High risk

24 August 2023

Recent legislation changes highlight architects’ responsibilities for ensuring robust fall protection in building design. So, what do you need to be aware of if you’re the lead designer or architect? Stuart Pierpoint offers the insider’s guide on what you need to consider with fall protection systems.

DESIGN PLAYS a key role in keeping workers safe when working at height. Thinking about it right from the start is key. This will help you integrate a fall protection system into your design, enabling you to deliver a structure that both looks good and is safe to work on and maintain at height. This isn’t just an ethical must, it’s also a legal requirement.

The legal context

Your responsibilities, as a principal designer/architect, for ensuring that robust fall protection is in place are set out in HSE Guidance and the Work at Height Regulations, first published in 2005 and updated in 2007. 

The recent Building Safety Act (2022) assigns principal designers/architects even more responsibility to be a ‘guiding hand’ for health and safety features and instalments through the design and construction of all buildings. As such, architects have a significant role in ensuring robust fall protection in building design.

Many UK architectural practices have welcomed this renewed focus on safety. At a recent webinar on fall protection, architect Paul Bussey, from Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, described the new Act as a major wake-up call. “The UK design and construction industry has for too long been deregulating, relaxing and gaming fire safety and health and safety regulations. It’s time for a major culture change,” he said. 

So, what are your main duties as the lead architect? Well, it’s your job to plan, manage and monitor – eliminating hazards so far as is reasonably practicable (SFAIRP), and reducing risks from remaining hazards.

Ideally, you should set out your fall protection strategy as part of the Health and Safety Plan, specifying solutions to minimise the risks of working at height. These solutions should cover the whole building life cycle – from construction to ongoing maintenance. Start by asking yourself which rooftop areas need access, the frequency of this access, the number of people who will be involved and the training that they will need to have. All these factors will guide your decision-making.

Getting the balance right

In deciding what is “reasonably practicable” and the most practical and effective solutions for your particular building, you will want to question where the right balance lies. Innovation versus proven systems? Creativity in design versus confidence and safety? Cutting edge or compliant? These are the kind of questions that architects and principal designers ask themselves every day, as they grapple with the challenge of fall protection safety. 

Clearly, aesthetics are fundamental. Fall protection systems that have longevity are a must. Budgets are an essential consideration. But, most importantly of all, you will want to keep the risks of working at height to the absolute minimum, getting safety right from a business, ethical and moral perspective. 

Fortunately, there are approaches in place where architects do not need to choose between these options, and which enable the highest standards of safety when it comes to fall protection. 

Implementing the hierarchy of fall protection 

When designing safe access, you should always follow the hierarchy of fall protection. 

This means firstly eliminating any fall hazard by designing it out. Where this is not possible, you should then explore collective fall protection, for example, a guardrail that acts as a physical barrier between the worker and the hazard. Installing collective fall protection will allow less-trained users to access a rooftop without the need for personal protective equipment, such as harnesses and lanyards.

If collective fall protection is not possible, perhaps, because of planning constraints, rights of light or ‘viewing corridors,’ your next option is to specify a personal fall protection system. There are two kinds - a fall restraint system and a fall arrest system. 

With a fall restraint system (the preferred option), workers use fall protection equipment – such as an anchor point, harness, and fixed length lanyard - that prevents them from reaching the hazard. 

If a fall restraint system isn’t possible, then the remaining option is to specify a fall arrest system. This allows trained workers, wearing specialist equipment to access the hazard, safe in the knowledge that if they do fall, their fall will be ‘arrested’ by the equipment they are wearing. 

The design options open to you

There are two main design options open to you when specifying a personal fall protection system - a perimeter system and a ridge system. With a perimeter system, users have full movement around the perimeter while remaining in restraint at all times. With a ridge system (suitable for both fall restraint solutions and fall arrest solutions), workers use additional single point anchor posts to gain access to roof corners. 

Both systems should be tested for fall arrest in case of misuse.

Test standards for fall protection systems

Once you have decided what kind of fall protection system is most suitable for your particular structure, your next challenge is a choose a system that meets the right test standards. This means specifying a system that meets both the EN 795:2012 standard (updated from the 1997 standard) for single user anchor devices and the CEN/TS 16415:2013 standard for multi-user anchor devices. 

There are a few things to be aware of in relation to test standards. Don’t assume that a system tested against the old 1997 standard will be capable of meeting the revised standards. Check that a system that claims to be tested against ‘current standards’ has actually been tested against the 2012 standard – it may only meet the 1997 standard. 

You also need to check that the system has been tested on the structure or base material it will be used on, for example, tested using UK standard BS 8610. This is important because anchors perform differently on different materials and roof structures when force is exerted. 

It’s also worth being aware that, should a contractor substitute a different fall protection system from the one you specified, you could be held legally liable in the event of serious injury or death if the quality isn’t the same as the one you specified. This is the case even if the change took place without your knowledge.

Keep things in perspective

In trying to achieve the right balance and design a building that is both aesthetically pleasing and safe to work on at height, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Remember those key words, so far as is reasonably practicable. You are not responsible for everything – for example, no one expects you to control the way that contractors manage health and safety or design for future uses of the building that you couldn’t reasonably have anticipated. By knowing what your responsibilities are, taking them seriously, and partnering with a trusted and innovative supplier of fall protection systems, you can stay compliant – and help keep workers safe. 

Stuart Pierpoint is specification sales manager at MSA Safety. For more information, visit