Hefty fine highlights work at height failings

A main contractor’s prosecution following an engineer’s roof fall shows work at height risk management still needs improvement, says Gary Walpole.

Last month’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution of a principal contractor following a ladder fall has again highlighted the urgent need for better planning from employers when managing working at height.

London contractor Modus Workspace was fined £1.1m at Luton Crown Court after an engineer, who was testing a sprinkler system for leaks at a site in Hemel Hempstead, fell when the ladder slipped away from him and he dropped almost 3m into a gap between the internal roof and the external wall.

The worker suffered severe blood loss, amounting to around half of his bloodstream. He required a blood transfusion, needed 14 stitches to his head, sustained fractured vertebrae and suffered soft tissue damage.

In this case, HSE investigators discovered that the principal contractor had failed to take reasonably practicable measures to prevent a fall for both the engineer and other contractors working on the roof.

There are still far too many fatalities and accidents caused by working at height in construction. According to HSE RIDDOR statistics, just under half (49%) of all fatalities in construction over the last five years were due to falls from height. The same mistakes are repeated time and time again.

Lessons to learn

So, what lessons can we learn from cases like this one? We know that falls from height are often due to a lack of management control over the following:

  • Who carries out the works at height;
  • Establishing what training is required; and
  • Verifying that those working at height have the relevant skills, knowledge and experience to choose the suitable access equipment and carry out the required task.

How can this be addressed? Firstly, all duty-holders should follow the simple work at height hierarchy for managing and selecting equipment for working at height (see below).

Everyone involved with work at height should also understand the task-relevant safe system of work and the relevant parts of a construction phase plan.

The work at height hierarchy

  • Avoid work at height where you can;
  • Use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where work at height cannot be avoided; and
  • Where you cannot eliminate the risk of a fall, use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall.

Ladders can be a sensible and practical choice for low-risk tasks, but they should not be chosen purely because they are a quick and easy option. If a risk assessment shows it is correct to use a ladder, then minimise the risk by making sure employees have the relevant training required to use the ladder safely and are fully aware of the risks and measures to help control them.

Technical tasks, like installing a roof, require an understanding of the relevant specification, standards, safe working procedures and practical skillset needed to complete the work to a high standard. This can all be formally assessed to ensure the person can carry out tasks safely.

Additionally, checks need to be made that it is safe to access the roof, and a systematic approach should be followed throughout the installation, with clear communication to employees, contractors and clients about the safety risks and how best to manage them.

The National Federation of Roofing Contractors now runs an accredited programme, Roofcert, which aims to give assurance to contractors and clients that roofing operatives have the up-to-date skills and training that help mitigate the risks from working at height.

With the right skills and a professional approach, we can hopefully reduce the number of accidents involving falls from height.

Gary Walpole is health and safety officer at the National Federation of Roofing Contractors

Story for CM? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Careers