The dangers of working at heights

Crane on a construction site Print publication


There has been a raft of recent cases where the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has successfully prosecuted individuals and firms who have permitted staff and others to suffer injury whilst working at heights:

  • in the first case [1], a businessman converting a mill was sentenced to just under one year’s imprisonment and his father, who owned the mill, was given a suspended jail sentence, following an incident in which a Lithuanian worker died after falling eight metres. The deceased had been working alone and without safety measures. The prosecution alleged that the defendants had failed to plan the work at height, failed to employ competent contractors and were well aware that the work was being carried out by unskilled and cheap labour. Preston Crown Court found that there been a breach of Regulation 6(3) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (Work at Height Regulations).
  • in the second case [2], a roofer was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment and fined £3,000 and a timber supplier was fined over £93,000 after a labourer fatally fell more than eight metres through a fragile roof. The roofer had been engaged by the timber supplier to fix a leaking roof. The supplier failed to check the roofer’s competence and failed to properly assess the risks associated with the job. The roofer was found to have provided an incorrectly-erected scaffold, an untied ladder and failed to provide a suitable working platform, covering or guardrail. In this case, both prosecutions were brought under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
  • in the third case [3], a development company was fined £16,000 for persistent breaches of the Work at Height Regulations. Enforcement action had been taken following an inspection at a construction site but the breaches were still apparent on a subsequent visit. The inspections found that the company was employing no adequate means to prevent persons, materials or objects falling or causing injury.
  • in the fourth case [4], a property company in Lancashire was fined £10,400 after workers were found to have been working dangerously at height, while demolishing buildings. HSE inspectors saw a worker stripping slates from a fragile roof without any measures in place to mitigate the potentially life-threatening effects of such a fall. In this case, the prosecution was brought under the Work at Height Regulations. The company was also fined a total of £4,000 for separate breaches of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 for failing to plan the work being undertaken and to provide adequate welfare facilities for workers on the site.
  • In the fifth case [5], an installation company was prosecuted after a worker fell four metres causing bleeding to the brain, damage to his lungs and ribs. The defendant employer was fined £10,000 having been found guilty of breaching regulation 4(1) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005. The Company was prosecuted for failing to ensure that work at height had been properly planned, appropriately supervised, and carried out in a manner which was as safe as reasonably practicable.

The Work at Height Regulations place onerous duties on employers, and those who control any work at height activity, including facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height. “Work at height” means working in any place where, if precautions are not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.

Wherever possible, work at height should be avoided. Where it is unavoidable, duty holders should follow the steps described in the HSE guidance document “Working at height – A brief guide” [6]. This guidance describes the hierarchy to be followed before working at height, namely:

  • If it is reasonably practicable to do so, avoid working at height
  • If working at height is essential prevent falls using either an existing place of work that is already safe or the right type of equipment
  • Try to minimise the distance of a fall by using the correct type of equipment (where the risk of a fall cannot be eliminated).

In the event that work at height is necessary and cannot be avoided the duty holder must comply with section 6 (3) of the Work at Height Regulations.

Regulation 6(3) provides: “Where work is carried out at height, every employer shall take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling from a distance liable to cause personal injury”.

The Regulations require duty holders to ensure that:

  • all work at height is properly planned and organised
  • those involved in work at height are competent
  • the risks from work at height are assessed, and appropriate work equipment is selected and used
  • the risks of working on or near fragile surfaces are properly managed
  • the equipment used for work at height is properly inspected and maintained.

As the cases above illustrate, it is important to note that, where there has been a breach of the Work at Height Regulations the provisions of sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 will also apply. Section 2(1) states “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.” Section 3(1) of the 1974 Act states that “It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment are not exposed to risks to their health or safety”.

Falls from height are the most common cause of fatality to workers, accounting for 29 per cent of deaths reported to the HSE in 2013/14 [7]. This is reflected in the severity of sanction imposed on individuals and firms for breaching the legislation. In addition to custodial sentences and fines, substantial costs are usually ordered against the convicted defendant. There is also the irreparable damage that can tarnish a business found guilty of breaching the rules on working at height.

If you need to know more about how to ensure your business does not contravene the legislation regulating working at height, then please contact either of the writers.