Fall from Height – the Leading Cause of Workplace Death

fall from height - leading cause workplace death

Falls from height are the leading cause of workplace deaths in the UK. Most people assume construction workers are most at risk of a fatal fall, and they’re right. But putting any distance between you and the ground is dangerous. Even small tasks like using a stepladder to move a box expose you to injury if you don’t take precautions.

This guide clarifies what counts as a fall from height, common injuries and why people get hurt. It also offers practical advice on staying safe in any job where you might spend time off the ground.

What Counts as a Fall from Height?

It’s a common assumption that a fall from height must be from a high place, like a building. And there is some truth to this.

Scientists have found that falls of 48 feet (15 metres) are deadly about 50% of the time. This height is commonly referred to as LD50 (or Lethal Dose 50) – a concept that comes up in a lot of studies around morbidity. The LD50 is the ‘dose’ that would kill 50% of people who experience it. In the context of falls from height, the ‘dose’ refers to the distance someone travels. If you fall from 48 feet, you have a 50/50 chance of surviving. Your odds improve if you fall a shorter distance. They get much worse the higher you go.

However, LD50 isn’t really relevant to safety legislation in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a wider view of what counts as a fall from height. According to HSE, a fall from height has no minimum distance. It’s any fall from one level to a lower one that could cause injury without safety precautions.

Working at Height

If you’re at risk of falling, you’re counted as working at height. Here are some situations that are considered working at height:

  • Using a ladder or stepladder
  • Being above the ground or floor level
  • Being at risk of falling into a hole or opening in the floor
  • Being at risk of falling through a fragile roof or surface

Slips, trips or falls on the same level are considered separate risks by HSE and have their own safety precautions. Using a permanent set of stairs isn’t considered working at height, either.

Understanding what is considered working at height is crucial because it highlights just how many activities involve this risk.

working at height situations

How Many People are Killed or Injured by Falling from Height?

Falls from height are a serious concern in UK workplaces. In the latest data available, falls killed 40 workers in one year alone. This figure represents almost a third of all fatal work-related accidents, making it the leading cause of death in the workplace – a position it has held consistently for the past two decades.

Most of these fatal falls occurred in the construction industry, where more people regularly work at heights above LD50. However, the risk extends beyond construction.

Falls cause around 20% of workplace deaths and 80 major accidents in the food and drink industry each year. In the vehicle repair industry, around 10% of all injuries are the result of a fall. Across all sectors, falls from height are a significant yet overlooked hazard.

And these figures may not even capture the full scope of the issue. The HSE suspects many incidents go unreported, and falling from height injuries are much more common. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) lends weight to this scepticism.

According to the LFS, which surveys workers directly, there were around 425,000 serious falls from height in the last decade. LFS data also suggests that about 992,000 working days were lost due to non-fatal falls from height.

Working at Height Training

Our Working at Height Training course explains the regulations, risks and safety measures of working above ground level. It provides employees and employers with awareness of their legal responsibilities and the necessary precautions to ensure work at height is safe.

What are Common Falling from Height Injuries?

Falls from height can result in a wide range of injuries, which typically increase in severity with the height of the fall. Here are some of the most common injuries caused by falls from different heights:

  • Bruises and Sprains: These are among the most minor injuries and often occur from falls off ladders or similar low heights. Although not life-threatening, they can lead to significant discomfort and time off work.
  • Fractures: Falling from medium heights, such as from scaffolding, often leads to fractures. Commonly broken bones include wrists, ankles and ribs. These injuries can be severe and require extensive recovery time.
  • Head and Spinal Injuries: These are more severe and can occur from falls from higher places, like rooftops. Head and spinal injuries can lead to long-term disabilities, including paralysis or brain damage.
  • Fatalities: Fatalities are the most tragic outcome. They are more likely when the fall is from a significant height or when safety measures are inadequate.

Understanding the typical injuries that result from a fall shows why good safety practices are so important for all workplaces. It also highlights why they’re absolutely critical for the construction industry, where workers are at the most significant risk.

What are the Common Causes of Fall from Height Accidents?

Falls from height can happen in any workplace. Here’s a look at some of the most common causes:

  • Ladders: In less hazardous workplaces, falls from ladders are among the most common causes of injuries. These types of accidents can happen because workers overlook proper technique or the ladder is unsafe for the task.
  • Construction Sites: These are often the scenes of the most severe falls, typically from significant heights like buildings or large structures. Insufficient training, equipment or failing to follow safety guidance can lead to devastating accidents.
  • Scaffolding: Incorrect assembly or maintenance of scaffolding can lead to falls. Regular inspections and maintenance are crucial to prevent these kinds of accidents.
  • Roofs: Falls from roofs can occur due to a lack of edge protection, fragile roof materials or slippery surfaces caused by weather conditions.

You can prevent these accidents by complying with the Work at Height Regulations 2005. These regulations require all work at height to be safely planned, supervised and carried out by competent people with the right equipment.

How Can You Stay Safe While Working at Height?

The HSE always prioritises eliminating risks before controlling them. So, the best way to make work at height safe is to do as much as possible at ground level.

This is obviously impossible for many work activities. In situations where workers must spend time at height, following the Work at Height Regulations is critical. They detail what employers and workers must do to prevent falls or reduce the consequences if they do happen. The key duties these regulations impose are:

  • Risk Assessment: Before work at height begins, a thorough risk assessment must be conducted. This assessment should identify potential hazards and measures to control them.
  • Plan and Prepare: Every task involving working at height must be properly planned to ensure it’s carried out safely. Planning includes selecting the right equipment and confirming suitable weather conditions.
  • Use the Right Equipment: Equipment must be appropriate for the task and the environment. It must also be well maintained and checked regularly, including before use.
  • Training and Competence: Workers must be trained and competent to work at height. Competence means they must know how to follow safety measures, use necessary equipment correctly and what to do in emergencies. There should also always be adequate supervision, especially if less experienced workers are involved.

Work from Height Training

Proper training is essential for anyone working at height. It ensures they’re fully aware of the risks and know how to handle them safely.

Our online Working at Height Training course explains the regulations, risks and safety measures involved in working above ground level. The course provides comprehensive knowledge of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and ensures workers are aware of their legal responsibilities and the precautions necessary to work safely. These precautions include selecting and using the right gear for the task, as well as emergency procedures to follow should someone fall.

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Jonathan Goby
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