Common safety killers: falls from height

iStock_000000533027_MediumIt is estimated that more than a million British businesses and 10 million workers carry out job tasks that involve some sort of working at height each year. Falls from height were the most common causes of fatalities in 2013/14, accounting for nearly three in 10 (29%) fatal injuries to workers. Common causes of working at height fatalities and major injuries include falls from ladders and falls through fragile surfaces, but there are other causes such as falls from vehicles. Sadly more than 40 people are killed and some 4000 sustain major injuries each year.

What is working at height and who works at height?

The HSE’s definition of working at height is: “…any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

When one thinks of falls from heights, the construction industry is often the first that springs to mind. However, such accidents and incidents are not limited to construction operatives; farmers, roofers, electricians and window cleaners can all suffer an injury from this type of work.

Last year the construction industry accounted for around half of all fatal falls. Furthermore the latest HSE statistics for 2013/14 demonstrate that all fatal fall injuries were to males — seven of which (18%) involved a worker over the age of 65. While the number of fatal injuries has generally continued to fall over the last 13 years, fatal fall injury numbers have remained steady.

High risk activities include roof work, e.g. falls from the roof, through fragile roofs and roof lights. These types of falls can occur at factories, office buildings, warehouses, farming buildings during repair work, or during general maintenance, such as cleaning.

Around one in 10 offences prosecuted by the HSE involved a prosecution under the Working at Height Regulations 2005 (WAH).


An overhaul of the HSE’s working at height guidance was launched last year, with the aim of removing outdated, overly complicated information. The revised INDG401 Working at Height — A brief guide, published in January 2014, is clear, concise and takes the end-user (employer and employee) through the steps required to perform activities safety and how to comply with the regulations.

The updated guidance sets out in clear and simple terms the steps required to work at height safely, as well as busting some common myths relating to this area.

Key changes to the guidance include:

  • Simple advice on do’s and don’ts when working at height to ensure people are clear on what the law requires
  • Busting some of the persistent myths about health and safety law, such as banning the use of ladders
  • Targeted advice to help businesses in different sectors manage serious risks sensibly and proportionately
  • Some information to help workers to be clearer about their own responsibilities, in order for them to work safely.

Suitable and sufficient simplification of guidance can only be welcomed. At only seven pages long, INDG401 can easily be discussed in team meetings, used for toolbox talks and can support in-house training. In addition, INDG455 Safe Use of Ladders & Stepladders, also published in early 2014, can be used for those who use this type of equipment to carry work out tasks at height.

Working at height, safely

There are a number of myths surrounding the practice of undertaking work at height — the myth of banning the use of ladders on building sites is just one. The HSE dispel this myth advising that ladders and stepladders can be used for work at height when the use of other work equipment is not justified because of the low risk and duration, or when there are existing workplace or site features which cannot be altered. Another myth busted by the HSE is the notion that one needs to be formally qualified to use a ladder at work. A worker needs to be competent, possessing the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to use a ladder properly for the work that needs to be carried out.

The updated guidance provides simple steps to ensure safety when working at height:

  • Avoid work at height where it is reasonably practicable
  • Prevent falls by either using an existing place of work that is already safe or using the right equipment
  • Minimise the distance and consequence of a fall by using the right equipment.iStock_000000560522_Large

Prosecutions and fines

In September 2014 the HSE launched a month-long “safer site initiative”, which saw inspectors making unannounced visits to construction sites across the country. The aim was to identify health risks posed to workers and their management. The outcome was not good, with 40% of inspected sites failing to protect workers. Failure to provide basic safety measures for employees working at height was the most common issue found by inspectors, with 42% of all enforcement notices served for breaches of work at height.

In 2013/14 the HSE prosecuted 77 cases under WAH, resulting in 73 convictions with an average fine of over £8000. The number of cases (77), offences prosecuted (73), average fine per case (£8663) and conviction rates (95%) were all higher than the averages for the previous five years.

2013/14 also saw an increased number enforcement notices quoting WAH, in total there were 2096 notices (improvement, immediate or deferred prohibition).

In December 2014 a civil engineering contractor was fined for substantial work at height hazards found at one of their London construction sites. Upon inspection a HSE inspector found a number of concerning issues, including the use of unsafe temporary ladders, missing toe boards and edge protection in several locations, exposing workers to potential falls of between three to eight metres, and heavy equipment left on edges where there was the possibility of them falling. A prohibition notice requiring urgent improvements as well as two improvement notices was served. Further breaches were found at other sites managed by the contractor, who pled guilty to breaching Regulation 6(3) and Regulation 10(1) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. The firm was fined a total of £11,500 and ordered to pay £1,369 in costs.

What must an employer do?

Falls from height can be prevented by ensuring activities are planned carefully, supervised, carried out by a competent person and the right equipment is selected for the task. A suitable and sufficient risk assessment will identify what controls are in place as well as those that need to be implemented. Think about collective as well as personal protection and ensure inclement weather conditions are considered.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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