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November 4, 2015

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Working at height: 40 years of progress part 3

Use of a mobile elevating work platform during the erection of a multi-storey steel frame to avoid climbing on the steel work. Photo credit: David Thomas

Use of a mobile elevating work platform during the erection of a multi-storey steel frame to avoid climbing on the steel work. Photo credit: David Thomas

Working from height remains one of the biggest causes of fatalities and major injuries in the UK. In the third of a four-part series, David Thomas reflects on 40 years of progress.

Industry has striven hard to improve its safety performance when it comes to working at height. There are four notable areas of improvement: steel erection, scaffolding, rope access and roofing.

Steel erection

The steelwork industry has made huge improvements in its performance. The BCSA [1] has developed a number of guides [2] on the elimination or reduction of risk on construction site (all, in part, replacing the withdrawn GS28). [3]

Much has been done to focus on the planning, programming and coordination of safe methods of work, with designers obliged to consider whether their schemes can be safely built, used and dismantled. Steelwork can be pre-assembled at ground level and lifted into place. The use of safety nets is accepted. Mobile elevating work platforms can be used and taken upwards with the building. Drilled holes can be used to facilitate the provision of anchor points (although working from steelwork is now considered to be a ‘last resort’). The use of ‘positive lifting’ is customary, to improve upon slinging methods. Edge protection can be installed at ground level. The list goes all, all making today’s steelwork industry a far cry from the one reported in Safety in Steel Erection [1979].


The National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) [4] is recognised as the national trade body for access and scaffolding in the UK, producing a wide range of industry guidance for scaffolding contractors, their operatives and their clients. Its members are audited to ensure a continuous high standard of scaffolding practice.

The NASC has done much to promote improved practice through a comprehensive series of safety guidance notes and technical guidance notes. In terms of safe work at height, perhaps its key document, and one that has caused much debate over the years, is SG4.

After its introduction, SG4:00 [5] was seen as, “…a significant step forward for safety in the scaffolding industry; however it does not address all safety hazards present during scaffolding operations…” [6] and a step change for safety in the scaffolding industry. It was limited to the erection, alteration and dismantling of basic tube and fitting steel scaffolds to relevant British Standards and did not cover other forms of scaffold, e.g. proprietary scaffolds, birdcage, grandstands, etc. The guide, “…strongly recommends that safety harnesses are issued to all scaffolders, are worn at all times when at work and are used in accordance with this guidance note …”.

In 2005 the guide was revised, SG4:05 [7], to reflect innovation in product design for equipment available to protect scaffolders from falling. It also served to provide advice on the management of risk when carrying out scaffolding operations. In 2010 it was revised further, SG4:10 [8], to address the issue of unprotected traversing used by scaffolders at an exposed edge (the so-called ‘tunnelling method’).

Full contracting members of NASC are required to submit a completed annual accident return as a requirement of membership and, based on data generated by this exercise, a safety report is prepared. Among members, there has been just one fatality reported since 2005/06; a marked improvement over the decades earlier. Again, the industry is far from that reported in Construction [1978], although focus should remain on those who are not members.

Rope access

Industrial rope access, as it is known of today, started in the early to mid-1980s using a technique based on a system developed by cavers during the late-1960s and 1970s. While a safe system, it relied on the use of a single rope. A second rope (the ‘back up’) was therefore added, in order to provide a level of security (or ‘fall protection’).

The application of rope access techniques on buildings, etc. transferred naturally to offshore work, where it was used to solve difficult access problems on North Sea oil rigs. Subsequently, in 1987, six companies started the world’s first rope access trade association, the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA). HSE was involved from the outset and was influential in ensuring that rope access would be a safe system of work. Today, industrial rope access is used for a wide range of work all over the world.

Rope access methods provide a versatile way of providing access and egress. Its advantage lies mainly in the safety and speed with which workers can get to or from difficult locations and then carry out their work. This is often with minimal impact on other operations and the nearby area, at times causing much discourse about whether to use other ‘safer’ – by position in the hierarchy – methods of work. Frequently, the ‘total hours at risk’ is often less than when compared with other means of access and their associated risks and costs.

Members are required to submit accident returns and IRATA International continues a generally excellent health and safety record [9], although the design and function of back-up devices remains an area of focus.


With incidents associated with fragile roofing continuing to be high, the Advisory Committee for Roofsafety (ACR) [10] was established in 1998 to help make working on roofs safer. Made up of nominees from trade associations and organisations involved in roof work (including the NFRC), [11] with many years of involvement in working on roofs, their aim is to provide useful free information that it hopes will make it easier to undertake work on roofs safely.

It has defined the UK’s only test [12], recognised by HSE, which determines the non-fragility status of roofing products. It produces publications about safe working practices on both fragile and non-fragile surfaces and other roof safety issues.

David Thomas is technical director at The heightec Group Ltd and is also a director of Heightsayfe Ltd.



  1. British Constructional Steelwork Association:
  2. Erection of multi-storey buildings; Erection of low-rise buildings; Metal decking and stud welding; Guide to steel erection in windy conditions, Erection of steel bridges; Guide to working at height during the loading and unloading of steelwork; and Guide to the management of site lifting operations, BCSA: (Accessed 5 September 2015)
  3. GS28, Safe erection of structures, (Parts 1, 2 and 3), HSE
  4. National Access and Scaffolding Confederation: (Established in 1945)
  5. SG4:00, The use of fall arrest equipment whilst erecting, altering and dismantling scaffolding, NASC
  6. A technical guide to the selection and use of fall prevention and fall arrest equipment, Glasgow Caledonian University, Research Report 302, HSE, 2005: (Accessed 5 September 2015)
  7. SG4:05, Preventing falls in scaffolding and falsework, NASC
  8. SG4:10, Preventing fall in scaffolding, NASC
  9. IRATA Work and safety analysis 2013:
  10. Advisory Committee for Roofsafety: (previously known as the Advisory Committee for Roofwork) (Established in 1998)
  11. National Federation of Roofing Contractors:
  12. ACR(M)001-2014, 5th Edition, Test for non-fragility of profile sheeted roofing assemblies, ACR, 2014: (Accessed 5 September 2015)




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