Essential guide to working at height

This is a brief, essential guide to the potential issues involved in working at height and how best to mitigate against the risk of accident and injury by adhering to best practices.

It is aimed at those involved in planning or carrying out work from height, which here is taken as any work that could involve injury from falling. Working at height is especially prevalent in the construction industry, but is relevant across a wide range of sectors from fishing to cleaning, decorating and manufacturing.

working at height outside

In 2020 there were 111 workers killed while carrying out their jobs and 29 (32%) of these deaths (the biggest single category) were caused by falling from height.  This staggering statistic shows the huge importance of good practice, training and information associated with working at height.

Training is key

Training should be at the forefront of any battle-plan to mitigate against the potential perils of working at height and with the array of excellent training programs in the UK accredited by IPAF and PASMA (the industry standards), there is simply no excuse for any business not ensuring that their workers and relevant managers are not fully trained. Both PASMA and IPAF training programs can often be carried out at your own premises and there are courses specifically designed for managers to assist with planning and understanding how conditions can affect which machines are appropriate and indeed whether it is safe to work at height. In addition, there are a whole host of courses designed to help those operating MEWPs (Mobile Elevating Work Platforms) to use, check and handle their equipment as safely as possible.

Risk assessment

Before any job involving working from height is undertaken it is imperative that a comprehensive risk assessment is carried out. This should be carried out by someone with the relevant training as previously mentioned. Risk assessments are subject to review on the day but should take into account:

  • The height at which work will be carried out and from which any fall could happen
  • The risks involved with falling objects (hitting others below)
  • Specific environmental and weather conditions on-site and on the day
  • Any hazards below that could worsen any impact associated with a fall
  • Specific risks associated with the type of MEWP being deployed

Prevention of injury

Of course, it should go without saying in an era where the understanding of the importance of education is taken as given that prevention of injury begins with ensuring the right training has been given from top to bottom among the workforce. In addition, training should be revisited and kept up to date according to regulations. After this is in place there are still multiple ways in which the likelihood of accidents can be reduced or the effects of any accidents minimized.

Perhaps the most important point to make is that even though training uptake has increased dramatically and accidents and injuries are far fewer than in years gone by, it is still the largest single cause of workplace fatalities, so working at height should only take place in the absence of any other viable option. Assuming this is the case, the amount of time spent working at height should be kept to a bare minimum, as well as the number of times individuals ascend and descend any ladders, where used.

The appropriate clothing should be worn at all times, with loose-fitting clothes to be avoided and the right gloves and footwear worn at all times as they are deemed to be fundamental PPE, a term you will be more used to hearing in relation to Covid-19, of late. PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) can also include harnesses and fall arrest cables, which are a very good safeguard where there is a risk of falling, alongside guard rails and suitable working platforms.

Where the very best equipment and PPE are not available or appropriate for whatever reason the distance of a potential fall should be reduced and at all times the edges around elevated platforms should be clearly demarcated, helping workers to stay fully aware of their surroundings and the limitations of their equipment. In addition, any MEWPs deployed should be fully stable on suitably flat terrain. Where ladders are unavoidable they should always be fully secured and positioned at the appropriate angle and as close as possible to the task.