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Posted on: 19 June 2018

The Work at Height Regulations were introduced in a bid to prevent deaths and injuries caused by falls from height in the workplace and/or as a result of unsafe working practices. 

The regulations:

  • consolidate requirements for work at height into one place, making it easier for duty holders;
  • extend duties to activities not previously covered by specific regulations, such as work activities that take an employee to various places during the day e.g. roadside breakdown recovery and vehicle repairs; and
  • define what constitutes work at height.

Work at height means work in any place, including a place at or below ground level, where, if measures required by these regulations aren’t taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. It includes (but is not limited to):

  • any work at height using work equipment (MEWPs (Mobile Elevating Work Platforms), scaffolds, guardrails, ladders, kick stools, etc.);
  • work on a structure that isn’t designed to act as a floor or platform, e.g. a roof, vehicle, machine, plant, fabrication, telegraph pole or tree; and 
  • working next to an excavation or where there is a similar sudden drop, such as a cellar opening.

Employers, facilities managers, building owners and anyone else that controls work at height, including the self-employed, can be held responsible should an accident occur. 

Duties are imposed on anyone who:

  • is carrying out work at height activities on their own site/premises;
  • has workers (including contractors) under their control; and 
  • is responsible for ensuring the safety of work equipment which may be sent to other sites/premises. 
Expand each of the following steps for guidance.

Work at height must be appropriately supervised and carried out in a safe manner.

A failure to adequately supervise work at height often results in plans not being followed.

Planning includes:

  • the selection of work equipment;
  • providing emergency and rescue arrangements (these should not rely on the fire brigade);
  • considering the effect the weather and other environmental conditions (work in extreme temperatures, for example); and
  • arrangements for setting up and dismantling equipment.

Duty holders should ensure that persons engaged in any activity (includes organisation and planning, supervision, and selection and use of work equipment) relating to work at height and/or associated work equipment, are capable of performing the task safely and effectively.

An assessment of what constitutes competence for a particular task should be made to ensure that it’s completed by those with the relevant skills, knowledge and experience.

The regulations set out a hierarchy of measures to enable duty holders to select the most appropriate method of work in order to avoid or minimise risks associated with work at height.

Risk assessment is the first step and prompts duty holders to ask themselves questions in determining how to work safely, following the hierarchy:

  • 1. Can work at height be avoided?
  • 2. Can a fall be prevented?
  • 3. Can the distance and/or consequences of a fall be minimised?
  • 4. Can additional training and instruction or other additional suitable and sufficient measures be taken to prevent a fall?

Each level of the hierarchy is qualified by ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, so a duty holder has to consider avoidance before prevention, and prevention before mitigation, etc.

Completing a risk assessment to identify what suitable and sufficient measures should be taken to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury is a key part of the regulations.

When selecting work equipment for work at height, a duty holder is required to give collective measures priority over personal measures – i.e. the collective protection offered by MEWPs, scaffolding, guardrails, etc. should be given preference to personal fall protection systems, such as work positioning and fall arrest.

This doesn’t mean personal fall protection systems is prohibited however, if it is deemed the most appropriate work equipment given the nature of the work to be carried out then it should be used.

When considering the nature of the work to be carried out, in addition to the hierarchy identified above, a number of principles should be used in the risk assessment process to determine which work equipment is best suited for a particular job.

These principles include:

  • working conditions – ground conditions, obstructions, slopes, etc. will impact the choice of work equipment.
  • distance and consequence of a fall – a fall arrest system will be of no use if the deployment distance is greater than the available clearance.
  • duration and frequency of use – longer duration and higher frequency of us, generally justifies a better standard of fall protection, e.g. a scaffold, tower scaffold or MEWP, rather than a ladder or step ladder.
  • access and egress distances – consideration should be given to the provision of stairs (temporary or permanent) for construction work (for example). Ladders are less suitable for higher access, particularly if loads are being carried.
  • evacuation and rescue.

Whilst reflecting the hierarchical approach identified earlier, fragile surfaces are specifically covered in the regulations.

This recognises the significant number of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from falls through fragile surfaces that occur year on year.

  • Avoid the need to cross, or work on, from or near a fragile surface when work can be carried out without doing so, e.g. by working from underneath using a MEWP or tower scaffold.
  • Prevent a fall by utilising platforms, coverings, guardrails and similar means of support or protection.
  • Minimise the distance and consequences of a fall where the risk of a fall remains.

Prominent warning notices should be placed at approaches to fragile surfaces. Where this is not reasonably practicable, persons should be made aware by other means, such as permit to work systems.

It is also critical to consider factors that could impact fragility (e.g. age of the structure) at the organisation and planning stage.

The regulations include specific guidance and requirements for inspection of work equipment and checks of places of work at height.

Where the safety of the work equipment depends on how it has been installed or assembled, there is a need to ensure it’s not used until it has been inspected by a competent person each time it’s erected, moved or significantly adjusted.

If equipment is exposed to conditions that may cause it to deteriorate (e.g. cold and wet weather), and result in a dangerous situation, it should be inspected at suitable intervals appropriate to the environment and use.

Any working platform used for construction work and from which a person could fall more than two metres must be inspected:

  • after assembly in any position;
  • after any event liable to have affected its stability; and
  • at intervals not exceeding seven days.

Duty holders are required to keep a record of inspection for certain types of work equipment including guard rails, toe-boards, barriers or similar collective means of protection and working platforms or ladders that are fixed or mobile.

Some work equipment (MEWPs, for example) used for work at height will require inspection in accordance with the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations.

Checks need to be made on existing fall protection measures for permanent situations like roofs, plant, tanks and silos prior to use to ensure there are no obvious defects which could increase the risk of a fall.

Measures must be taken to prevent the fall of any material or object by keeping workplaces at height clear of loose material or objects so far as is reasonably practicable. Where this isn’t reasonably practicable, barriers, toe boards, etc. must be provided so that they can’t roll off and/or be inadvertently knocked off.

Uncontrolled throwing of materials or objects from height is to be avoided with hoists or rubbish chutes provided and sited in suitable cordoned off areas.

While the prevention of falls and falling objects should be the ultimate goal for duty holders, it’s recognised that there are circumstances where it’s not entirely achievable to control the hazards. In such circumstances, a duty holder can designate a danger area around or underneath such work (by erecting barriers or fencing) so that those not engaged in the work are prevented from entering the area.

As part of controlling the hazards associated with work at height, it’s important not to overlook the duty of those working under the control of another to:

  • report any activity or defect relating to work at height which they know (through information, instruction and training) is likely to endanger the safety of themselves or other persons; and
  • always use work equipment in accordance with any training and instructions received from the employer.