Working at height
19th November 2015

The health and safety implications for people that work at height mean there are key requirements for every employer to consider that ensures their working practices are as safe as possible. Danny Clarke, head of occupational health and safety at health surveillance and occupational health services provider Sound Advice, outlines the most important aspects governing work at height to ensure employers don’t get caught short.

The most recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that 567,000 working days were lost last year due to injuries caused when you regularly work at height. This activity is the most common cause of fatalities in the workplace and accounts for almost three in 10 of all fatal injuries. Employers must therefore take a hard line in ensuring robust safety procedures are in place and being followed, so that such dangers are minimised.

Cases of preventable working at height accidents have become increasingly well documented in the media, with each incident further highlighting the importance of good health and safety management and the need to ensure your practices are robust.

The term work at height is used for any work where people are working with both feet off of the ground including roof works, any work where there is the potential to fall through fragile surfaces and any work near openings or holes in the ground.

There are number of requirements employers must meet when it comes to working at height that include ensuring employees are fit, competent and subject to appropriate risk management controls.

Employers must strive for the best working practices and endeavour to do their utmost to safeguard employees that carry out work at height.. Every employer must consider the following to ensure that best standards of practice are carried out for every eventuality; ensuring potential costly claims are avoided.

Health Testing

Before employees work at height, employers need to consider an individuals fitness to work at height as part of the overall assessment. The most effective method for establishing fitness is a working at height medical which is typically undertaken annually. Sound Advice regularly provide on site health testing for employees that work at height. These assessments are essential to enable employers to demonstrate that employees are able to safely carry out this type of activity and make adjustments if appropriate.


Employers need to ensure that appropriate training is provided in order to minimise the risks associated with work at height. This can be achieved through training that should be focused on improving and encouraging the sharing of best practice, and behavioural based safety to help workers at all levels understand the importance of working safely and following procedures. Continual training is key, especially in respect to any new legislation changes that could affect existing work practices.  Training should include the use of equipment, inspections and maintenance as well as safe working procedures that include provisions for evacuation and if necessary rescue procedures.

Time Spent Working at Height

The general rule is that working at height should be avoided where possible. Failing this, employers should ensure that the most appropriate equipment is used, this includes mobile towers, scaffolding, MEWPS and if appropriate ladders. Each individual activity where working at height is a possibility should undergo a risk assessment. The general rule of thumb is that work carried out at height that exceeds a 30 minute time frame or is high risk should not be undertaken using a ladder.

Legal Implications

Employers that are in control of any work at height activity must make sure that the work is planned, supervised and undertaken by competent people. Improper training and not considering an individuals fitness to work at height can carry hefty legal ramifications in the event of any incidents. Employers can risk the lives of their employees and others by not having robust procedures in place, which can lead to prosecutions that include fines, claims and even jail sentences for those responsible for health and safety.

In May this year a business owner was sentenced to 24 weeks imprisonment suspended for two years and ordered to pay £20,000 towards prosecution costs for breaching the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations Act 2007, after an employee died as a result of falling from height. Following a HSE investigation, it was found that another employee had fallen from height and broken his leg at the same site, an accident which was not reported at the time.

Employers must have robust and safe working practices and rigorous health testing to ensure they are doing everything they can to safeguard anyone undertaking work at height.


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