Working at height rules – are they just needless red tape?

Workers up scafolding

Many people think that health and safety rules are needless red tape. They mean that companies cannot get on with their day to day because they are too busy doing paperwork. Working practices these days are safe.

This, regrettably, isn’t true.

Every year, the Health & Safety Executive publishes figures about accidents at work across the UK.  In the year 2018/2019, 147 workers were reported as fatally injured at work.  Of that figure, the task which resulted in the most fatalities was falling from height.

Work at height is an obviously dangerous activity. But this being said, workers are still exposed to risks every day just by showing up to go to work.

Recently we witnessed first-hand four workers on the roof of a five storey building in Glasgow completely unsecured and with no fall protection measures such as edge protection.

Not only were the workers put in danger by their employer but they were endangering the lives of those below due to these unsafe working practices.

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Three people working at height on a roof with no protection

We see workers injured every day because of 

  • Ladders not being footed properly
  • The wrong equipment being used
  • Safety equipment not being properly maintained
  • No training or directions on how to use safety equipment
  • No safety equipment being used at all
  • Unsafe weather conditions

Work at height is governed by the Work at Height Regulations 2005. The Regulations are accompanied by an approved code of practice issued by the Health & Safety Executive.

In addition to this, the Health & Safety Executive has a section on their website dedicated to providing guidance to those engaged with work at height.

What is work at height?

The definition of work at height is far reaching.  You can be working at height when you are:-

  1. Working above ground or at floor level;
  2. You could fall from a edge, through an opening on a fragile surface; or
  3. Could fall from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground.

In addition, organisations engaged with work at height need to ensure that people are protected against falling objects.

Who has obligations under the work at height regulations?

The Regulations require every employer shall ensure that work at height is:

  1. properly planned;
  2. appropriately supervised; and,
  3. carried out in a manner which is, so far as reasonable practical, safe.

Although the Regulations refer to an employer, workers are afforded protection beyond the scope of their own direct employer.

The reality of  modern workplaces is that  organisations asking a worker to undertake a certain task may not actually be their direct employer.

For example, if a worker is employed by an agency, the agency has very little control over what they do on a day to day basis at work. The “employer” in that situation would be the organisation which has control of the task being undertaken.

Similarly, if you are a construction worker engaged under the Construction Industry Scheme where a company takes 20% from your wages but you are technically self-employed, the organisation who is directing your day to day job will likely be required to make sure that they have complied with their obligations to keep you safe.

How to make work at height safe:

Given the risks associated with working at height, the law has created a hierarchy of what should be done when assessing the need to work at height.

The first thing an organisation is required to do is consider whether working at height can be avoided.  If it can be, then it should be – its as simple as that.

Only when work at height cannot be avoided should the employer/organisation do the following:-

  1. They must ensure that all work at height is properly planned and organised;
  2. Ensure that those involved in work at height are competent;
  3. Ensure that the risks from work at height are assessed and appropriate work equipment, including personal protective equipment is selected and used;
  4. That risks of working on or near fragile surfaces are appropriately monitored and managed; and
  5. That equipment used for work at height is properly inspected and maintained.

An organisation directing work at height has a lot of hoops to jump through to ensure that their workers are safe. The obligations are onerous.

Employers have to prepare detailed risk assessments. They have to ensure that those working for them are properly trained and competent at what they are doing. Method statements should be prepared and explained to workers.

Companies cannot expect their workers to fend for themselves. They cannot simply assume that a worker will be familiar with working at height. They have a duty to protect the worker from themselves.

The reason why the obligations under the Work at Height Regulations 2005 are so stringent is because of the danger associated with the work.

Last year alone 40 people went to work and didn’t come back as a result of working at height. 40 families have been left without their loved ones. That shouldn’t happen. And the law must do everything it can to prevent this where possible.

Written by Elaine Smith
Associate, Glasgow Office