Assessing and mitigating the risks of working at height

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Before undertaking any work at height, assessing the risks is critical – there are many regulations around working at height, for good reason. If you cannot avoid the work taking place at height (the first step in mitigating the risks), conducting a thorough risk assessment is essential before any work begins.

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WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

Obviously the primary risk of working at height is a fall leading to injury or death. But there are other risks to consider, including the potential for objects falling from the work site causing injury to people or damage to property below.

The risk of a fall is also not a static risk – various factors will increase the potential for this risk, including:

  • The height of the work
  • The duration of the task
  • The number of people involved
  • The weather conditions
  • The condition of the surface being worked upon

The higher the work, the greater the risk. Falls from height increase in severity the higher they are, with serious injury and even death being a greater risk.

The longer a task takes, the more risk there is that something could go wrong, or fatigue could lead to errors.

The more people involved in a task taking place at height, the more risks there can be – people getting in one another’s way, so communication around who is doing what, who is responsible for the equipment, etc. is vital.

Weather conditions can play a significant role. Windy weather may make access equipment unstable, or make it difficult to manage large objects that could be caught by the wind. Rain, sleet, snow and ice make slips significantly more likely, and cold conditions may reduce manual dexterity.

Each factor affects the overall risk. So, although not all factors will be relevant in every situation, they should all be considered, only dismissing irrelevant factors once it is clear that they will not be an issue.

CONDUCTING A RISK ASSESSMENT

When you have any work at height requirement, you should conduct a thorough risk assessment, to ensure you have captured all of the potential risks, and done everything possible to mitigate them.

The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) recommend a 5-step approach to assessing the risks of working at height:

  1. Look for hazards associated with falls from height around the workplace. Where are people required to work at height? Do they carry out work from ladders, platforms, scaffolds, or unprotected or fragile roofs?
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how. Who comes into the workplace? Are they at risk? Are some groups more at risk than others?
  3. Consider the risks. Are there already measures in place to deal with the risks? Look at areas with unguarded openings or without guardrails and covers. Are regular inspections carried out?
  4. Record your findings if you have five or more employees.
  5. Regularly review the assessment. If any significant changes take place, make sure that precautions are still adequate to deal with the risks.

MITIGATING THE RISKS

Once you have assessed the risks, you need to mitigate them. Doing so will depend very much on the type of risks you have identified, so it’s not possible to cover every approach you may take, but you should consider:

  • Avoiding working at height if possible
  • Preventing falls by using the right equipment, including personal and collective protective equipment and appropriate access equipment for the duration and height of the task
  • Minimising the distance (and consequences) of a fall using the right equipment, including access equipment and harnesses
  • Protecting people on the ground by using appropriate guards, warnings, and exclusion zones around the working at height area
  • Assessing the stability and condition of any surface to be worked upon, and using the right access equipment in the event that the surface is unsuitable
  • Ensuring any access equipment in use is stable, suitable, and appropriately maintained
  • Postponing the work where necessary – for example, if weather conditions are such that work will not be safe, postpone rather than try to work around it
  • Ensuring that all workers are competent – this usually means that they have completed the appropriate training for working at height (IPAF and PASMA, generally), as well as any training required for the specific task being undertaken

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