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Working at Height

Published: 01st Jan 2012


According to the Health and Safety Executive in the UK there were 3,956 serious injuries due to falls from height from April 2010 to March 2011. That is a lot of injuries and a lot of lost time at work.

The automatic line of thought (and this is part of the issue as we are dealing with psychology in this article) that risk assessors employ tends toward thinking of ladders or mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs), which is all perfectly good.

Well, not quite perfectly because those are just the means of getting up to a height. It is true that quite often people do short term work via those means but that ignores other parts of the problem such as fragile roofs, for example. How often have we read that some fool has told a 17 year old to go up a perfectly safe ladder on to a perfectly dangerous roof? Sadly, I can think of two straight away that resulted in the deaths on different occasions of two teenagers. Managers have sent young lads up on to roofs without first checking that the roof is safe or training the youth on how to assess it. Subsequent falls through skylights or other fragile areas have been fatal. Similarly, not securing tools while they are up there has caused injury too. In some cases I have seen tools left at height when work has been completed only for them to fall at a later date. The Working at Height Regulations in the UK and no doubt other countries’ regulations, insist on a full risk assessment prior to work at height. We are going to look at some psychological elements that are involved.


Workplace psychology might, at first sight, have as much to do with those elements of working at height as crocodile wrestling has to do with chicken rearing, but there is a definite link. Many employees intend working at height diligently, they want to remain safe after all, and then for one reason or another end up not working safely either for a few moments, which is all it takes for an accident to occur, or for longer.

It is that behaviour that can be changed with psychological methods. So you want to have some confidence that your employees who are working at height are going to do so safely even when you are not watching them. Obviously that is reminiscent of the question “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I can tell you that if your employees work at height and fall, they will make a sound.

Most businesses now either undertake their own working at height training or have an external contractor do it for them. That will give employees the basic grounding in such things as three points of contact, angle of the ladder, correct use of platforms and so forth, but in many cases employees have been working at height in one way or another for many years. That can be a good thing. If they have survived for a long time the chances are they have either a good technique or at least one that has worked for them.

There is a dark downside to it though; they might just have been lucky. Worse still, they will have learned that their way of working is perfectly acceptable. The fact that they have not been injured will have brought them to that conclusion. We have all had experiences like that where we initially view something as scary, but after doing it once or twice we overcome our fear of it and do it more confidently. In fact, that forms the basis for therapy for phobias. When someone works at height and remains uninjured they effectively conquer their natural fear of heights. In the workplace it can lead to over confidence. So when a situation arises where someone just needs to get to a height for a few minutes they feel comfortable with doing it without checking the basics.

Therein lies the danger. You need to have some confidence that whether your employees are working up at height for a minute or for an hour they have competently assessed the risks.

Inherent problems

Getting people to work safely, whether at height or in other contexts, has a hidden problem. Consider this: when you normally set a workplace goal it is along the lines of ‘Make 40 more widgets’, whereas when you ask people to achieve zero accidents you are, when you think about it, asking people to, at best, achieve a neutral situation in that they didn’t intend to have an accident in the first place. So if you succeed in achieving zero accidents it is not a visible result in any one given situation. Yes, you can look back and compare statistics year on year, but if Joanne goes to work on a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP) today and doesn’t injure herself, how can we view that as anything but neutral? She didn’t expect to injure herself and that is what happened - so no benefit seen, neutral. Because of that, when you ask people to wear lanyards or take other precautions at height it can be seen as an unnecessary encumbrance - which is why they may take a chance on not wearing one.

I can point to personal experience on that. Many years ago when I first started work I spent a few months with a company that erected steel racking in companies around the UK. The more experienced men on the job actually took some pride in being able to leap around the racking without any attachments. Even back in the 1980s most of us were aware that it was risky (personally I viewed it as dangerous even with a lanyard on) but some would still do it.

Engineering good behaviour

There are several psychological elements to this subject, so as this is a relatively short article I will give you some ideas about how to avoid that sort of behaviour. The first thing to understand is that the attitude that leads to taking chances at height does not start just as the employee is about to climb on to the cherry picker.

Employees can be primed to behave unsafely even before they go near the equipment. You can have every lanyard, safety net, or other device in the world ready on that cherry picker, but if your employee has already been primed to behave unsafely they are not going to use any of it if they are interested in just getting up and down quickly. No, that behaviour starts long before they get near the equipment.


I have referred to priming a couple of times already, so I had better explain what it means and how it works. Priming creates an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli based on prior experience and can be caused by factors that the person being primed is not consciously aware of. Priming can therefore have a significant impact on our decision making processes.

There are some very simple examples of priming that can help to explain how it works. Part of the presentations I do relates to checklists and as most hospitals in USA and now the UK have adapted similar lists, I talk about the medical profession and show slides of a modern operating theatre. The conversation on the subject lasts about ten minutes. Immediately after that I ask the audiences to write down a profession. Predictably, most write down doctor or nurse. I can only conclude that those who write down ‘divorce lawyer’ have other issues they were dealing with.

Another example is a simple word ploy. Read the following list of words: Wolf, Cat, Pet. Now think of a word that rhymes with ‘log’. Be honest, you just thought of ‘dog’, didn’t you? Well maybe some people will have come up with another word, but as always we are looking at ways of increasing the chances of getting the desired result. It may seem at first that ‘dog’ is a very obvious rhyme to go for, but that is the power of priming. Other words that rhyme with log include jog, hog, bog, clog, slog, cog, frog, trog, fog, epilogue, dialogue - you get the picture. Just for interest, the second most likely answer I have had in live presentations is ‘frog’. The short sequence of priming words is structured to make people think of canines (wolf), cats are often associated with dogs, and of course they are family pets. The likelihood is that even when people say ‘frog’ they have at least been tempted down the animal route.

But don’t feel tricked - priming is a natural process and serves its purpose. You might like to think of it as alluding to something else. Stage acts such as magicians or mentalists use priming a lot. If you are constructing a priming exercise you need to consider the following: 1. Think of what you want to accomplish. 2. Ask yourself what else is in the same category. 3. Find words that rhyme with the thing you want the person to respond with. 4. Find ways to include those words in information.

Practical applications

This might lead you to believe that priming is limited to the way words are used but it can be so much more. In 1999 Adrian North, David Hargreaves and Jennifer McKendrick of the University of Leicester staged an experiment in a wine shop in which French and German music was played on alternate days over a two week period. When questioned about their purchases, 98% of shoppers said that the music did not affect them. This goes to show how subtly priming can work, because on the days French music was played 77% of the wine sold was French and on the days German music was played 73% of the wine purchased was German. Although it didn’t make 100% of the purchases the same nationality as the music, it certainly had an impressive effect.

Despite the fact we are quite sophisticated creatures we can still be manipulated quite easily. That manipulation can easily go the wrong way, though. Suppose you post your accident statistics in public areas on site (something that many companies do); that can easily give the message that having accidents is ok and risky behaviour is acceptable. Care has to be taken in the message that you put across.

Height-specific thinking

We are heading in the direction of what can be implemented where it comes to working at height. What can possibly prime people to consider their personal risk assessment and equipment every time they work at height? The answer is fairly simple and twofold. Firstly, tell people what you are trying to achieve. People hate to feel tricked but don’t mind being helped. If you tell them you are trying to prime them to be safe they will work with you because you are trying to help. If you try to use it as a trick they will eventually see through it and it won’t go down well.

Secondly, keep it as subtle as in the examples above. You could dive right in with information on how fast jet pilots work at height, but don’t take any chances (that stands an outside chance of working), but it is more profitable to tackle it from the other extreme. Prime people to adhere to safe working at height practices by starting off with the small things. Encouraging them to check the small details at least quickly before going up is one area to work on. If there is a quick visual check of the lanyard for fraying, or perhaps of ladders for bent rungs each time, it will at least get people thinking in terms of the overall assessment and coral them into considering other elements.

Forward planning

Earlier on I mentioned risk assessments in relation to working at height. There is a very strong psychological element involved in risk assessment and it applies very much to working at height. Inexperienced risk assessors may concentrate on the perils of getting up to the height, such as having a ladder that is on good condition, a MEWP with lanyards and so on, but forget they are just the means of getting up there. The condition of the rook, the surrounding area (is it near an electricity pylon?) and so forth are things that more experienced assessors might pick up on.

The problem is that when we are faced with a risk assessment we automatically look for obvious dangers and once that is achieved, we mentally switch off. It is much akin to the situation in traffic where we have a near miss where someone nearly collides with us. Just as we are thinking ‘Phew, that was close’, we nearly drive into someone else. We look at the immediate hazard on the risk assessment, getting up to height, and don’t go on to other elements. We are distracted by the obviously risky element. We can sometimes be primed to think that way too. If the company ethos is to do ‘quick and dirty’ risk assessments, that will encourage a poor working at height risk assessment.

The nature of some working at height means that formal risk assessments aren’t always used. I have come across refurbishment work on sites where it has been seen as reasonable to do some work at height on an ad hoc basis. That in itself is not unreasonable, providing the person doing the work has a good idea about their own personal risk assessments.

Personal risk assessments

In the case of working at height it is really a personal risk assessment that is at issue as well as priming. I’ll come back to success in priming in a little while but first let’s look at personal risk assessments. When the employee decides not to take thorough precautions at height they are taking an informed risk.

So how can you affect that behaviour? The first clue is in the phrase ‘taking an informed risk’. If you can give the employee information in a form that alters the risk perception, then you are on the way to getting automatic compliance. In most workplaces, or in fact all of workplaces I have been invited into to deal with behavioural safety issues such as that, I have come across the same problem - the training information has been phrased incorrectly.

If you can suspend your disbelief for a moment consider this: there have been many psychological experiments where the phrasing of propositions either as ‘loss framed’ or ‘gain framed’ has altered the choice people have made and the results are consistent. To explain this a little more clearly, the classic gain framed statement is along the lines of ‘If you stop smoking your health will improve’, whereas the classic loss framed equivalent would be ‘If you keep smoking your health will suffer’. It is a fairly simple concept in itself as you can see. The question then is which type of statement is best? The answer is it depends on the circumstances. That is the part that affects safe working. In a typical experiment to see if a loss or gain framed statement gets a better result, university students were presented with plaque disclosing mouthwash. Plaque disclosing mouthwash colours the plaque on teeth and shows the user where they need to brush more effectively. It is an effective disease detecting method that you may have seen during trips to the dentist. It was found that when students were given a gain framed phrase such as ‘Using a disclosing rinse before brushing enhances your ability to detect areas of plaque accumulation’ were more likely to use it than if they were given a loss framed statement such as ‘Failing to use a disclosing rinse before brushing limits your ability to detect plaque accumulation’. The reverse was true for antibacterial mouthwash. Antibacterial mouthwash is a preventative measure (preventing disease rather than detecting it), so a gain framed statement is ‘People who use an antibacterial mouthwash are taking advantage of a safe and effective way to reduce plaque accumulation’. People told this were more likely to use it than if given the statement ‘People who do not use an anti bacterial mouthwash are failing to take advantage of a safe and effective way to reduce plaque accumulation’.


The difference may seem subtle but to sum all that up: If you are trying to get people to use something that will prevent a problem (in this case antibacterial mouthwash) use a gain framed statement. On the other hand, if you are trying to use something that will detect a problem use a loss framed statement. Obviously, safe working at height is a preventative measure - you are trying to get people do something that will prevent more serious injury. As such, you need a gain framed statement along the lines of ‘People who use their PPE correctly are taking advantage of a means of protecting themselves’.

In reality, I have found on site after site loss framed statements such as ‘If you don’t wear this you are risking your life’ - and time and time again I have seen people failing to wear their PPE on such sites.

Published: 01st Jan 2012 in Health and Safety International

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