Working at height is a leading cause of workplace accidents, responsible for more fatal incidents than anything else.

The definition of “work at height” is broader than the traditional idea of someone up on a ladder or scaffolding (although this type of work is of course included). It can take place above ground, or at or below ground level. As long as it involves a risk of someone being injured by a fall, it counts as “work at height” and is covered by the appropriate legislation.

Why are Risk Assessments Important?

Risk assessments are a way of assessing what hazards there are, who might be affected by them and what needs to be done to remove or minimise the risks. They need to be updated regularly and should be relevant to the risks faced on each specific job, taking into account the different needs of the individuals working at height at every location.

They are a useful way of uncovering health and safety risks that are not immediately obvious. This is especially true if they’ve been written with the input of the workers themselves, whose perspective while undertaking the work is very valuable in terms of deciding what might count as a hazard.

In the unfortunate event of an accident happening, a risk assessment provides a written record of what the company did to avoid this beforehand, including staff training. The control measures in place can then be amended to ensure they stop future occurrences.

Since risk assessments have been a legal requirement, there has been a steady reduction in the number of workplace accidents. Although there is still a long way to go, risk assessments are there to protect workers and the public, and they have had some success in doing that so far.

The consequences for neglecting risk assessments for work at height can be severe. In one case, a pair of workers were dismantling a farm building. They didn’t perform a risk assessment or have any safety plan, and no precautions had been taken to avoid falls from height. As a result, one of the workers fell through a skylight whilst walking across a roof, suffering head injuries and multiple fractures. Many similar cases have resulted in deaths.

It is part of an employer’s duty of care towards its staff to make sure risk assessments are taken seriously and all practical steps are taken to reduce the risk of worker injury.

What does a Working at Height Risk Assessment Cover?

A risk assessment should cover the following issues:

  • What hazards are there? What risk level do each of them represent – high, low or medium?
  • Who is at risk from these hazards? Include all workers, contractors and the general public. Are some groups, individuals or job roles at particular risk?
  • What’s being done to eliminate or minimise these risks? List all the control measures in as much detail as possible and update them as necessary.
  • Dates. When were the control measures put in place? Are they ongoing or do they need upgrading at various times?

There are many generic examples online and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes risk assessment guidance on its website.

Who Carries out the Working at Height Risk Assessment?

All risk assessments need to be completed by someone competent to carry out the task. Anyone who has the experience, skills and knowledge to spot the relevant hazards and devise the correct control measures to deal with them classes as “competent” in this context. Given the importance of this job, it might be useful to invest in some training to make sure the competent person has the necessary requirements and nothing is missed.

Work at height and the specific hazards involved vary from job to job. The safety plan for each job needs to reflect this – though a template can be used, the individual risks of each project must be considered. For example, a renovation job using scaffolding and an office conversion using ladders will pose different risks to the workers.

Working at height includes any task where a person could be injured by a fall – even if that’s at or below ground level. Common settings including working on scaffolding, on roofing or on tops of vehicles or trailers. There’s risk involved in all activities but work at height can be particularly dangerous, causing more fatal accidents than anything else in the workplace. By recognising the most likely hazards surrounding this kind of work, the proper steps can be taken to reduce the risks and ensure everyone gets home safely at the end of the working day.

Workers in construction, painting and decorating, window cleaning and maintenance are the most likely to be working at height on a regular basis. However, this type of work can appear in all industries – even using a stepladder to reach a high shelf in a warehouse or office requires the correct training and due diligence to ensure injuries don’t occur.

Roofing and Other Surfaces

Falls through roofs and skylights are fairly common and can lead to serious injuries. In October 2018, Devon fabricator Langaton Steel Fabrications were fined £12,000 due to an August 2017 incident in which a 19-year-old worker fell through the roof of a petrol station he was working on. Suffering serious head injuries, a broken pelvis and a broken wrist, the worker could easily have been killed by the incident. His employer pleaded guilty to breaching the Work at Height Regulations 2005, the primary piece of UK legislation handling this kind of work.

Any work where pressure will be applied to roofing (especially roofing in need of repair) should be treated as high risk and control measures should be put in place accordingly. Even sturdy roofs can cause issues. Sloping roofs, such as those often found on bungalows or houses, can be problematic – people are more likely to lose their footing on them. Due to their shape, by the time the worker has fallen from the edge there could be considerable momentum built up, causing the impact with the ground to be stronger than it would be otherwise. Roof lights are usually made of weaker materials and can be covered over, making them harder to spot and thus easier to fall through.

Badly Maintained Equipment (or the Wrong Equipment)

As with all health and safety hazards, the best way to deal with hazards is to eliminate them entirely – if this is possible. Certain types of work at height can be done from the ground level with extendable tools. For example, a window cleaner might be able to reach some of their target windows with extendable hoses and other equipment that removes the need to work at height at all.

Where work at height is unavoidable, the correct equipment must always be used. This could be access platforms, ladders, scaffolding or any other type of access equipment; the right choice will depend on the risk level, access difficulty and duration of the task at hand. For example, ladders can be a good choice for certain types of jobs (and aren’t banned by health and safety legislation, despite rumours to the contrary in the UK in recent years), but they should only be used for short duration, relatively low-risk tasks. All equipment should be inspected thoroughly before and after every use.

In once case, a farmer was injured after falling more than two metres from a defective ladder. He was carrying out maintenance work on a ladder that wasn’t secured properly and only had one rubber foot, causing it to topple during the job. Sadly, this is a common story, and 8% of non-fatal accidents in UK workplaces are caused by falls from height.

Lack of Training

Human error accounts for many workplace accidents and this is much less likely if staff have received good quality training about working at height.

Good training will equip employees to spot hazards and be mindful of which equipment is safe to use and what it looks like when properly maintained.

Weather Conditions

Working at height will almost always have added risk during times of adverse weather. During ice and snow, for example, the ground is likely to be less stable and can’t provide such a solid grounding for access equipment. In many cases, it will be the safest option to delay the work until conditions are less extreme.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 is the primary piece of UK legislation relating to working at height and the associated risks. This legislation’s aim was to reduce the numbers of workers being injured and killed by workplace falls from height, which were – and sadly remain – quite common. It requires employers to take every practical step available to identify the hazards facing their employees when they’re working at height and to remove or minimise the risks so that accidents are less likely to take place.

Part of an employer’s legal and moral duty towards its workers is the creation of a thorough risk assessment. This identifies the relevant hazards and sets out the control measures that tackle these.

What are Control Measures?

Control measures are any actions taken that can eliminate the risk of a hazard or reduce employees’ exposure to said hazard.

The most effective control measures remove the hazard entirely. An example of this is replacing a task that typically involves working at height with one that takes place at ground level, perhaps through the use of extendable tools. Window cleaners can reach some higher level windows this way and avoid any additional risks to their safety.

Sometimes, working from height is unavoidable and the task can’t be done remotely or from ground level. In these cases, control measures can include limiting the time employees spend working at height, providing sufficient training for the job, ensuring they have the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for their work and setting up features such as safety nets. Which of these is the appropriate response will depend on the project itself, the individuals involved, and other circumstances. The most effective control measures can change over time – one of the reasons it’s so important to review risk assessments regularly and on an ongoing basis.

Choosing the Right Equipment for the Job

As a rule of thumb, collective and passive forms of safety measures are preferred over personal forms (such as PPE) or measures that rely on individuals’ behaviour to work. Safety railings, for example, require no action from workers (other than to refrain from climbing over the railings) and safety nets work regardless of how much the person falling into them is following a specific protocol.

In one case, an employee cleaning extraction fans in a poultry unit fell 3 metres from an unguarded roof, causing permanent spinal injuries. Roof edge protection or a safety harness would have likely led to a better outcome for the employee, as would a host of other health and safety preparation that was not done in this instance.

In terms of accident prevention, choosing the correct equipment for a job at height is vital. It’s very important for all access equipment to be inspected by people trained and competent to do so, both before and after each use.

When selecting access equipment, bear the following in mind:

  • What risk level is the task? This may well influence the type of equipment you choose.
  • How long will the task take? Longer duration jobs require different equipment. Generally, workers shouldn’t be expected to work up a ladder for anything longer than half an hour.

Reviewing your Control Measures

Your working at height risk assessment, like all others, should be reviewed as regularly as possible. It should also be changed whenever circumstances alter, including staff changes.

Unlike some other health and safety hazards, the risks posed by working at height are likely to be different with each project you take on, due to the fact that each site is different and has its own issues to consider. A barn renovation, a roof replacement job and routine maintenance work on a skyscraper are all going to involve different hazards and require very different control measures.

Risk assessments are generally more effective when they’re written with the input of the employees who are doing the work in question. Workers will often raise practical points that haven’t been considered and be able to suggest the control measures that would best solve the problems. Documents written in a collaborative way with workers are far more likely to be followed than if they had been imposed without any consultation.

Risk assessments are an important part of any organisation’s health and safety strategy. Far from being “just another piece of paperwork”, they are a very useful way of spotting hazards, working out the appropriate control measures for those hazards and keeping track of health and safety progress over time.

Every business with five or more employees is required to have a written risk assessment document. Many smaller businesses do so anyway, as it’s handy to keep a written record of which hazards have been tackled and which staff have received the appropriate training.

There are no hard and fast rules about who needs to conduct the risk assessment, but they must be competent to do so. Good quality training in the correct way to carry out risk assessments can be very helpful and ensure hazards are not missed.

What is a Working at Height Risk Assessment?

Falls from height are the biggest cause of fatal workplace accidents in the UK. They account for 8% of non-fatal accidents and often leave survivors with life-changing injuries, preventing the victim from working again in a significant number of cases. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 were introduced to reduce the accident rate for this kind of job and though there have been improvements in the fatality rate since, they remain stubbornly high. The good news is that most of these accidents are foreseeable and can be avoided with good preparation and training.

A good work at height risk assessment will consider the various risks posed to workers and the public from this type of work. It will record what actions have been taken to minimise these risks and will be reviewed regularly to check it is still relevant. For example, if a construction company is planning a barn renovation that will require extensive work at height, their risk assessment should take into account who will be most at risk from the work, which specific hazards they will face and ensure they have the right equipment for the job and all the protections they require. Bear in mind that “work at height” can take place at or below ground level as well as on ladders or scaffolding above ground; the legislation covers any work where a person could be hurt by falling.

The importance of proper preparation and training was highlighted by the case against LS Scaffolding Limited, after one of their workers fell and damaged his femur during a job in July 2016. They were found to have committed several breaches of health and safety legislation, including the regulation of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 that requires staff to have been appropriately trained to carry out the job. The firm was fined over £50,000 (including costs) and their director was given a separate fine and a suspended jail sentence.

Who Conducts the Risk Assessment?

All risk assessments must be carried out by someone who is competent enough to complete the task. If a company needs guidance to conduct a thorough risk assessment, there is training available.

In this context, a competent person is someone who has the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to spot all of the hazards and work out adequate control measures to prevent harm.

Creating risk assessments doesn’t have to be a one-person job. In fact, the most effective risk assessments are written with significant input from workers from all areas of the business. In the case of work at height, employees who regularly undertake such work are in the best position possible to suggest additional safety control measures and might have noticed additional health and safety concerns that need to be addressed.

Work at height often takes place on a project by project basis and the risk assessment needs to reflect that. Not all jobs will require the same control measures and the hazards will vary between projects – for example, falling through a fragile surface might be a hazard in one renovation job but not be relevant to another.

Any task that carries a risk of personal injury from a fall counts as “working at height”. In many industries, such as construction, cleaning and agriculture, working at height is a major component of the day to day job; in others, it happens rarely, but can still be dangerous if the correct precautions aren’t taken. Most workers will work at height in some capacity during their career, so it pays to be trained in safety techniques and know what to do to keep you and your staff safe.

Working at height is currently the biggest cause of fatal workplace accidents. It also causes 8% of non-fatal accidents, many of which result in life-changing injuries.

What Legislation covers Working at Height?

The main piece of legislation is the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Introduced with the aim of reducing the amount of deaths and injuries taking place, the regulations have had some success – though there is still a long way to go.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines the legislation’s overriding principle for employers: “you must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone falling”. Employers must conduct a risk assessment before any work at height takes place to make sure all potential hazards have been eliminated or at least minimised. They must also make sure that all employees are properly trained in working at height, are competent to do so, have the tools and knowledge to complete the job to a high standard and are aware of all health and safety obligations. Providing the correct safety equipment is an important part of an employer’s duty of care to their workers, in this respect as in all others.

General health and safety requirements, as set out in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, apply in cases of working at height.

Which Jobs Class as Working at Height?

Any tasks where a fall could cause personal injury class as “working at height”. This covers window cleaning, painting and decorating, construction, and any job role which includes retrieving things from a height, such as working in a warehouse or library. If your job doesn’t usually include these tasks but you need to work at height on a one time or occasional basis (for example, you need to use a stepladder to get some files from a high shelf), this counts too, and you will be covered by all relevant legislation and protections.

Even if you have completed the job in question many times, it’s important to never become complacent about working at height. In November 2018, a Scottish arable farmer spoke to a trade magazine about a 2013 fall from his tractor. He had been knowingly climbing out of his tractor “incorrectly” for many years but had never come to any harm before. However, on that particular day, he slipped and fell, suffering serious leg injuries and missing six months of work. He now climbs out of his tractors the right way and has spoken about how his accident shows the importance of safe working at height, with 23 fatal farm accidents taking place in the last five years alone.

An often-overlooked category of work at height is tasks that take place at or below ground level. If a fall can take place and cause injury, the legislation applies – even if the fall is underground. In construction, for example, there could be large holes on site that workers or the public could fall into if safety precautions aren’t observed. They should be properly signposted and guarded with railings, and everyone except the workers who need to work on that specific part of the site should be kept at a safe distance. Workers who need to be in the hole should have the correct training and safety equipment, including fall prevention and fall arrest systems as appropriate.

What Employers Need to Do

Employers have a legal and moral duty to take any step in their power to keep their staff and the public safe from all work activities.

A working at height risk assessment is a useful document for identifying hazards (as well as a legal requirement). It provides a written record of any recognised problems and how they’ve been addressed. It should be updated on an ongoing basis to make sure different projects and circumstances are accounted for.

They need to provide all equipment required, including personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Working at height” means doing any job where the person could be injured by falling. This includes work at or below ground level.

Unfortunately, working from height continues to cause significant numbers of workplace injuries every year, including 8% of non-fatal accidents and more fatalities than any other cause. Like all of the major topics in health and safety, working at height has been covered by legislation to try to bring down the amount of accidents, and employers should ensure they’re complying with all of the relevant laws.

Due to the dangers of this kind of work, staff should always receive good quality training before taking part.

Work at Height Regulations 2005

The primary piece of legislation dealing specifically with working at height, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to employers and anyone who controls work at height, including people supervising contractors. The people in question must ensure that all working at height is carried out by a competent person who knows how to complete the work to a high standard and is aware of all safety obligations.

Employers must also carry out a thorough risk assessment before the work takes place to make sure all possible control measures have been enacted and the work is as safe as it possibly can be.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the legislation’s overriding principle for employers is: “you must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone falling”.

Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974

The basis for all British health and safety legislation was established with this Act. Subsequent legislation such as the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also had an important role to play.

Under the Act, employers are required to take all possible steps to protect the health and safety of their employees and the public. In cases where prosecutions are brought, this piece of legislation is often cited.

What must Employers do to Comply with the Working at Height Legislation?

Put simply, every employer must take every step they can to prevent any danger befalling those who work at height.

Conducting a good risk assessment is vital (for employers who have five staff or more, this must be recorded in a written document). Working at height is much more dangerous if the staff doing so haven’t been trained, or if the equipment they’ve been provided with isn’t in good repair or isn’t the best tool for the job. These hazards can be foreseen and dealt with before they become a problem. The best risk assessments are written with the input of the staff doing the work involved, who will most likely have great suggestions for improving safety. Any “near misses” or minor accidents in the past should also be considered so they can be learnt from.

Each project should be considered on its own terms. If, for example, a construction project requires extensive working at height, this should be a major focus of the safety plan drawn up before work starts.

The penalties for not complying with work at height laws can be huge – and more importantly, it can lead to serious injuries or deaths for the workers involved. In 2016, Allen and Hunt Construction Engineers Limited were fined £274,671 after one of their workers fell through the roof of a farm building in 2014, suffering life-changing injuries. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the company had failed to create a proper safety plan for the job, did not provide their workers with the correct equipment and hadn’t correctly trained the employee to carry out such work. The company went into liquidation soon after.

The business and human costs of falls from height can be devastating but, as with most health and safety risks, they are almost always preventable with the right preparation and staff training.

Our related Courses

When most people think of “working at height”, they might picture construction workers high on scaffolding or window cleaners up ladders. Though these situations do of course count, the true definition is far broader than that.
The Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR) are the main piece of British legislation around the topic. They state that work that takes place “at or below ground level” is covered by the laws just as much as above ground work at height. In fact, any task where a fall might cause an injury falls within the remit of the WAHR.
What Counts as Working at Height, at or below Ground Level?
When considering the definition of working at height as “anything involving a potential fall liable to lead to personal injury”, it’s clear it covers many projects that might take place below ground.
Below-ground excavations, cleaning out a dry swimming pool, and climbing a ladder down a hole are just three examples. A fall into a well, for instance, could potentially cause serious injuries, just in the same way as a fall from scaffolding to the ground could. In law and in terms of an employer’s duty of care to its workers, both sorts of situation should be considered with the same level of seriousness.

Keeping Workers Safe during Ground Level Working at Height
In August 2018, air ambulance services were called to a Glenrothes construction site after a worker fell down a hole and became trapped after catching his leg on an object. He suffered leg injuries, but the emergency services were able to release him before he came to any serious harm. This case illustrates the importance of keeping workers and the public safe from falls from height, whether they take place above or below ground level.
If there is a hole on site, it needs to be cordoned off, preferably with sturdy railings. There should be clear signage and workers who don’t have to be near the hole should be kept at a safe distance. For those who do need to work in or around the hole, there should be safety features such as netting or safety harnesses – but these are a last resort and employees must receive good quality training.
It’s helpful to conduct thorough research into the different kinds of fall arrest and fall prevention options and to decide which would work best in the circumstances. Generally, passive safety protections (i.e. those that work regardless of human behaviour) are preferred over active precautions or ones that rely on people following a set protocol.
Many of the steps employers need to take to protect workers during ground level working at height are the same as the ones they need to take when the work is above ground:
Risk Assessments – A complete risk assessment needs to be drawn up along with a thorough safety plan for the project. All hazards should be identified and their corresponding control measures recorded and monitored to decide how effective they are.
Employee Feedback – The people conducting the work at height should be asked for their input, as they’re likely to have the best idea of which safety measures the work requires. Checking back over any near misses or minor accidents in the past can also give an indication of which areas pose the biggest potential dangers.
Provide the Right Equipment – It’s an employer’s responsibility to provide all the necessary equipment to carry out the job well and safely. This covers access equipment such as ladders and platforms, which must be inspected very regularly to ensure they’re always in good working order. It also covers personal protective equipment (PPE) for all workers.

Our related Courses

Working at height can be a dangerous part of a worker’s occupation. Responsible for 8% of non-fatal accidents and causing more deaths in the workplace than any other issue, protecting employees from these risks is one of the key responsibilities organisations have.

A big part of ensuring staff safety when working at height is choosing the right equipment for each job. All equipment should be checked thoroughly before and after each use in case of any damage.

In December 2016, Volvo were fined £900,000 after an employee fell from a badly-maintained stepladder, suffering serious injuries and being placed into a medically induced coma for two weeks. The stepladder was not the companies’ property but they had failed to properly train their staff to inspect equipment such as this and no precautions appeared to have been in place to prevent people from using worn, damaged stepladders. The employee involved suffered ongoing complications and was unable to return to work for a significant period of time following his fall. This incident highlights the importance of proper staff training in the use of equipment for working at height.

The main piece of legislation for this subject is the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Employers must ensure they’re compliant with all aspects of this legislation.

Selecting the Right Equipment

As with all health and safety hazards, the best way to remove the danger is to eliminate the hazard entirely. This might be possible by using extendable tools. For example, in a window cleaning business, extendable cleaning tools can remove the need to climb a ladder for some jobs.

Where this is not possible, the safest access equipment should be chosen.

Ladders and Stepladders – There’s a misconception that ladders and stepladders are banned by health and safety legislation but this is not the case. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says they can in fact be a good choice for low-risk, short duration working at height tasks. Ideally, a worker should be up a ladder for no longer than thirty minutes; if the job takes longer than this, their employer should consider alternative equipment. The risk level is the key factor in deciding whether or not to use a ladder.

Once selected, the ladder or stepladder should be thoroughly inspected to make sure its rungs, stiles and feet are not worn and that it is in good working condition. It’s important to never use a ladder or stepladder if you have any doubts about its safety.

Scaffolding – All scaffolding and tower scaffolding should be assembled by trained professionals. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 state that scaffolding should either be assembled to a recognised specification or designed to a bespoke calculation by somebody competent to do so.

Always ensure the scaffolding is erected on firm, level ground.

Platforms – Mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) and other, similar equipment can be a safe way to undertake longer working at height tasks. However, all access equipment comes with risks, and with MEWPs people should be aware of entrapment (getting stuck between the basket and a hard surface), overturning, falling and collisions, along with other potential hazards.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to work at height that doesn’t include some level of risk. Most accidents of this kind, however, are highly preventable with the correct training and if suitable, well-maintained equipment is used. Employers should judge each project on a case by case basis and produce a safety plan based on this, taking into account all issues specific to that job.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 came into effect on 6th April 2005 with the aim of reducing the amount of accidents at work caused by falls from height. The term “working at height” means undertaking any work (whether on, below, or above ground level) where there is a risk of falling, or where objects could fall and injure the workers below.

In the year the regulations were introduced, there were 46 workplace fatalities caused by falls from height. In 2017/18, this figure had fallen to 35. Although this is a significant reduction, it is still 35 deaths too many and falls from height continue to be the most common cause of fatal accidents at work. Following the regulations is more important than ever.

Who do the Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to?

All employers are bound by the laws regarding working at height. They also apply to anyone who contracts others to work at height or controls work at height. This can include building managers, facilities managers and the owners of the premises in question.

As with all health and safety matters, training and learning about the relevant legislation can be useful to the employees themselves, as this will allow them to better protect their own safety whilst conducting the work and flag up any breaches to their employer or the authorities.

Why are the Work at Height Regulations 2005 important?

Falls from height can have devastating consequences for the people involved and their families. They account for 8% of non-fatal accidents and nearly a quarter of fatal accidents in the workplace. Of those where the victim survives, a significant amount require extended periods of leave to recover. In some cases, they will find it difficult to return to their previous role and may have greater physical challenges for the rest of their lives.

In May 2018, construction company Fleming Builders were fined over £9000 after pleading guilty to breaching the Work at Height Regulations 2005 and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. A self-employer joiner working on their behalf fell more than 3 metres onto some timber and suffered an injured spine and ribs. The company involved did have a risk assessment in place but has not taken necessary steps to prevent this type of incident, such as a safety net.

What Duties do the Work at Height Regulations 2005 give Employers?

Employers – or those supervising or otherwise in control of the working from height – must ensure all work is planned, properly supervised and carried out by people who are competent and able to carry out the work to an acceptable standard. They must be provided with the most suitable equipment for the job and sufficient training to be able to undertake the work professionally.

Along with other British health and safety legislation, the regulations require employers to conduct a thorough risk assessment before work is carried out to minimise risks to the greatest extent. They need to take after practical step in their power to protect the wellbeing of their staff and the public at all times.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guide to the legislation states the overriding principle for employers: “you must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone falling”.