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November 12, 2009

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Clearer communication could have resolved work at height confusion

A parliamentary committee has described the introduction of the Work at

Height Regulations (WAHR) as a “clear demonstration of how important

external feedback can be in evaluation”.

The evidence it received from stakeholders on the WAHR stressed that the legislation had achieved some success in reducing the number of falls, while the removal of the two-metre rule was particularly well received for encouraging greater consideration of safety when working at height.

However, correspondents highlighted a number of unanticipated costs, of which the most significant was probably an over-cautious response by some organisations in banning the use of ladders. Not only did the ladders industry suffer severe financial loss as a result but it had to spend additional money on publicity to combat the misconceptions.

Uncertainty about the exact requirements of the Regulations led to users purchasing costly mobile platforms, which may not have been necessary for the task in hand. This misconception also created a sudden demand for alternative products for low-level access. According to the Ladder Association, products were “developed rapidly and with no appropriate standards in place to regulate their design. As a consequence, many of these products were poorly specified and designed, and contained features that made them less safe than the ladders they replaced, leading to a significant number of accidents.”

Several correspondents also cited as an issue the UK’s “narrower” implementation of the European Directive when compared with other EC countries, which may have put the British economy at a disadvantage. In its submission to the committee, the International Powered Access Federation called on the Government “to push for more consistent implementation of the Directive in other EU member states based on the experience in the UK. This should help promote consistent enforcement by authorities and a level playing field when contractors are giving quotations for work in a variety of member states.”

In weighing up the evidence, the committee concluded that the HSE responded well to ease the consequences of the unforeseen events described, but underlined that “some of the problems might have been avoided through clearer communication when the regulations were introduced”.

Consultant Dr John Anderson, who regularly contributes to SHP on construction-safety issues, was extremely critical of the HSE’s consultation approach.

He told the Lords: “The HSE gold-plated a perfectly good, well-written Directive and created a bureaucratic, legislative monster out of very little, and wrote the Regulations in legal language that does not find favour in the construction world of busy, task-focused people. The HSE behaved throughout in an arrogant ‘we know best’ frame of mind, and would not listen to others with any alternative view.

“The costs to UK industry of understanding all this, training others (forever more) to understand it all, the paperwork requirements, etc, does not bear thinking about and is impossible to calculate.”

The House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee examined the Regulations, introduced in 2005, as part of a wider, more general study of how the Government reviews secondary legislation after it has been implemented.

The example of the WAHR — one of five case studies examined in detail — has led the committee to recommend that a mechanism be set up to disseminate lessons on good and bad practice, particularly on potential commercial impacts of regulations, more widely — both within departments and across Whitehall.

The committee found that most departments are not evaluating how their regulations have performed and, as a consequence, are missing opportunities to improve the formulation and delivery of their policies. The Lords found that 46 per cent of the regulations in a sample from 2005 had not been subject to any form of follow-up evaluation at all, and only 29 per cent to full post-implementation review. The Health and Safety Commission undertook a review of the Work at Height Regulations in 2006.

Published on 12 November, the committee’s full report is available here.

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