Work at height: 4 experts on how to reduce accidents

28 June 2018

Over 60 organisations have submitted responses to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height, and its inquiry into injuries and fatalities in the sector. Four of the respondents explained to CM how work at height could be made safer.

Peter Bennett, managing director, Prefabricated Access Suppliers' and Manufacturers' Association

A lack of experience and poor management of work at height are the primary reasons for falls, or objects falling, from height. Improving the competence – skills, knowledge and experience – of those who supervise or manage the work at height is a top priority. 

Legislation helps to set minimum acceptable standards and provides the foundation for prosecution where clear breaches of regulations occur; but what is needed now is a change in culture, to make disregarding working at height safety socially unacceptable – in the same way driving under the influence of alcohol has become.

The 2005 Working at Height Regulations introduced a step-change to training. What would help further is greater operative engagement, through continuing professional development initiatives, guarding against the risk of complacency which is a common yet concerning factor among operatives and managers.

Comprehensive data is essential to improving safety. By using modern technology, we could improve both capture of incident data and understanding of how work at height is being undertaken on a day to day basis.

Adrian Rooney, chair of the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation’s health and safety committee and managing director of Midland Scaffolding Services

There is a lack of understanding and a lack of regard for current health and safety requirements, often among the self-employed and small businesses. Some individuals take chances and ignore identified procedures, while there is no accountability for managers and supervisors.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 use the definition of “competent”, but this is weak and needs to be clearer – critical aspects of height safety are left to an individual’s interpretation.

Tougher sentencing for directors and individuals, along with restrictions on companies trading in work at height activities if convicted, would provide a deterrent to flouting of health and safety requirements.

End users and clients should be made more accountable and responsible. Proper procedures need to be specified at the purchasing stage and no low-cost alternatives or short cuts considered. Client and site management should have sufficient understanding of plant or equipment used for the work at height.

The Health and Safety Executive should resume providing RIDDOR statistical data to the construction industry, to help the work at height sector understand the trends and develop guidance and training which address problem areas.

As part of any revised training programme for working at height, hazard perception and understanding of the full outcome should play an important role.

The government could introduce a licensing system similar to that used for asbestos work, to regulate businesses which undertake extensive work at height activities, or a third-party audit scheme to access whether an access provider’s equipment is fit for purpose.

Gary Walpole, technical officer, National Federation of Roofing Contractors

There are several primary causes of unsafe work at height – and the accidents that result. These are a lack of control over who executes the work, the training required, and verification of relevant skills, knowledge and experience. There often seems to an assumption that a task which only takes a minute to complete is somehow less risky and so the regulations can be flouted.

There’s also a lack of understanding about hazards, for example, engineers servicing M&E on flat roofs may be unaware about the dangers of fragile surfaces or open edges.

The 2005 Work at Height Regulations have helped, but clearly, they have not eradicated falls from height. The message that needs to be communicated better is that to comply with the regulations, you must first plan the work, then use the right equipment, and then use competent contractors – in that order. 

A working at height training programme, accredited to the operative and renewed on an ongoing basis, is one preventative measure that would help. This could build on the working at height section of the CITB Health, Safety and Environment Test. Training should be required for working with specific equipment such as mobile towers.

Clients and building owners also need a better understanding of the dangers and their legal responsibility when selecting suitable contractors. They need to ensure that work is properly planned, all hazards have been identified and the risks controlled, with clear guidance. Schemes such as the NFRC’s forthcoming accredited roofer scheme will help clients make informed procurement decisions in the same way that most homeowners choose GasSafe-accredited plumbers.

An enhanced reporting regime would help us understand causes of falls from height more clearly. We need to create a culture that is open and honest. By analysing accident statistics, we can understand where the accidents are occurring and to whom.

There is a role for digital technology in improving work at height safety. The use of drones or high-definition aerial photography can help at the inspection and survey stage, saving the need to access the roof. Virtual reality headsets might also give trainees a better understanding of the hazards they will face early on.

Richard Whiting, UK general manager, International Powered Access Federation

Falls that cause injuries or fatalities when working at height are usually because it is temporary work at height – tasks with a specific time frame, often requested of someone not used to carrying out work at height.

To address this problem, there should be more training, better site supervision, and a better resourced system of enforcement. Any company asking employees to complete temporary work at height should be sanctioned if putting untrained staff in unfamiliar situations or without the correct equipment and PPE.

Equipment intended for applications other than work at height should not be used or modified – for instance using an excavator or telehandler to elevate a person isn’t what those machines were built for and is dangerous.

End users also have a role in ensuring safe work at height; where powered access equipment is concerned, risky behaviour such as not climbing over guardrails should be legislated against. Users should be familiar with and respect the regulations and safety measures in place and understand the risks of non-compliance.

When work at height using MEWPs (mobile elevating work platforms) goes wrong, investigating bodies should share any data focusing on whether operatives involved in accidents or near-misses were properly trained and familiar with site practices.

The majority of accidents are preventable and shouldn’t have happened. Planning, training, selecting the right equipment for the job, following the relevant safety and technical guidance are all key. 

It is also important to monitor and review new developments and innovations in the machines – to ensure training, safety guidance and global standards are in line, and that there is underlying consistency for operators being asked to work using a range of equipment.

The APPG inquiry will publish its findings and recommendations to regulators and government this autumn.

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