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Understanding the risks of working at height: Key factors to consider

Photo shows workers on scaffolding working at height

In some industries, it’s inevitable that employees are going to need to work at height. This is inherently risky, but it’s possible (and necessary) that businesses identify and assess those risks before reducing them. In fact, businesses have a legal obligation to do this.

Here are some of the key factors you need to consider about the risks of working at height, if you’re a business owner or are in a position where you’re charged with managing health and safety risks for employees.

Working at height inevitably gives rise to risk

Working at height is a risk because a fall can have serious consequences. It’s also possible for equipment to fall from a height, posing a risk to people on the ground. In fact, falls from height are responsible for lots of serious injuries every year, and sadly, some of them are fatal. Even a fall from somewhere that seems like a relatively low height (around two metres) can have serious consequences, so it follows that falls from a height greater than this are concerning indeed.

Risks might take many forms

When you think about the risks of working at height, your first thought might turn to window cleaners who are cleaning glass a couple of storeys up, for instance. These people are certainly at risk, but there are many other jobs that involve risk too. For instance, decorators and painters, roofers, or anyone doing a job where they’re elevated from the ground – such as operating a large vehicle on the road. The risk becomes greater if people are insufficiently trained or unaware of the hazards posed, or if they don’t know how to use equipment properly.

You’ll need to carry out a risk assessment if you can’t avoid working at height

Businesses must consider whether or not employees need to work at height. If working at height can’t be avoided, then you’ll need to carry out a risk assessment. This risk assessment should take a look at things like where people are being expected to work at height. Is there a chance they could fall from unstable structures like fragile roofs, or from temporary structures such as scaffolds? Are they going to be using ladders?

You’ll also need to identify who might be harmed by working at height. Is it the person working at height, and/or someone on the ground? Does the level or nature of the risk change if there is a group of people in a work area?

Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to put something in place to manage these risks. Could guard rails and harnesses be used to reduce the risk of injury to a person? (Though note that harnesses should only ever be a last resort or additional measure when all other options have been considered). What additional training might particular employees need to reduce the likelihood of harm? What inspections could you carry out to reduce risks, and what should these inspections aim to identify?

If you want to be really organised when it comes to assessing risk, reporting it, managing it and tracking incidents (for instance), you ought to consider investing in health and safety software. Good health and safety software is available from providers such as Airsweb and is something you should seriously consider investing in if you have workers operating at height.

Those are just a few key things to consider if you have workers operating at height. As you now know, working at height poses particular risks that you’re responsible for managing, so make sure you read up on the legislation and guidance using sites like the Health and Safety Executive’s. The HSE has published this helpful guide on understanding working at height for employers and is well worth a read. If you want to learn more about work at height then this guide includes everything you need to know.

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