and stepladders considered to be the most undesirable work at height engineering control?
Firstly, ladders, trestles and stepladders can be used safely, for low risk and short duration activities, or to access areas at height only. If they are in good condition, the right grade of ladder, inspected and properly footed, a competent person can use a ladder in a safe manner. However, they are not suitable for all situations. None of these pieces of equipment have any form of fall prevention and require multiple points of contact (three in the case of ladders) while working off them. So, for more prolonged and heavy work, these types of equipment are less suitable.
So, what can organisations use instead of ladders, where work at height is unavoidable?
Work platforms can range from an existing safe permanent place, such as balcony or parapet, to temporary access equipment such as mobile access platforms (otherwise known as tower scaffolds or zip-up towers), mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs) and traditional scaffolding.
All work platforms share some key features; they all have guardrails/barriers to prevent the worker from falling out of them and they have a level work surface or platform. Permanent structures might include metal gantry platforms and structural balconies or parapets.
Temporary structures, such as mobile access platforms are free-standing, single bay structures with four legs. It has wheels and may be supplied with outriggers or stabilisers. They are fairly easily erected and dismantled, so are ideal for shorter jobs and activities.
Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPs)
MEWPs are platforms, usually powered, designed to help a person or people to carry out work at height in safe manner. They are usually tracked or wheeled and can move under their own power.
There are several different types of MEWP, ranging from scissor lifts, articulated boom lifts/cherry pickers, telescopic booms, vertical mast lifts and spider lifts.
Scissor lifts are large mobile vertical lifts with guardrails around the working platform. They tend to be not suitable for tighter spaces due to the large width of the equipment.
Articulated boom lifts, most often referred to as a cherry picker, offer an extensive range of movement. The sideways outreach makes it a practical solution for both indoor and outdoor applications, as the extended reach enables the platform to manoeuvre around and over obstacles such as buildings and other equipment.
Telescopic booms are similar to articulated booms, but typically have a greater vertical and horizontal reach, but are bigger and require more space to operate, so are better for outdoor work.
Vertical mast lifts are similar to scissor lifts but are generally smaller and have reduced weight limits and platform height. They can access and manoeuvre around tight workspaces more easily.
Spider lifts are similar to articulated boom lifts, with four stabiliser legs for stability and levelling, that is self-propelled. Designed to get the operator into tight spaces, corners and hard to reach spots, spider lifts can be manoeuvred in a range of different ways.
Scaffolding are temporary work structures, commonly used to support a team of workers aiding in the construction and maintenance of man-made structures. They are commonly used to get access to heights and areas that would otherwise be hard to get to. There are five main types of scaffolding used worldwide. These are tube and coupler (fitting) components, prefabricated modular system scaffold components, H-frame / façade modular system scaffolds, timber scaffolds and bamboo scaffolds (particularly in China and India). Each type is made from several components which often include:
- A base jack or plate which is a load-bearing base for the scaffold
- The standard, the upright component with connector joins
- The ledger, a horizontal brace
- The transom, a horizontal cross-section load-bearing component which holds the batten, board, or decking unit
- Brace diagonal and/or cross section bracing component
- Batten or board decking component used to make the working platform
- Coupler, a fitting used to join components together
- Scaffold tie, used to tie in the scaffold to structures
- Brackets, used to extend the width of working platforms
Forklift safety cages/man baskets
These work platforms are attachments to the tines of a forklift truck and can be used to carry typically one worker. They are fitted with fixed guardrails and a self-closing and locking gate. These are generally used for unplanned, non-routine maintenance of plant and equipment.
Fall restraint systems
Fall restraint systems prevent the user from falling any distance. The most commonly utilised fall restraint is a tie-off system that “restrains” the employee from falling off an elevated working surface.
These systems are typically used in conjunction with work platforms, to provide extra security. They are more restrictive in movement for the worker than fall arrest systems.
Fall arrest systems
These systems use a body holding device connected to a reliable anchor; they arrest and restrict a fall, preventing the user from colliding with the ground or structures, whilst limiting the forces on the body.
These systems tend to be used when a worker is working near an unprotected edge at a significant height, such as at roof height. While they provide almost unobstructive movement to the worker, compared with fall restraint systems, they are less suitable working at height controls as the worker can be at risk of suspension trauma if suspended and not rescued quickly.
It can be easy for people to overlook the need for more specialist working at height equipment. In the food and drink sector, the perception that the ‘front of house’ operations, such as supermarket shelving and displays are the only areas that need accessing. If that were the case, then low level stepladders and hop-up platforms might be the only access equipment needed. However, the ‘back of house’ operations, building maintenance and food manufacturing create multiple activities where forklift trucks, loading docks, building and plant maintenance, among others, require more complicated access equipment.
Considerations for working at height activities
Design, assembly, inspection and maintenance
The working at height access equipment selected for an activity is only ever as good as its current condition. So, it is important that equipment is assembled, certified (where necessary), inspected and maintained.
Many countries have these requirements embedded in their regulatory framework. In the United Kingdom’s (UK) Working at Height Regulations 20058, for example, there is a requirement for no work equipment to be used before it is inspected and ensure that if said equipment is exposed to conditions that cause deterioration, for the equipment to be reinspected at regular intervals.
This is backed up by the requirements of regulations for maintenance of work equipment. The UK’s Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 states that equipment is ‘maintained in an efficient state, in efficient order and in good repair’.
Certain pieces of work at height equipment may require designing before assembly and inspection. Scaffolding, for example, unless assembled to a generally recognised standard configuration, should be designed by bespoke calculation, by a competent person, to ensure it will have adequate strength, rigidity and stability while it is erected, used and dismantled.
Unless work at height equipment comes fully assembled, like the hire of MEWPs for example, then it is important that it is assembled in-line with manufacturer’s instructions or the design plan.
Training and competency
Even if you provide the best and most appropriate working at height equipment you can for your employees, it can be next to useless if your workers are not adequately trained in using it.
You should make sure that workers have sufficient skills, knowledge and experience to perform the task or, if they are being trained, that they work under the supervision of somebody competent to do it.
The best way to ensure that workers are competent for a task is to define their role properly. What task are they required to do? What equipment are they planning to use? Are they going to be erecting or dismantling work at height equipment or will they be inspecting it after it has been erected?
In the case of low-risk, short-duration tasks involving ladders, competence requirements may be no more than making sure workers receive instruction on how to use the equipment safely (e.g. how to tie a ladder properly) and appropriate training. Training often takes place on the job – it does not always take place in a classroom. It is good practice, however, to keep records of all training, even if it takes place on the job.
When a more technical level of competence is required, for example drawing up a plan for assembling a complex scaffold, existing training and certification schemes drawn up by trade associations and industry are one way to help demonstrate competence. Inspection of work equipment, especially scaffolding, requires a subtly different skill set and therefore has different training and competency requirements. Trade associations such as The International Powered Access Federation (IPAF), the Prefabricated Access Suppliers’ and Manufacturers’ Association (PASMA), Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) and the Scaffolding Association are international not-for-profit organisations that will be able to offer certification schemes and guidance, linked to their specific area of expertise.
There are many activities within the UK’s food and drink sector that involve working at height. Like all tasks, it is important to properly assess the risks to workers and implement the correct controls. We have highlighted some of the more common controls that can be used and some sector-specific controls that can be effective ways of eliminating the need to work from height. While we have focused on the UK’s food and drink sector, many of these principles can be used across other occupational sectors and internationally.
- WorkSafe New Zealand (2012). Best practice guidelines for working at height in New Zealand. [online] Available at: worksafe.govt. nz/dmsdocument/500-best-practiceguidelines-for-working-at-height-innew-zealand [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018]