It’s obvious to all that working at height is a dangerous activity. As a matter of fact, it’s the top cause of death and major industries in the construction industry according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE defines it as such:

“Work at height means work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

The measures through which falls can be prevented, or entirely avoided, are set out in the Work at Height Regulations 2005. These, along with other relevant legislation, form the hierarchy of control. Which is described in detail below.

Level 1: Avoid working at height.

One of the overarching principles enshrined in the Work at Height Regulations is that wherever possible working at height should be avoided.

What this boils down to is that as much work should be done from ground level as possible and that systems should be designed so as to facilitate this. For instance, plant equipment could be located at ground level instead of on a roof, or work practices can be changed to use a reach and wash system rather than a ladder for window cleaning

This also means that work on fragile surfaces such as roofs, even if enclosed, should be avoided. So as to avoid falls through, rather than off of them.

Level 2: Prevent falls using the existing workplace.

As prevention of risk is better than mitigating the consequences of a fall. It follows that if it is not possible to avoid working at height, then a pre-existing safe space should be used in order to carry out the work. This space should be somewhere where no additional protective equipment is required, for instance a flat roof with permanent edge protection, a balcony or parapet wall, or machinery with fixed guard rails etc.

Level 3: Prevents falls using collective equipment.

When there is not already a safe place to work from, such as when erecting or dismantling scaffolding. The Work at height regulations require duty holders to consider the use of collective prevention equipment before the use of anything else. Collective protection refers to protecting anyone who is potentially at risk in a given space, using the same equipment. This may comprise of external or internal Advance Guardrails or Collective Protection Units

Level 4: Prevent falls using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The final method of fall prevention, rather than mitigation, is to use PPE that restricts the movement of a worker so that they cannot fall. For instance, a fall restraint system might typically include a harness attached to an anchor point via a lanyard. The lanyard will be of a fixed length or adjusted so that the worked cannot approach fall hazards.

Level 5: Minimise distance using collective equipment

At this stage our hierarchy of control measures moves on from prevention, to focus on mitigation. If it is not possible to avoid a fall then the consequences of such a fall must be mitigated as much as possible. For instance, airbags can be placed beneath the work area in order to minimise the distance a worker might fall, or nets may be put in place underneath a fragile roof.

Level 6: Minimise distance using PPE

At this stage PPE should be used to minimises the distance of a fall should one occur. In the scaffolding industry the general practice is the use of a fall arrest harness to offer personal fall protection. However, short falls can still result in significant injury (most fatal falls from height are for heights of less than 4m), and harnesses are not effective at lower heights. Harnesses are also not suited for certain situations, for instance, safety guidelines for tunnel works suggest that they should remain unrestrained when working at height under these circumstances. A risk assessment should be used to justify the selection of PPE and other regulations should be referred to. E.g. The Manual Handling Regulations require the risk of injury to be removed.

Level 7: Minimise consequences using collective equipment

This level again refers to the use of airbags or netting as in Level 5. But in these circumstances they are used to mitigate the consequences of a fall and not to reduce the distance. Meaning that at this level of the hierarchy the airbags or netting are placed at a lower level relative to the ground.

Level 8: Minimise consequences through training and instruction.

This final level of the hierarchy has the purpose of minimising the risk of a fall by providing training and instruction before the work is carried out. See our scaffold tower Inspection guide & checklist for example.

This involves educating workers in safe working practices and guidelines. As well as in the correct use of equipment according to manufacturer’s instructions, allowing them to carry out work as safely as possible. It is also important to consider manual handling and ergonomics at this stage.