The 46 reasons to take falls seriously18 January 2014

Gravity is good. It causes dispersed matter to coalesce and ensures this combined material – which includes you and me – remains intact. It is also, literally, the force of nature that keeps our feet on the ground. There are, however, circumstances in which gravity works against us, the most obvious example being falls from height.

At around midday on October 23 last year, John Robbins climbed a ladder onto the roof of the Birmingham factory at which he was employed as a machine operator. He had been told by his supervisor to clear leaves from a blocked gutter even though he had no training in working at height.

As Robbins made his way cautiously across the gently sloping roof towards the guttering he stepped on a fragile roof panel. It gave way and he fell 8m through the roof, landing with a sickening thud on the concrete floor beneath.

He smashed his pelvis, fractured his skull and shattered the radius in his left arm. He also broke his back, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

Robbins, 20 years old and in only his second week at work, would never walk again.*

Inexcusable management negligence led to this horrific incident which blighted the life of a young man just starting out on his career. It also trashed the reputation of the company that employed Robbins and resulted in a fine and costs of several thousands of pounds for the company.

This is, however, by no means the only example of appalling health and safety in the workplace.

The HSE reckons that 148 people were killed at work between 2012 and 2013. There were 78,222 reported non-fatal injuries to employees, almost 20,000 of which were major injuries. The most common kinds of accident – 56% of the total – involved slips, trips and falls from height.

In 2012/13, falls from height were also the most common cause of fatalities, accounting for almost a third (31%) of fatal injuries to workers.

So, 46 deaths involved people falling from height.

But beware. The term 'falling from height' is something of a misnomer; it implies that a person has plummeted to earth from an elevated position. In fact, it is possible to fall from height when below ground level, say tumbling from a ladder while in a pit (or plunging into the pit). And the 'height' doesn't have to be great... it can be just a few inches – indeed, people have sustained major injuries falling from the bottom rung of a ladder.

However great the fall, the onus remains on the employer to ensure work is properly planned and supervised, and that adequate safety precautions are taken.

Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 says: "It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees."

* We have changed the name, date, location and some of the circumstances of this accident

But your duties as an employer don't stop there. Beyond general duties to protect the welfare of people at work, and others who might be affected by their business, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (as amended) set out specific safety and health requirements for work at height (see

The Regulations also contain schedules which lay down more specific requirements for places of work and means of access for work at height, fall prevention and fall protection, working platforms, scaffolding and ladders.

The management of work at height involves applying a simple hierarchy which is neatly summed up by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health:
- Eliminate: Don't do the job at height if you can do it on the ground.
- Prevent: Is there a safe place of work from which the task can be carried out? If there isn't, create one using temporary guard rails around a roof, or by providing a scaffold.
- Reduce distance and consequences: So far as is reasonably practicable, provide sufficient work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences. The distance that a person can fall can be reduced with safety nets or fall arrest systems. An airbag can reduce the consequences of a fall. For both prevention and reduction, consider collective measures (such as guardrails and safety nets) before individual measures (such as personal fall restraints).
- Reduce time spent at height: You can also minimise the number of times you need to work at height. For example, long-life light bulbs need replacing less often. Co-ordination of maintenance needs can combine several small maintenance jobs where it might feel "practicable" to use a ladder into one larger maintenance job which makes it worth erecting a scaffold tower. Some organisations change all fluorescent lighting tubes on a regular schedule, rather than waiting for each one to fail.
- Training and instruction: Ensure that nobody engages in any activity – including organisation, planning and supervision – in relation to work at height or work equipment for use in such work unless he or she is competent to do so or, if being trained, is being supervised by a competent person.

Higher intelligence
The Work at Height Regulations require duty holders to ensure:
- All work at height is properly planned and organised, and takes account of weather conditions that could endanger health and safety.
- Those involved in work at height are trained and competent.
- The place where work at height is done is safe.
- Equipment for work at height is appropriately inspected.
- Risks from fragile surfaces and falling objects are properly controlled.

Select the right equipment for the job
Ian Lofthouse is business manager of Brammer UK, which distributes health and safety equipment. He says: "For those who do not work at height very often, or are unsure about which type of access equipment to use, it is important that the risks are assessed and the right equipment is selected." He recommends the following:
If it is a light duty task that will take less than 30 minutes and can be completed mostly with one hand, or temporary access to a fixed working platform is needed, a ladder, step ladder or combination ladder may be appropriate.
If the task is less than 3.8m high and two hands are needed to complete the job, a podium step or folding platform may be required.
For tasks above 3.8m, or which need access in the same place for an extended period, a prefabricated scaffold tower may be suitable.
If the work comprises several tasks up to 15.9m high and not all in the same place, the best solution may be a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP) or powered access equipment
For longer duration work at height in a fully guard-railed work zone with a larger work area and work load capacity, towers may be needed.
Lofthouse concludes: "The overriding criteria when selecting equipment for work at height are: Use the most suitable equipment; give collective protection measures (eg, guard rails) priority over personal protection measures (eg, safety harnesses); take account of the working conditions and the risks to the safety of all those at the place where work equipment is to be used."

Ian Vallely

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