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What Are the Working At Height Rules?

Working at height can be a hazardous activity, particularly if it is not approached with care and attention. To protect life and limb there are various rules, regulations and guidelines that should be followed whenever you or your employees are working above ground level. 

Read on for an overview of working at height, safely and responsibly... 

What does working at height mean? 

Working at height, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is 'work in any place where, if precautions are not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury’. 

This includes working above the ground or floor level, or where the worker could fall from an edge, through a hole or through a fragile or breakable surface. The HSE states that working at height is one of the biggest causes of major injuries and deaths in the workplace – it is because of this that there are a number of rules in place to minimise the likelihood of accidents occurring. 

For the purposes of these regulations, ‘fragile surfaces’ might include: 

  • roof lights 
  • liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs 
  • non-reinforced fibre cement sheets 
  • corroded metal sheets 
  • glass (including wired glass) 
  • rotted chipboard 
  • slates and tiles 

The essential statistics 

According to the HSE and RIDDOR legislation (the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013): 

  • 25% of fatal injuries in UK workplaces between 2016 and 2021 were falls from height – this is the leading cause of fatalities and equates to an average of 34 fatal falls every year 
  • 58% of those fatalities take place in the construction industry – an average of 18 deaths per year 
  • 8% of non-fatal injuries in the workplace in 2020/21 were due to falls from height 

What is the law regarding working at height? 

The law that deals with working at height is enshrined in The Work at Height Regulations, 2005. This is a dense document that deals with everything from the types of surfaces that people work either by, on or near, to the equipment they use and the schedule of inspection and maintenance that must be followed. 

The key, foundational rules that must be followed are: 

  • Risk assessment – employers should do this to ensure that they are aware of particular points of risk and that appropriate measures are implemented to minimise them 
  • Those measures should include personal protective equipment (PPE), initial and ongoing training, and appropriate machinery or equipment 
  • Anyone working at height should be adequately trained to do so 
  • Steps should be taken to ensure that tools, objects and other items cannot fall 
  • Items must not be thrown, tipped or otherwise dropped from height in a way that could cause injury 

How do I comply with the working at height regulations? 

At the core of the rules regarding working from height is an emphasis on risk avoidance and training. The first thing you need to ask yourself is always ‘is working from height actually necessary here?’. If you can bring the work that needs doing to ground level, or manipulate the required tools on a long-handle from ground level, you should always do so. Similarly, if there are elements of the task that can be completed at ground level before having to go up a ladder or use a platform, this should always be done – if you cannot avoid working at height, then minimise the amount of time above ground. 

Next, is training. Employees need to be made aware of the dangers of working at height and be trained in every part of the process – the correct use of lifting equipment or ladders (including the right types of ladder for different jobs), how to check and use safety harnesses and PPE, and how to physically conduct the task (no stretching out over a void, for example). Training should take place before a person is permitted to work at height for the first time, and periodically thereafter to ensure that complacency or short-cuts have not crept into the pattern of work. 

For your risk assessment, you can use any of the free templates available through a Google search or the HSE template, which is available here. Some degree of risk assessment needs to be completed every day and in every location – one part of a roof may provide a higher risk than another part, for example. Monitoring weather conditions is absolutely crucial when working outside at height: rain, snow, ice and wind are all contributors to falling accidents. 

When it comes to making sure that objects and equipment do not fall, it is obviously impractical to ensure that every screwdriver, hammer or paint can is secured safely. A good way of reducing the risks here is to implement an ‘exclusion zone’ around the base of the area – that way if something does get dropped, no one should be injured. 

Safety rules to follow for working at height 

Plan for the worst – what will you do if someone does fall from a height? Do you have emergency or rescue procedures in place to deal with such an event? 

Ladders and other height equipment have manufacturer’s guidelines supplied with them – these will include safe usage instructions as well as maximum weight capacity information. Be sure to follow these guidelines to the letter. 

Do not use ladders, scaffolding or other ‘at height’ equipment in inclement weather. 

When using a ladder, always adopt the ‘three points of contact’ rule – both feet and one hand should always be in contact with the ladder. 

Never stand on the top platform or upper rungs of a ladder because there is an increased risk of overbalancing.