Firms still failing to comply when working at height

Wednesday 27th March 2019

The spotlight was placed on falls from height again this month when a repair and maintenance firm was fined £150,000 after an employee fell two metres while working on a roof. Despite the comparative frequency of these accidents, it seems too many companies are still failing to take the necessary steps to prevent prosecution.

Falls from height were the category of accident which accounted for the most fatal injuries to workers in 2017/18. They also made up 8% of all non-fatal RIDDOR accident reports in 2017/18. The issue has not gone unnoticed at a political level.

In February the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height published a report following the conclusion of a 12-month inquiry into the common causes of falls from height in the construction industry.

As well as reviewing current legislation, the report made four primary recommendations which seek to reduce the number of falls; enhanced reporting through RIDDOR; the appointment of an independent body for confidential, digital reporting of all near misses and smaller accidents; further H&S campaigns to raise awareness of risks; and the UK-wide introduction of a system equivalent to Scotland’s Fatal Accident Inquiry process, which requires ministers to report on fatalities to ensure that employers are held to account.

It also highlighted the opportunity to integrate digital technologies into working practices, for example using drones where possible to reduce the risk of falls.

The importance of good planning

Whilst the various regulations can be complex, the obligations placed on employers are clear. No work should done at height if it is safe and reasonably practicable to do it on the ground, and any work completed at height must be properly planned, appropriately supervised, and carried out by a competent person in as safe a way as is reasonably practicable.

As part of this, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure that workplaces provide adequate training and welfare provisions, as well as a written record of their health and safety policies.

Good planning is key and as we have seen this month, failure to comply can be extremely damaging.

Notwithstanding the human cost, there is also a negative impact on organisations who can find themselves without skilled and valued employees for weeks or months following an accident. There can often be a knock-on effect in terms of resourcing work and having to re-plan jobs when teams are shorthanded.

When you also factor in the disruption of an investigation and the uncertainty of a prosecution, businesses of all sizes should take the time to ensure that they are doing everything they can reasonably and practically do to avoid being in this position.

Ultimately, if you are the Principal  Contractor, employer or otherwise control the work at height, you should ensure that the work is properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people. The time it takes to prepare a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and method statement, and using the correct equipment, is negligible when compared to the alternative.