High risk

10 February 2022

Falls from height can result in life changing injuries and can be fatal. Hugh Owen looks at how to reduce the risk when employees have to work at height.

DESPITE ALL of the guidance provided within the Work at Height Regulations 2005, there are still a disproportionate number of completely avoidable falls from height resulting in fatal or life changing injuries each year. According to the HSE, a total of 35 workers were killed in 2020/21 – this accounts for 25% of work-related fatal injuries over the year, making it the most common work-related fatality. At this time of year, when gutter cleans and emergency roof leak repairs are widespread due to the wintry weather, what should you as an employer be asking yourself with regards to protecting your workforce from falls at height?

What is classed as working at height?

Going back to basics, the true definition of work at height involves working in any place where an individual could fall a distance that is liable to cause personal injury, such as from a ladder, roof or a fragile surface. They can also be caused by the impact of falling objects, and can even take place at relatively low heights. However, regardless of how the fall from height is caused, it is vital that you remain fully compliant with the guidance, legislation and recommended safety measures designed to protect workers from harm. 

Who is responsible for working at height?

Whether your employees are directly involved with work at height or you are a contractor that outsources individuals who carry out this work, you remain directly responsible for ensuring their health and safety and must assess the level of risk accordingly. It is a legal requirement that employers and those in control of any work at height activity must make sure this work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people, with the appropriate safety equipment selected. 

While low-risk, relatively straightforward tasks will require less effort when it comes to planning, your employees are still legally required to take reasonable care of themselves and any others who may be affected by their actions, cooperating with you as the employer to ensure that their health and safety duties and requirements are complied with. 

What legislation is in place to control/reduce the level of risk from working at height?

Although multiple pieces of legislation are in place to enforce and encourage safe working at height, the primary document you should be referring to when intending to work at height is the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Factors to weigh up include the height of the task, the duration and frequency and the condition of the surface being worked on. There will also be certain low-risk situations where common sense tells you that no particular precautions are necessary.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 require those responsible for the health and safety of employees to plan, organise, risk assess, supervise, ensuring a safe system for those working at height if it is not avoidable. This includes employees whose daily activity involves working with roofs, vertical ladders and below-level walkways. These regulations apply to all work at height where there is a risk of falling that is liable to cause personal injury, including being struck by falling objects or persons. There is no minimum height that this applies to, as the risk is related to what the person could fall onto, as well as the height of the fall.

Other legislative guidance involving working at height includes: 

How can I reduce the necessity to carry out work from height?

While compliance is essential to ensuring effective safety procedures when working from height, it is not enough to ensure that the risk is low. Managing work at height follows a hierarchy of controls – avoid, prevent, arrest – which should be systematically applied to ensure that everything reasonably practicable has been done to prevent a worker from falling and injuring themselves. However, in the first instance, you should consider whether it is essential that the task requires to be carried out from height, and whether a suitable alternative can be provided to deliver the same outcome. This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as: 

  • Relocating serviceable equipment to ground level 

  • Using work equipment such as mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs)

  • Switching out ladders and stepladders and instead using podium steps, mobile towers and a fixed scaffold

  • Investing in extendable tools for cleaning and maintenance 

  • Using drones or other relevant technologies for surveys.

How can I prevent a fall from taking place?

Prior to working from height, the first stage of any project is to make an objective evaluation of risk. This will not only assess the reasons for working at height, but look at who needs to access the roof, how frequently this access is required, what the competency level of the individuals carrying out the works is and identify and evaluate whatever safety measures and equipment are in place.

The HSE recommends a sensible, pragmatic approach when considering health and safety precautions for work at height, and you must make sure the work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent individuals. Factors that should be considered in order to prevent a fall from height include assessing the height of the task, the duration and frequency of the work and the condition of the surface being worked on. 

If working at height cannot be avoided, you must ensure that a risk assessment is conducted prior to the work taking place, identifying the hazards and those at risk, deciding on the necessary precautions, recording and implementing findings and revising these where necessary. Method statements should also be produced for everyone who will be working at height, ensuring that all of these objectives are effectively met. 

There are other actions that you can take to prevent a fall from happening, including:

  • Using collective protection such as parapets, guardrail, demarcation systems and fall proof covers 

  • Using work equipment such as mobile elevated work platforms (MEWPs), as well as tower and fixed scaffolds

  • Using safety nets and soft landing systems, such as airbags

  • Using specialist height workers, such as rope access technicians or steeplejacks

  • If using ladders, securing the ladder and implementing appropriate fall protection equipment and anchors (ideally overhead to minimise the fall)

  • Using personal protection such as work restraint ‘mansafe’ or ‘deadweight’ anchors, implementing the appropriate fall restraint PPE.

As a high percentage of falls from height take place as a result of human error, workers must take every precaution to ensure they have suitable safety systems and equipment in place. Therefore, when using protective equipment to reduce the risk of a fall from height, please ensure that this is not only correct but has been checked over to ensure it is fit for purpose. Weather conditions should also be considered when operating this equipment, as this can significantly increase the risk of slips, trips and falls. 

What must employees do to ensure their safety when working at height? 

Employees are legally required to take reasonable care of themselves and any others who may be affected by their actions, cooperating with their employer to enable their health and safety duties and requirements to be complied with. The HSE outlines that they must report any safety hazard they identify to their employer and use the equipment and safety devices supplied or given to them properly. The latter should be carried out in accordance with any training and instructions (unless they think that would be unsafe, in which case they should seek further instructions before continuing). 

Furthermore, employees must be consulted on the risks arising from their work and the proposals to manage and/or control these risks. Sufficient health and safety training should also be provided, with employers ensuring this is up-to-date and refreshed when required. This is in light of the HSE’s identification that a lack of suitable and sufficient training leads to an increase in the likelihood of accidents occurring through accidental misuse of equipment when working from height.

By repeatedly asking yourself the above questions regarding working at height, you can ensure that suitable safe systems of working are created, producing the appropriate method statements and risk assessments necessary to manage risk and fulfil responsibilities to our workforce and ourselves.

How can SOCOTEC help?

When it comes to working at height, SOCOTEC can train and audit your staff, developing a synchronised safety offering that could help you avoid future work at height risks and assist you in meeting your responsibilities to your workforce. Our Health & Safety Consultancy also offers Work at Height Awareness courses and PPE online training to ensure your employees are fully trained and competent when working at height. Height safety equipment for those working at height is also available via our online Shop, and includes rescue devices, full body harnesses and a removable transfastener system. 

Hugh Owen is business manager – training at SOCOTEC UK. For more information, visit