In Britain, working at height is the leading cause of workplace fatalities, according to the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It’s also a significant contributor to non-fatal injuries, responsible for 8% of the over 51,000 that occurred in 2021/22.
Due to the risk involved, employers have a legal duty to properly plan any working at height activity. They must also ensure it’s carried out by competent people and supervised. Before they can do that they need to assess the hazards. But, what are the hazards of working at height? First let’s discuss what working at height actually is.
What is Working at Height?
‘Work at height’ means work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury (for example a fall through a fragile roof)’ according to the HSE.
Working at height occurs when you work on a/the:
- Fragile surface
- Ground (if there’s a hole or opening you could fall into)
Essentially, accidents can happen in practically every workplace imaginable, including falls from roofs, structures and access equipment. If there’s a risk of you falling from one level to another, you’re working at height.
It’s easy to overlook these low-level fall hazards and falls from short distances – so be aware and remain vigilant. You can do yourself serious injury even if you fall just a short distance.
Falls from height are the single largest cause of workplace death and one of the main causes of serious injury. You don’t have to be up high either, many fatal and serious accidents involve falls from just two metres or less!
A person could fall because of several hazards, the main hazard being ladders. Ladders are commonly used when working at height. But if used incorrectly, they could lead to disastrous consequences.
Common Work at Height Hazards
A hazard is something that could potentially cause harm to people, as well as damage to property.
The risks of working at height increase when workers use faulty equipment. A common risk is the use of steps and ladders that are broken or have unauthorised repairs. This leaves the equipment vulnerable to sudden failure and is the cause of many working at height accidents.
Exceeding the maximum safe working load of a ladder increases the risk of it falling over or collapsing. The load includes the weight of the worker using it and the load they’re carrying.
Improper Ladder Positioning
If ladders are rested against objects that could move or aren’t stable, such as guttering, it will increase the chance of falling too.
Fall Protection Equipment Hazards
The risk of falling brings with it the need for fall protection equipment like harnesses and arrest lanyards. But even this can go wrong. Fall protection equipment only reduces the risk of injury if it’s used correctly and it’s properly maintained.
The risks of falling are increased if the equipment isn’t:
- Used in line with manufacturer instructions,
- Regularly inspected and maintained
- Stored in a safe, dedicated space.
Training about maintaining harness and arrest lanyards is available online from Human Focus.
Selection of Incorrect Equipment
Equipment can also present hazards if it’s the wrong equipment for the job. For example, ladders should only be used for short duration jobs involving light work. So, the hazards of working at height on ladders increases if doing anything strenuous, particularly where workers may suddenly lose their balance.
An access platform is an alternative to ladders and used when doing lengthy tasks and is also required for more strenuous work. They tend to be used for reaching high areas of buildings.
As the workers will be up so high, they could be near electrical masts and power cables. So, there’s a risk of electrocution or exposure to radiation from mobile or radio masts. They’re also particularly at risk from adverse weather conditions, which we’ll talk about shortly.
Fragile Working Surfaces
A common work at height hazard is a task undertaken on a roof or other raised area. Many roofs have fragile surfaces that could easily collapse if they’re walked on. It may seem obvious that certain surfaces are fragile and there may be clear warning signs, but, bear in mind that this isn’t always the case.
Work at height accidents can also involve bystanders being hit by falling objects or equipment. Objects frequently end up falling from height as a result of poor work practices. Examples include:
- Passing materials up a scaffold tower by hand
- Carelessness, such as poorly stacked materials that can be knocked over
- Poor handling, like throwing bricks along a scaffold
- Poor storage and housekeeping, for example, stacking pipes on a scaffold without a toe board
A cluttered work area can also present hazards when using equipment. Poor workplace organisation can cause work at height equipment, such as ladders, to shift and lead to a worker falling.
The weather is another possibly dangerous factor when working at height. Strong winds may not be a problem at ground level, but once you’re in raised, exposed areas, the consequences of losing your footing become far more severe.
Ice and wet weather can also significantly increase the risk of slips or trips when working at height. Tools and rubbish can also be blown off and hit pedestrians walking below while work is carried out.
Training Protects Against Working at Height Hazards
Regardless of the work environment, the hazards of working at height can exist for workers. Even an office worker may have to use a step ladder to reach something.
As we’ve seen, there are a variety of hazards, from poor ladder use, to mother nature. Not all of these hazards can be totally avoided, so Human Focus has designed a working at height training course to support worker safety in most instances when working at height. The course is available online and can be done when time permits, between work tasks.