Working at height

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Working at height

Working at height remains one of the biggest causes of workplace deaths each year.

The main causes are falls from ladders, through fragile roofs, and off the edges of buildings, mezzanines or vehicles.

Generally speaking, it's usually straightforward to prevent such falls through proper risk assessment and sensible precautions. Make sure work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people, who have the skills, knowledge and experience to do the job. Always use the right type of equipment for working at height.

When assessing the risk consider:

  • The height of the task
  • The duration and frequency of the task
  • The state of the surface being worked on
  • Other tasks that may not be so obvious, such as maintenance and cleaning, which may occur when the building is empty

The first step should be the elimination of work at height, if that's possible. If not, make sure you use the right equipment or methods to work safely, and minimise the distance of the fall as much as possible by working from the ground. For example, many window cleaners use systems that are operated from the ground.

Some controls include fitting guard rails to reduce the risk of falling, working from scaffolding or tower scaffolds instead of ladders, using a cherry picker, or providing workers with harnesses. In all cases, workers need to be properly trained and supervised.

The HSE website has some useful Dos and Don'ts, including

Do:

  • As much work as possible from the ground
  • Ensure workers can get safely to and from where they work at height
  • Ensure equipment is suitable, stable and strong enough for the job, maintained and checked regularly
  • Take precautions when working on or near fragile surfaces
  • Provide protection from falling objects
  • Consider emergency evacuation and rescue procedures

Don't:

  • Overload ladders - consider the equipment or materials workers are carrying before working at height. Check the pictogram or label on the ladder for information
  • Overreach on ladders or stepladders
  • Rest a ladder against weak upper surfaces, eg glazing or plastic gutters
  • Use ladders or stepladders for strenuous or heavy tasks, only use them for light work of short duration (a maximum of 30 minutes at a time)
  • Let anyone who is not competent (who doesn't have the skills, knowledge and experience to do the job) work at height

Ladders should only be used for light and short duration work. Ladders should be regularly checked for wear and tear, especially the condition of the rungs, feet and stiles. They should always be properly footed, preferably by a colleague, or secured to the building to prevent the ladder slipping. Never stretch or overreach while using a ladder as it is easy to overbalance and fall.

Fragile roofs should always be clearly identified by conspicuous signs. Ideally, no one should be allowed to work on the roof without a permit, which will cover areas such as competence, equipment needed, such as crawling boards, and access to the roof.

Mezzanine floors should always have a suitable guardrail. Opening that allow access for forklift trucks, for instance, should be fitted with a suitable gate, and loading and unloading operations should be supervised.

Falls through windows can often be reduced by fitting restrictors. These allow windows to be opened enough for ventilation without allowing a person to fall through. These are essential where there are young children, such as preschools, because a fall through a ground floor window can still lead to significant injuries.

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