Steven Mullan 06/01/2024
Working at height can be dangerous if not managed properly. In 2022/2023, 40 workers were killed in work-related falls from height. To protect yourself, your workers and others from the dangers associated with working at height, you should complete a full working at-height risk assessment before starting work.
In this guide, we’ll explain when a working at-height risk assessment is needed, as well as how and why you should complete one.
What is Working at Height
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), working at height is defined as working at any height at which an injury could occur if a fall were to take place. This includes both working above ground level and working next to an opening in the ground into which someone could fall.
Slips and trips on one level are not considered working at height, and neither are falls from permanent staircases, as these are covered by separate safety advice. For a fall to be considered a fall from height, the injured person must fall from a higher level to a lower level.
For example, you may be working at height if:
You are working from a ladder or a flat roof
You are working on a surface that could collapse
You are working next to an opening in the ground into which you could fall.
What is a Working at Height Risk Assessment?
If you are an employer of workers who will be working at height, or if you are a contractor or other person who is in control of work at height, then you must make sure that the work is “properly planned, supervised, and carried out by competent people”.
Before working at height, you must first assess the risks. Things to consider include the height of the task, the duration of the task, the condition of the surface being worked on and the frequency of the task. It’s possible that as a result of a risk assessment, you find that no particular precautions are needed.
What is a “Competent Person” When Working at Height?
For someone to be considered competent, they must have sufficient skills, knowledge and experience to safely complete the required task. Trainees may work under the supervision of a competent person.
For low-risk tasks that take less than 30 minutes, such as basic ladder use, a person might just need some instructions and on-the-job training to be considered competent. For other tasks, such as planning and erecting complex scaffolding, a person may need training and certification to demonstrate competence.
Common Hazards of Working at Height
One of the main causes of serious accidents when working at height is falling through a roof. Roofs are often more fragile than they appear to be. For example, a metal sheet roof might be corroded, or a chipboard roof might be rotted. Roofs also often have weak points, such as roof lights, liner panels and non-reinforced fibre cement sheets. Roofs made of glass, wired glass, slate and tiles may also collapse under pressure.
You should also consider these possible hazards:
Could poor weather make the task more dangerous?
Have you checked that the place where you will be working at height is safe? This needs to be checked every time working at height takes place.
Could someone be injured by falling objects? Is it possible to eliminate the risk of falling objects? If not, can people be removed from the area into which objects might fall?
Have all materials, objects, and equipment been secured safely?
How can someone be evacuated from the site in the event of an emergency? You should plan this out ahead of time and not just rely on emergency services.
Working at Height — Equipment
If you are an employer of workers who will be working at height, or if you are a contractor or other person that is in control of work at height, then you must make sure that the right type of equipment is used for the task.
It’s been misreported that ladders and stepladders are banned in the workplace, but this is not true. It’s often the case that a ladder or a stepladder is the most suitable way to work from height.
If your risk assessment determines that a ladder is the correct equipment for a task, you should further make sure that:
The right type of ladder is being used for the task.
The person using the ladder is competent (and has received adequate training).
The ladder is being used correctly and safely.
Anyone using the ladder is aware of potential risks and the measures in place to control them.
When using any equipment to work at height, make sure both the manufacturer’s instructions and industry guidelines are followed. Remember, equipment might deteriorate over time, especially if left exposed. Equipment should be checked before it is used to make sure it is still safe.
You are required to keep records of your equipment inspections. This applies to but is not limited to ladders, scaffolding, guardrails etc.
What are the Working at Height Regulations 2005?
Working at height is covered by the Working at Height Regulations 2005. The law applies to employers and “those in control of any work at height”, which includes contractors.
There will be some low-risk activities where no particular precautions are needed for working at height, and this is recognised by law. However, the risk level of a task should always be established via a risk assessment.
The law advises the following:
Complete as much of the work as possible on the ground.
Make it safe for workers to get from the ground to the place where they will be working at height (and back).
Equipment should be suitable for the job, well maintained, and regularly checked.
Avoid excessive loading and reaching when working at height.
Take precautions when working on or near fragile surfaces.
Consider the risk of falling objects and provide protection.
Plan the rescue procedure that would be used in the event of an injury.
The law also distinguishes between measures that protect everyone that could be at risk (collective protection) and measures that only protect a specific individual (personal protection).
You should prioritise collective protection over personal protection. A guard rail is an example of collective protection, whereas a safety harness is personal protection.
In many cases, a guard rail is preferred because it doesn’t require a specific action from the person working at height to be effective. In contrast, for a safety harness to be effective, the person working at height must put on the harness correctly and safely anchor it to an appropriate point.
Working at Height — Hierarchy of Control Measures
It’s recommended that you take an AVOID, PREVENT, MINIMISE approach to working at height.
If possible, AVOID working at height.
For example, it might be possible to complete the work from the ground with long-handled tools.
If you need to assemble something, can it be assembled at the ground level and then raised rather than assembled at height?
Can you lower something to work on it, then raise it rather than working at height?
If you must work at height, try to complete the work from a place that is already safe or make sure you use the right type of equipment to PREVENT any falls from occurring.
For example, can the work be completed from an accessible, nearby permanent roof with existing guard rails?
Can you use mobile elevating work platforms or scaffolding to prevent the risk of a fall?
If you cannot prevent the risk of a fall, you should use the correct type of equipment to minimise the dangers of a potential fall.
For example, if the risk of falling remains, can you use safety netting or soft landing to minimise the danger of a potential fall?
Can you use a fall arrest system with a suitable anchor point?
Working at Height — Method Statement
A method statement is another important document that can be used alongside a risk assessment. Whereas a risk assessment is used to assess the severity of potential risks associated with a specific task, a method statement is a set of step-by-step instructions that explain how a task should be completed.
It’s considered industry best practice to have a method statement to document how certain complex and high-risk tasks should be completed. For example, you may have a method statement establishing how scaffolding will be safely erected and dismantled. In some situations, ladder use might also benefit from a method statement.
After reading this, if you feel that you need help writing at-height risk assessments, give us a call at SM Safety Training & Consultancy at 01980 731706 or 07540057755. We are always happy to help. We can help you write them, or if you prefer, we can give you and your staff training either face to face or online training.