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Falling in line

07 September 2018

Latest annual workplace fatality figures from the HSE show that falls from height were the biggest killer in 2017-18 but why are they remaining stubbornly high and what’s being done about it? Georgina Bisby investigates.

The HSE’s provisional annual data for work-related fatal injuries showed that 144 workers were fatally injured between April 2017 and March 2018 which represents an increase of nine fatalities over 2016/17. Significantly, 35 of these deaths were caused by a fall from height, accounting for 25% of the total number of fatalities. This compares to the next highest figure of 26 people being killed when struck by ‘a moving vehicle’ which accounted for 18 percent of total fatalities and 23 people being ‘struck by a moving object, which accounted for 16 percent.

Meanwhile, the Building Safety Group (BSG), has already reported a 13% rise in the number of ‘Working at Height’ safety breaches recorded on construction sites in 2018 based on 10,000 site inspections conducted during the first 6 months of 2018, comparing Q1 with Q2, which is a cause for further concern. 

A complex subject?
Offering some insight into the figures, Jonathan Seymour, Business Leader for HCL Safety, the safety at height solutions experts, comments: “As a business we are shocked and deeply saddened by the statistics revealed by the HSE. With work at height legislation being more stringent in comparison to previous years, I would expect these figures to be a lot lower. Whether the reasoning be due to working at height seeming to be a complex subject, or attitudes when it comes to health and safety, something has got to change.”

Jonathan continues: “Looking at the statistics around age is particularly interesting. Across the industry, education and training is being ramped up to ensure safety remains the number one priority. This is clear to see in vocational education for example, where safety training is now incorporated into the teaching syllabus. This has had a knock on effect where those in the younger age brackets now expect higher standards from their employers. We can see this correlating with the statistics - fatal injuries are at their lowest for those aged 16-24.

Adds Jonathan: “It is important that self-employed workers understand what working at height means and what precautions need to be put into place to help ensure risks are managed as best as possible. This isn’t just about wearing the correct PPE or being aware of the ‘usual’ risks that could crop up on a job. Each job is unique and so the precautions taken prior should also be specific to that individual job.

Jonathan warns: “Self-employed workers need to be competent enough to carry out work in the safest way. In order to do so, risks should be managed as best as possible, thorough training needs to be taken and the correct equipment should be used to complete the task in hand.”

Tougher fines

In light of the latest figures evidence that courts are getting tougher on work at height safety is welcome news. In July 2018 Kier was fined £200,000 while its subcontractor JHH Engineering was hit for £30,000 after a roof fall from a school in east London left a worker with a life- threatening injury.

Southwark Crown Court heard how, on 1 December 2014, following a leak on a flat roof at Downsell Primary School, facility managers Kier Facilities Services Ltd requested subcontractors, JHH Engineering to take action. While undertaking the repair work, the JHH Engineering Ltd employee fell, suffering a life-changing head injury. The worker has been left with severe cognitive effects including memory loss, behavioural and mood changes, and a reduced ability to care for himself.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that site-specific planning was not requested from JHH Engineering, nor provided, and that the work was not monitored. In addition Kier Facilities Services failed to implement its own work at height procedures and ensure subcontractors were vetted. The investigation also found the roof was accessed by an employee of JHH Engineering Ltd using an unsecured, damaged ladder of insufficient length which was missing its rubber feet and stability bar. No harness was found, and the employee had not used the fall restraint system provided by Kier whilst on the roof.

Elsewhere Essex based Survey Roofing has been ordered to pay £65,000 in fines and costs after two workers were seen working unsafely on a 12.5m high pitched Homebase roof in Cardiff. Cardiff Magistrates’ Court heard how, in August 2015, during repair work on the roof at the store in Llanishen, a HSE inspector witnessed two workers working on a roof which had unprotected potentially fragile roof lights, without sufficient control measures in place.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the work created a risk of injury to employees from falling from or through the roof, and to members of the public from falling objects. The investigation found suitable and sufficient measures had not been taken to protect employees, such as completing the work from the basket of a mobile elevated work platform and that members of the public had not been protected from falling objects, by closing the store or cordoning off below the work area. Survey Roofing Group and the Survey Roofing Group companies, which share many of the same directors, had received previous advice and enforcement from HSE regarding unsafe work at height.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Paul Newton said: “Falls from height remain one of the most common causes of work-related fatalities in this country and the risks associated with working at height are well known. All work at height should be properly planned, including short-term reactive work, so workers and members of the public are not put at risk. Commercial clients and companies should be aware that HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against those that fall below the required standards.”

It is also worth noting that the introduction of new guidlines for manslaughter by the Sentencing Council which will come into force in courts on 1 November 2018 could also see tougher penalties in incidents where there is a fatality due to negligence. 

Wake up call
The level of deaths from falls from height has been a concern for several years; the average number of deaths attributed to falls from height annually over the period 2013/14 - 2017/18 stands at 37 but PASMA, the international not-for-profit authority for the mobile access tower industry, says the latest HSE figures are a real wake up call.

Comments PASMA’s chairwoman, Gillian Rutter: “Everyone involved in the work at height sector will be disappointed and concerned by these figures. They reinforce the need for two things. First, the unrelenting promotion of safety, standards and best practice. Second, the need to seek out and introduce new initiatives.”

New initiatives
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Working at Height and the No Falls Foundation are two such initiatives which are being driven by PASMA and the Access Industry Forum (AIF).

An official inquiry into the number of serious injuries and fatalities resulting from falls from height and falling objects in the workplace was launched by the APPG last year. The group received over 60 evidence submissions and held its first oral session on 28 March 2018. They are expected to publish a report of their findings in the Autumn of 2018.

Meanwhile the brand new No Falls Foundation is said to be the first and only UK-based charity dedicated exclusively to the work at height sector. Supported by the AIF and other stakeholders, its aim is to prevent falls from height and to help people affected by the life-changing consequences of a fall. It has three principal objectives: Preventing falls; researching the causes of falls and providing support.

The work at height charity has set out three distinct objectives: to advance health and the saving of lives through understanding and reducing the likelihood, impact and risk of falls from height and injuries sustained from objects falling from height; to research the causes of falls and falling objects; and to support people facing the aftermath and consequences of falls.

Concludes Gillian Rutter: “These initiatives will, over time, add considerably to the resources available to help keep people safe when working at height. It’s only by constantly advancing the height safety agenda that we will make a significant impact on these alarming statistics. These are people, not numbers”.