Height safety

Published: 10th Aug 2011

Work at height is work in any place where a person could be injured falling from it if measures are not in place to stop this from happening.

This includes any place at or below ground level, incorporating access and egress from such a place of work.

Throughout the world the single largest cause of serious injury or death is from working at heights. You do not have to fall from a great height to cause injury; many serious falls come from below head height and often result in broken bones, including fractured skulls.

A variety of seemingly simple tasks are the culprits, from putting up workplace banners and notifications, cleaning guttering, simple maintenance tasks, to shelf stacking, unloading vehicles and machine maintenance.

No matter what the industry, or the attempts to legislate working at heights into a safe practice, there are still glaring inadequacies in our attitudes to it. It is also a fact that death in the workplace is a relatively low statistic. The question then becomes should we accept even one death as an acceptable statistic?

Every death in the workplace leaves a devastated family and a domino effect of human tragedy. We should pursue every avenue and opportunity to avoid this.

Workplace arguments suggesting that safety precautions may take too long or are not worth the effort should be addressed: the fact is that introducing effective height initiatives may put just five or 10 minutes on to a job time, but at some point will almost certainly save a life.

With the gravity of the issue it is worth finding any possible common denominators in the incidents. Studying accident reports illustrates that most situations occur through either inefficient or failure to manage situations.

The most common factors include failure to:

• Recognise a problem

• Provide safe systems of work

• Ensure that safe systems of work are followed

• Provide adequate information, instruction, training or supervision

• Use appropriate equipment

• Provide safe equipment

Manager’s checklist

• Do you understand what working at height really means?

• Have all working at height activities within your area of control been identified?

• Have risk assessments of these activities been carried out?

• Have the controls identified by the risk assessment been implemented?

• Have the hierarchy of control measures been considered when identifying activities and precautions?

• Have fragile surfaces on site been identified?

• Is access to fragile surfaces prohibited except under controlled conditions, e.g. governed by a permit to work system?

• Is it possible to prevent inadvertent access onto fragile surfaces?

• Are warning signs fixed at the approach to fragile roofs where access is needed or foreseeable, e.g. cleaning valley gutters?

• Have suitable precautions been identified for any work on or near fragile surfaces?

• Is there a system in place to ensure that appropriate access equipment is selected for working at height given the circumstances of the job?

• Have those involved in work at height activities been provided with adequate information, instruction and training?

• Is work equipment appropriately inspected and maintained?

With the march of technological progress, unsafe working practices at height can be engineered out to a degree. When the call goes out “we need an electrician up there now”, a checklist of abilities should be considered:

• Do they have the practical skills to do the work required e.g. electrical, building, non destructive testing?

• Do they have appropriate training in the intended specific access system?

• How much real time training have they had and how much physical exposure will they have?

• Does the individual have the strength and stamina the environment dictates?

Without proper thought, selection of personnel to work at heights can become a skills based box ticking exercise that can all too often leave that person in a vulnerable and often unacceptably risky situation.

The correct route to pursue is to undertake a heights orientated assessment of personnel, possibly simulating situations that are likely to occur in order to find if an employee has the correct physical, mental and personality traits that are essential for working at heights.

In an ideal world, persons looking to undertake hazardous work such as this should have an Industrial Medical Certificate, a standard requirement for persons working in such industries as offshore drilling.

Training opportunities

Two out of every three fall related accidents take place from a height below two metres, yet still result in a comprehensive list of serious injuries and even death. From this sort of height, the main culprit seems to be ladders, specifically using the wrong ladders in an incorrect way, unaided and with scant or zero training.

A sizeable proportion of these accidents could be avoided through training and certification opportunities. Depending on the specific needs of your business and industry there is a training provider and solution that could save on lost working days and possibly save a life.

Some providers give working at height related certification from online courses covering bare legal requirements - these can, worryingly, be completed in three hours! Other providers give two or three day courses, either on their site, complete with simulated height related environment, or will design bespoke courses for your site.

With legislative tightening becoming a standard expectation across most industries and insurance companies becoming stringent about the certification certain employees must have before cover is given, training for working at heights could ultimately become a legal requirement.

But what does an employer get for his money? A typical ladder training course lasts between half a day to a full day,?and the good ones will follow a fairly common format.

Ladder training

Appreciation of the Working at Height Regulations 2005.

• Current step ladder legislation

• Hazards and risks

• What the user needs to know

• Step ladder descriptions

• Questions to ask before using steps ladders

• Alternative equipment

• Pre-use checking

• Inspection records

• Care and maintenance of ladders

• Practical demonstration

Courses are typically a combination of theory and hands on practical demonstration.

Right person for the job

As with any other role in industry, working at heights requires the individuals involved to have mental or personality traits that mark them out as suitable for working in this environment. There is a certain psychological profile for some regular height workers; psychologists believe these individuals do perceive the danger as much as anyone else, but adjust their comfort level to match the level of danger.

The extra peril here is that this may make them complacent to dangers that others may detect.

There is a skill set workers at height should possess to effectively carry out tasks which includes:

• An awareness of health and safety issues

• A good head for heights

• A sense of balance

• A good level of fitness

• The ability to follow strict safe working practices

• Good practical skills for using tools and equipment

• Excellent organisational and team working skills

Worst case scenario

However much prevention we promote, falls from height seem to be an inevitability for a long time to come - so hand in hand with the planning of prevention, must come the planning of rescue and recovery.

If a person has fallen, they may be injured or distressed. The casualty will need to be recovered and attended to as quickly as possible. It is unlikely they will be able to recover themselves even if they are conscious.

An unconscious casualty suspended in a full body harness can suffer potentially fatal complications after a relatively short period of time. In order to avoid ‘suspension trauma’, recovery should be achieved rapidly.

As an employer it is your responsibility and not that of some other individual or organisation. The emergency services may not be able to attend in time and may not have the equipment needed to recover the casualty.

PPE and suspension trauma

The use of PPE (personal protective equipment) when working at height has a tendency to reduce the main hazard of falling, but at the cost of introducing ‘minor’ hazards. These include swing hazards, collision in mid-arrest and injuries caused by the equipment itself (such as bruising from constriction by harness webbing). Many of these risks can be, and often are, reduced by design and training.

Fall arrest PPE is widely used in a number of jobs carried out at height. The basic principle of such equipment is to prevent the user hitting an injurious object by catching them before the energy associated with the fall reaches terminal levels, either when hitting the floor or due to decelerations that are likely to cause death. However, one factor that is quite often overlooked in such systems is how the user is likely to be recovered once he or she suffers a fall.

This is especially important where fall arrest is used, as the potential for permanent injury and possibly fatal consequences will increase the longer the user is left suspended following a fall.

As well as the need for treating any injuries sustained in a fall, there is the effect of suspension trauma (constriction of blood vessels and pooling of blood in the limbs) to consider, which can have fatal consequences if the pressure on the user is not released within good time. A typical time period to bear in mind is, left un-rescued in a harness, a person may be unconscious within five minutes, dead in around 15 minutes.

The need for suitable training is therefore important, to ensure that operatives are able to carry out the rescue in as short a time as possible. In such training, the worst case scenario should be considered, where the user who has fallen has lost consciousness.

The importance of rehearsal

As is usually the case, there is no substitute for planning and readiness. In working at heights scenarios this is a further imperative, since lives are at risk.

Unplanned rescue attempts often put the casualty and the rescuers at greater risk. If your organisation is regularly involved in work at height, then you should ensure that personnel who may be called upon to rescue a colleague are trained, and that they regularly practice their techniques in a controlled environment.

Carrying out a rescue can be stressful and will inevitably be done under great pressure. If we give people time to practice techniques learned in training, then they are more likely to perform well in an emergency situation. Equipment to enable practice is not very expensive and practice can be done in quiet business periods to maintain productivity.

Equipment to carry out a rescue in non-complex situations, such as a rescue from a lifeline on a roof, can be simple and easy to use. Personnel do not have to be trained to tie knots or be experts in rope access techniques.

A typical rescue kit for roof work would include a controlled rate descent device with a raise and lower facility, some slings and karabiner hooks to enable the rescue device to be attached to a suitable anchor and an extendable rescue pole with a quick release, so the casualty can be reached safely by the rescuer.

Thankfully, employers can now buy products such as off the shelf industrial rescue from heights kits that come literally ready to pop out of a bag. These kits typically contain carabineers, web anchorage equipment, double action hooks and lowering handles. They are designed for single person use, to safely raise or lower casualties to a point of safety.

This type of rescue equipment is comparatively inexpensive (especially in comparison to a human life), allowing companies to concentrate on the safety of employees rather than worrying about how cost prohibitive an exercise is. It may also be worth noting that at this point in time, there is firm legislation in place that all operatives of height rescue equipment must be trained and certified in its use.

Lessons learned

From a purely business point of view, failing to assess the height related dangers of your workplace can not only be expensive from a human life perspective, but can also have a high impact on the corporate pocket.

Finding case studies where employers have neglected their obligations are too easy to find, but should act as a lesson to all. Payout after death from fall

In October 2006 a telecoms company was fined just under £500,000 including costs after breaching health and safety regulations, stating that employers must "ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees."

A power construction engineer had been running cable and fitting distribution boards at a telephone exchange when he fell from the wooden ladder.

According to reports the employee was working at a height of at least four metres when he slipped and fell to the ground beneath, suffering a head injury that would claim the engineer's life less than three weeks later.

His employers had devised a health and safety policy that required the annual inspection of all equipment used to work at height. Unfortunately, the company had failed to fully implement the policy, which meant that the nine-step wooden ladder used in this incident was neither properly maintained, nor appropriate for the task at hand.

According to figures published by the Health and Safety Executive in 2008/09, more than 4,650 major injuries were reported following falls from height at work. A further 35 workers died in such accidents.

Crane driver survived 40 metre drop A crane driver was lucky to escape with his life when his cab fell 40 metres onto the roof of a hotel. He was left with serious multiple injuries in 2007.

He was working on building a 25 storey block of flats when the accident happened, and as the crane was jacked up it collapsed, and the cab fell 40 metres onto the roof of the a nearby hotel.

The driver was trapped on the hotel roof for two hours as fire fighters fought to reach him.

His right shoulder blade was broken in half. He also broke the same shoulder in five places as well as fracturing four vertebrae in his spine and breaking three ribs. He had a fractured skull, both lungs were bruised and he was covered in bruising and cuts.

Following the accident he needed an operation to re-break his shoulder blade and will also need another three operations on his shoulder.

The father of two is now able to walk but only short distances. He can only leave his home with assistance and can no longer work.

The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted his employers and the company was found guilty of failing to ensure the equipment was thoroughly examined after installation, failing to make sure the employee’s supervisor had received adequate training and failing to ensure its employees were not exposed to risks.

The company was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay court costs.

Collective responsibility

From viewing case studies we can see that modern business has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for workers who are performing at height on either a casual or regular basis.

Failure to do so can be economically disastrous for companies and a fatal human catastrophe for the individuals and families affected.

By the same token, there is a responsibility on the individual not to put themselves into an unhealthy or unfamiliar situation of working at heights if they lack the qualification, stamina, fitness and suitability of character.


Pat McLoughlin British Safety Services (BSS) is an international consultancy offering advice and training on health and safety issues. Established in 1990, BSS has gained an international reputation as a major provider of high quality safety training that gets results. The team at BSS also provides guidance on all aspects of public safety, specialising in workplace legislation and best practice.

BSS advise clients on their health and safety strategy and policy and assist in implementing procedures as required. By conducting training needs analysis, BSS help clients identify skills gaps in their workforce and then develop and deliver bespoke training programmes to meet these gaps, to improve safety awareness and performance in the workplace. BSS have been successfully providing these services to companies throughout the world for almost 20 years.

BSS now have offices in Qatar, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Libya and Algeria. With a team of specialist staff grounded in a detailed understanding of each country’s cultural issues as well as specific industry and country safety requirements, instructors are all qualified to NEBOSH standards and have a minimum of 15 years’ experience.

Most clients are in high risk sectors such as construction, the nuclear industry, oil and gas, together with many service industries including schools and food. Clients include, Qatar Petroleum, Ras Gas, Al Futtaim Carillion, Readymix Qatar, PDO, Sabic, Conoco Phillips, Canadian Nexen, Weatherford, Inpex Libya, Al Mansoori, Petro Bras and Misco Libya.

To contact BSS visit www.bssukhse.co.uk


Published: 10th Aug 2011 in Health and Safety Middle East