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Home Tradesman Insights Stay safe when working at height with this starter guide

Stay safe when working at height with this starter guide

With thoughtful planning and risk assessment, hundreds of injuries and deaths can be avoided each year.

Safety on site should be your top priority, and if you’re working at height, extra measures should be taken to ensure risk has been reduced. What follows is the steps you need to take when working with ladders, scaffolding, and fragile surfaces.

Before we jump in, it’s important to mention that the following information is a summary of how to stay safe when working at height. You’ll find in-depth guidance and advice on the Health and Safety Executive website.

Fall to death

In May 2023, Sheffield construction firm Linbrooke Services was fined £550,000 for the death of Matthew Mason. Matthew was working at Bearsden train station when he fell from a ladder. He was leaning to free some cables when he fell backward and landed on piping. He was impaled in his side and died at the scene.

Linbrooke Services was found guilty of ignoring issues that had previously been raised by a subcontractor. Other risks, such as unstable stepladders and assessing the area for potential hazards were also overlooked. The result was a death that could have been prevented. As well as the fine, the Manson family received £200,000 in compensation for the loss of their son.

Life-changing injuries

In another case, Ovidiu Dobra fell 10ft to the ground after the platform he was standing on collapsed. The accident left him with life-changing injuries to both legs and has put him out of work.

An investigation into the fall concluded that the incident was preventable and adequate risk assessments had not been carried out to reduce hazards. Henry Construction Projects Ltd were ordered to pay £234,000 in fines and £12,369 in fees.

Unfortunately, reports like this are common in the construction world. The Health and Safety Executive states that, on average, a construction worker will die from a fall every 17 days.

In fact, of all work-related deaths and injuries across all industries, falls from height in construction ranked the highest (2021/22). And of the 3,464 non-fatal injuries in construction, 681 involved a fall from height (2020/21).

It goes without saying that many of the professions that make up the industry are high-risk. However, with the correct strategies in place, these risks can be reduced.

Here are some steps you should be taking to ensure the safety and well-being of you and your employees.

Everyone is responsible for safety

If you’re working at height, the law is clear. Since 2005, The Work at Height Regulations has outlined the safeguards employers must put in place to prevent injury and death on site.

Planning is key, as is the correct equipment and PPE for the work being completed. It’s also crucial that employees and subcontractors are trained to perform the duties they have been hired to do.

The Regulations also advise assessing if the same work can be completed from the ground up. This means staff can complete the job without climbing a ladder or scaffold, which reduces risk significantly.

To do this, HSE suggests:

  • using extendable tools from ground level to remove the need to climb a ladder
  • installing cables at ground level
  • lowering a lighting mast to ground level
  • ground-level assembly of edge protection

Ladders

If work can only be completed with a ladder, then make sure it’s fit for purpose. Since 1947, The Ladder Association has established itself as the leading authority on ladder safety.

They only work with manufacturers and suppliers who comply with EN131 and have been certified by a Conformity Assessment body. The association also provides training through a network of approved centres.

The guidance offered by the Ladder Association is extensive and covers advice on the hazards involved in using ladders. Pre-use checks are also an important stage to complete before carrying out work and include checking:

  • Feet
  • Rungs and steps
  • Locking mechanism
  • Platforms
  • Fixings
  • Welds

If the ladder is bent out of shape or damaged in any way, do not use it. Repair the ladder or purchase a new one. It only takes a second for the ladder to buckle or collapse under your weight.

For more guidance and training, or to join, head over to The Ladder Association website.

Fragile surfaces

Falling through fragile surfaces accounts for 22% of fatal injuries in the construction industry. This means that when you or a colleague step onto a surface at height, there is a 1 in 5 chance of that surface giving way.

Before work begins, all surfaces should be considered high-risk and checked before they’re used to support weight.

This includes fixed roofs and the following surfaces:

  • Fibre-cement sheets
  • Rooflights
  • Liner panels
  • Metal sheets
  • Glass
  • Chipboard

Fragile surfaces must be clearly marked with signs, and all staff should be aware of what areas of the site are deemed high-risk.

To get the job done, suitable platforms with guard rails should be provided, as well as fall restraints and safety nets where necessary.

Roof work

When working on roofs, there are three areas you need to consider.

First, access to the roof must be safe. The type of access you use must be checked and installed correctly.

Common access methods include:

  • general access scaffolds
  • stair towers
  • fixed or mobile scaffold towers
  • mobile access equipment
  • ladders; and
  • roof access hatches

You also need to consider how colleagues will move around the environment to avoid tripping on beams or stepping on fragile surfaces.

Roof edges and openings must also be taken seriously.

Sloping roofs should be approached and worked on with extreme caution, and falls from domestic property result in many deaths a year. Scaffold should be used and edge protection installed to keep workers safe.

Flat roofs should be fitted with double guardrails, and toe boards to prevent injury.

The third area that must be assessed is fragile surfaces, which has been discussed above.

Scaffolding

Scaffolding should only be erected and dismantled by a person who has been trained to do so, as outlined by the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC).

Trainee scaffolders should always work under the supervision of a fully qualified scaffolder. And the surface the scaffold is built on should be flat, or if on soft ground, supported appropriately, and consider weight.

Ties also need to be within a safe working load limit and installed accordingly. This usually means building the scaffold in stages and testing that each level and section is safe before increasing the height.

Before scaffold is used, the following checks must be carried out:

  • ensure platforms are fully boarded and wide enough for the work and for access (usually at least 600 mm wide)
  • check that scaffold boards are properly supported and not overhanging excessively e.g. no more than four times the thickness of the board
  • ensure there is safe access onto the work platforms, preferably from a staircase or ladder tower
  • check that loading bays are fitted with fall protection, preferably gates, which can be safely moved in and out of position to place materials on the platform; and
  • make sure the scaffold is suitable for the task before it is used and checked whenever it is substantially altered or adversely affected, eg by high winds

As well as the above, guard rails and toe boards must be fitted to prevent materials or tradespeople falling from height.

Inspections of the scaffolding should be made following installation and before work begins, every seven days, and checked again if safety has been compromised. Impacts from materials, or weather such as wind, can force the scaffold to become unstable. If you’re unsure, carry out a risk assessment.

Similar caution should be taken when using tower scaffolds. Injuries and, in worst case scenarios, death on site are the result of the following:

  • Dangerous methods of erecting and dismantling
  • Damage of defect to the scaffold
  • Scaffold being used to carry out activities not fit for purpose

Again, towers should only be erected by trained professionals, and risk assessments should be made before they are used. This is particularly important if the tower is moved from one area of the site to another.

For more detailed information regarding the safety regulations around scaffolding, or any of the areas we have discussed, visit the Health and Safety Executive website.

An extra layer of protection

Keeping yourself and your staff safe at work is crucial. The impact of a fall or injury on a job will be felt by all staff and could put the victim out of work and their family under life-changing pressure.

By considering the actions you plan to take and spending some time assessing the risks involved, you are creating an environment that is safe and will save lives.

Thorough risk assessments, competent staff on site, and planning are excellent ways to be proactive and ensure that all risks have been considered, removed, and reduced.

However, accidents still happen, and you’ll need protection in place when they do.

Public liability

Public liability insurance protects your business if a customer, supplier, or member of the public suffers property damage or personal injury. If, for example, a supplier is hit by materials falling from scaffolding, legal costs and compensation are covered.

When an accident happens, costs can increase quickly, which is why a public liability policy with Tradesman Saver includes the following at no extra cost:

  • Up to £250,000 legal expenses cover
  • £10,000 accidental death cover
  • £1 million public and products liability
  • Work abroad cover for up to 14 days
  • Access to counselling, tax and business support helplines

Employer’s liability

Law if you hire staff, or an optional extra if you’re self-employed, employer’s liability protects you and your staff from injury and illness at work.

This cover includes:

  • Up to £10 million cover any one claim
  • Optional cover for working partners
  • Temporary staff can be covered for up to 75 man-days
  • Cover for bona-fide sub-contractors up to 25% of turnover

Remember, if safety checks have been skipped, and shortcuts on site are taken, you’re unlikely to receive the compensation you and your staff are covered for. Claims are paid out based on evidence provided, and if regulations were not met it will be you and your firm that pays out the legal and compensation costs.

More importantly, if you’re risking safety, you’re also risking the well-being and health of those you work with. Don’t take chances with people’s lives. The results can be devastating.

Tradesman Talk

If you employ staff, how often do you review safety on site? Have you or any of your staff been injured following vigorous safety checks?

As always, leave your thoughts in the comments below and click the social links to share this article.

Until next time, make sure it’s Tradesman Saver.

Mark McPherson

Mark McPherson has an MA in Creative Writing and has been crafting content for over a decade. He writes for a range of niches, including the construction industry and insurance sector. Mark has worked internationally as a content writer and teacher.

All articles by Mark McPherson

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