In this article
Of the 123 fatalities caused by work-related accidents in the year 2021/22, 29 of these involved a fall from a height. This was the biggest single cause of fatal accidents at work that year. Anyone who is at risk due to having to work at height needs to have adequate fall protection measures put in place to protect them from harm.
What is fall protection?
Fall protection needs to be put in place when a worker will be working at height. Often people consider this to be mainly ‘rooftop’ work. However, the majority of falls from a height in the workplace that result in injury actually involve working at a height of two metres or less.
Work at height (WAH) can cover tasks such as:
- The cleaning of gutters or windows.
- Erecting displays or putting up signs, lights or aerials.
- Inspecting or repairing machinery, vessels, tankers etc.
- Using ladders or other equipment to stack shelves or pallets.
- Building and construction work.
- Replacing roof tiles.
Working at height can pose a risk to the health and safety of workers if they fall. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work as work at height if the work is being done in a place which, if no precautions are in place, a person could fall a distance that could result in personal injury.
Fall protection is put in place to mitigate the risks of working at height or getting injured after falling from a height at work.
Who would use fall protection?
Fall protection is necessary for anyone who is working at height, as defined by the HSE. This could involve doing routine maintenance work, construction, cleaning, erecting signs, lights or other displays, packing or stacking goods or anything else that requires WAH.
Before work is carried out, a competent person needs to conduct a risk assessment to decide if working at height will be necessary and what fall protection needs to be put in place to mitigate the risks of WAH. This might involve changing the way work is going to be carried out or using special equipment to protect workers from injuries due to falling.
Some workplace situations where a fall from height is a risk might include:
- Work is being done above ground level (at a height a fall poses a risk of injury).
- You are working somewhere where you could fall off an edge or ledge.
- Your work requires the use of a ladder/stepladder/scaffolding.
- You are working in a place where you could fall through a fragile surface or through an opening.
- You are working at ground level but there is a risk of falling through an opening or hole.
Working at height is more common in some industries than others, for example those working in roofing, construction or commercial window cleaning might routinely expect to WAH. Roof work is considered high risk and HSE data reveals that falls from, or through, roofs is one of the most common causes of workplace death and serious injury in the UK.
It is important to take fall protection measures whenever someone is required to work at height. The risks associated with the job and the precautions taken to mitigate them should always be proportionate.
Is fall protection important?
If a person falls from a height they can incur serious injuries to their body, such as:
- Broken bones.
- Cuts and bruises.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Internal damage.
In the most serious cases, a free fall from a height could result in catastrophic, life-changing injuries or even death.
The person who has been injured will also have to contend with taking time off work to recover, loss of income and the physical and mental stress of being injured and in pain.
In addition to personal injury, there can be an economic effect when workers get injured:
- Loss of revenue and output, as a worker(s) has to take time off sick.
- Time and money spent finding replacement workers.
- The job may now take longer which can have a knock-on effect on other planned jobs.
- Damage to reputation as the business is exposed for using unsafe practices.
- Potential of lawsuits from injured parties.
To reduce the chances of a fall occurring when any work at height is being done, it is vital to have fall protection in place to protect workers and the business itself.
What are the types of fall protection?
The initial duty of anyone responsible for WAH being carried out is for them to see if it can be avoided completely. If it cannot, once a risk assessment has been carried out the work must be managed and carried out safely. This will likely include the implementation of fall protection measures in the form of different types of safety equipment.
Any equipment used must be in good working order and fit for purpose. The type of equipment used will vary between sites and tasks.
There are two types of fall protection:
1. Collective protection – a control measure that protects everyone
2. Personal protection – a control measure that protects the individual and requires some personal responsibility when used
Some examples of fall protection equipment include:
- Working platforms – these should be fitted with guard rails and toe boards. They can offer collective protection from falls and falling objects. Examples of working platforms include scaffolding and mobile towers (tower scaffolding), as well as mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) such as those commonly used in commercial window cleaning of large, high-rise buildings.
- Safety nets – if used correctly, safety nets can offer some protection against serious injury if a fall from a height occurs.
- Airbags (or other soft landing systems) – these are useful in falls from lower heights and their efficacy decreases as the fall height gets higher.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) – personal fall protection systems usually require workers to wear a full body harness with a connecting element such as a lanyard, flexible rope or an anchor.
- Fall arrest and fall restraint harnesses may be used. The main difference between them is a fall restraint harness is designed to keep the user in place before a fall or only allows them to travel a short distance. The arrest system is designed to stop the user making contact with a surface and being injured and they have built-in shock absorbers. If the arrest system is used, a Working at Height Rescue Plan must be in place.
It is important that anyone tasked with using a fall arrest or fall restraint harness is fully trained and understands how to use it safely.
Fall protection risk assessment
When undertaking any work at height, a risk assessment must be done prior to the work commencing to decide the best way to proceed safely. The risk assessment has to be done by a competent person who is knowledgeable enough to complete it adequately.
A thorough risk assessment will assess the risks, identify hazards and advise on what control measures need to be taken to mitigate or minimise the risks involved.
The HSE advises a Hierarchy of Control to be used when assessing work at height risks. Before starting any work at height, a risk assessor should work through the following:
1. Eliminate risk – decide if it is possible and practical to avoid work at height altogether.
2. Prevent falls – if work at height cannot be avoided, falls have to be prevented by either using an existing workplace that is safe or the correct equipment.
3. Minimise – by using the correct type of equipment, the consequences of a fall can be minimised when the risk cannot be fully eliminated.
In addition, the risk assessor would need to consider the best safety equipment for the job in hand. This will vary between worksites and depend on the structure of the building, nature of the task and the size and scope of the operation. This means that for each step of the hierarchy they will need to decide:
If they can prioritise measures that will protect everyone who is at risk (collective protection) or if they need to think about using measures that are designed to protect on an individual basis (personal protection).
Collective protection is the most ideal solution if working at height is not going to be eliminated completely. This is because it should protect all the people who are at risk and does not require them to act in order to be protected.
Collective protection includes:
- Guard rails.
- Tower scaffolds.
- Scissor lifts.
Personal protection is equipment that requires an individual to act/intervene in order for it to be effective against the risk of a fall, such as:
- A safety harness which the user must attach and use correctly and safely (usually cable or track based systems with a lanyard).
It is also important to assess any other risks that are present around the work site that could affect the chances of a fall or accident occurring such as:
- How safe and accessible the workspace is – is there a risk of slips, trips and falls?
- Is any additional signage required so workers know where to enter, walk and exit etc?
- Are there any adverse weather conditions that could affect the safety of the site?
Work at height may often involve using uneven or sloping surfaces such as rooftops that are not designed to be flat. It may also intersect with other risks such as manual handling, which would also need to be risk assessed.
What are the Dos and Don’ts of working at height?
When working at height, one of the biggest risks is suffering a fall that could cause injury. This is why having fall protection in place is so important.
To help limit the risks of working at height, everyone should also follow these basic rules:
- Make sure a risk assessment has been carried out prior to work commencing.
- Work as much as possible on ground level (eliminate WAH completely if you can).
- Make sure all workers can safely access and exit the points they are working from.
- Only use suitable equipment that is fit for purpose and regularly inspected and maintained.
- Take precautions on fragile surfaces.
- Provide workers with protection from falling objects or materials.
- Have emergency procedures in place in case of accident or incident, such as a WAH Rescue Plan.
- Overload ladders or other equipment – keep in mind any goods or materials that are to be carried up/down by workers will cause additional weight.
- Use ladders for anything other than light work (no strenuous activities).
- Lean or overreach if you are up a ladder/stepladder.
- Rest or lean ladders against uneven or weak surfaces.
- Allow anyone who is not competent to WAH to do so (either through inadequate training or other impairment).
- Complete tasks that are unsafe or outside of your skills and experience.
- Take unnecessary risks when working at height.
- Use any safety equipment that is damaged, broken or unfit for purpose.
Is fall protection required by law?
The HSE’s Work at Height Regulations 2005 exist to prevent workplace injuries and deaths that are caused by a fall from a height. These regulations apply to anyone who is in charge of overseeing work from height (this includes employers, managers and building owners who contract other people to carry out such work).
They state that anyone who is in control of any work at height should ensure:
‘Work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people’.
A risk assessment always needs to be undertaken prior to starting any WAH. The findings of the risk assessment will dictate what kind of fall protection needs to be put in place to protect workers from serious injury.
Employees are also expected to take reasonable care of themselves and others in terms of health and safety.
- Reporting any hazards to their supervisor/manager as soon as possible.
- Using safety equipment and devices safely and as directed.
The legislation also covers specifics relating to fall protection and exactly what needs to be complied with, including detailed requirements for:
- Guard rails, toe boards and barriers.
- Working platforms and scaffolding.
- Collective safeguards for arresting falls.
- Personal fall protection systems.
- Revocation of instruments.
Before instructing anyone to undertake any work at height on your behalf it is important that you familiarise yourself with any relevant health and safety legislation and that a competent person conducts a full risk assessment.
You can use the findings of the risk assessment to help you to take the appropriate steps to minimise any risk of accident or injury that might occur as a result of working at height. Following on from this, it is vital that you put the correct fall protection measures in place and that you remain compliant for the duration of the works.