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May 18, 2011

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SHE11 – No more work at height accidents, ever?

In a ground-breaking panel discussion in the AIF Working at Height forum, senior representatives of six leading UK safety organisations came together for the first time ever to discuss if the ‘Holy Grail’ of zero working-at-height accidents is achievable, and if so, how.


Chaired by David Thomas, of structural engineers William Hare Group, the panel was kicked off by Barry Holt, director of policy and research of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management, who said: “One can only go so far in improving the hardware for safe working at height – the person doing the job is the imponderable factor”, implying that the Holy Grail would be difficult to attain.


Joy Jones, principal inspector of the HSE’s Construction Division, spoke next, telling the audience what the HSE is currently doing to improve work at height safety and appealing to other bodies to help. “While the construction industry has made huge advances in the last 15 to 20 years, a stubborn problem area remains,” she said. “The deaths and injuries in construction are mainly occurring on smaller, shorter jobs and in smaller firms where inappropriate equipment, or nothing at all is being used.”


She continued: “There are no quick wins. We need to look at a very long-term strategy of around 25 years, with the goal of making working at height without precautions as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving. This will come about by a combination of education, information and enforcement. We need to get everybody on board, but the HSE can’t do this alone, society has to tackle this problem.”


Nigel Bryson, on behalf of the British Safety Council, agreed with Joy Jones that the issue needs to be looked at longer term. “We need to get the concepts of risks and hazards into schools, and spend more time getting the workforce directly involved with the control measures and equipment being used,” he said.


RoSPA’s Roger Bibbings’ take was that the key underlying competence to the entire issue is leadership. “Leadership starts at the top. It is about leading an organisation safety and creating expectations,” he stated.


Bibbings revealed: “I had a series of conversations with Lord Young, in which he said that it is not possible to prevent all accidents. This was unhelpful. He was not showing the leadership one would expect from a senior figure. All management – team leaders, supervisors and middle managers – must tell their people that the vast majority of accidents are preventable by very simple measures. This is absolutely fundamental.”


Past chairman of IOSH John Holden said health and safety practitioners should keep up to date with what is going on with legislation and technology and put it into practice. “There is so much work at height equipment available these days and the cost of it is not massive compared to the cost of the damage to a person.”


Peter Bennett, chair of AIF, had a positive take on the elimination of work-at-height accidents. “We have to believe the Holy Grail is attainable – logic tells us that it is,” he stated. “We have come a considerable way, and now need to ratchet up on these improvements, encourage innovation and avoid the unintended consequences of risk.”


However, Bennett sounded a warning that we should not embrace new products just because they are new. “We need to understand the root causes of falls from height,” he noted. He agreed with other panellists that the hardest people to reach are the one-man operations and householders doing their own DIY i.e. the people who often do not know how to work at height safely. “It is not easy to get the safety message across to them,” he said. “We need to make lack of safety as unwelcome as smoking, which has very quickly become socially unacceptable. It is possible and it can be done, we just need to build on the achievements we have already made.”


Next, the chair asked the panel their views on health and safety training. John Holden said although training is available, people need to be made more aware of it so that they understand whether they are at risk and what to do about it. Joy Jones explained that because of cuts in its budget, the HSE is now putting increased emphasis on inspecting smaller construction sites to see how well they are being managed and whether there are training issues.


“Even when we look at the small sites, we are still missing a huge chunk of the invisible part of the industry – the short jobs, the small jobs. The only time we come across many of those is when we are investigating fatal accidents,” she reported.


Barry Holt said the ‘tick-box’ approach to training is worrying. “There is a lot of good training out there, but contractors need to know which of it is good.” Roger Bibbings agreed that “we need to declare war on the ‘tick-boxers’ and get people to understand that procuring training and advice requires quite a bit of thought as to what training people actually need at different points in their careers.” He added that a lot more basic training on the hazards of working at height is needed. “You need very little height to gain the acceleration that will lead to lethal energy,” he observed.


Nigel Bryson said he would like to see more creative types of training. “We have the most sophisticated communications that we have ever had. We need a rethink to make the best use of them and we should be much more strategic in our thinking. There is too much one-size-fits-all. We need to engage more with the workforce to see what works for them,” he concluded.


Drawing the discussion to a close, David Thomas asked the panellists how they were going to work together in the future. Holden said they will continue to lobby the Government to raise the profile of health and safety, while Jones wants to work together to make working at height safely more attractive and easy to do. Holt agreed that the panel had given the participants a good opportunity for them to pool their ideas.


For his part, Bibbings agreed that all the safety organisations need to work together to fill the gap that has been caused by the cut in the HSE’s resources. “We need to revalue the whole business of learning from incidents. When things have gone wrong, that is the time for getting together and learning.” Bryson concluded that all the safety organisations need to bring their knowledge on best practice together and assemble all the information into one place, to appeal to a wider audience.


The panel thus displayed varying degrees of optimism about eliminating falls from height from the radar. The general conclusion seems to be that a very long-term strategy is needed to achieve the Holy Grail of zero working-at-height incidents by making a shift in the attitudes of society. Getting to people at a young age, involving the workforce itself at every stage, and strong leadership are all key factors in this endeavour. It remains to be seen if all six organisations carry out their promise to cooperate with each other and jointly tackle the problem.













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12 years ago

Having spent two years as an (FTA) HSE Inspector of Construction, I can verify the degree of ignorance displayed by hundreds of employers and emplyees regarding WAH risk. The SME is not alone in this misplaced perception of risk, commercial clients and domestic clients accross the board are driven by cost.

Enforcement is not backed up by sufficient prosecution in my view? you get £60 fine for speeding and similar for parking offences.

12 years ago

Having spent 25 years in the Scaffolding industry and now a successful H&S Practitioner, I invented and marketed a scaffold platform product to eliminate the risk of falling objects. The product is predominently being used in the off-shore industry and there is a reluctance to use within the construction sector, although there is a slow improvement. All scaffold platforms have an inherent gap, which the WAH Regs disallows; trying to persuade PC’s to become compliant is very difficult.

12 years ago

Yawn! Yawn!

Nothing innovative here

Same old circuit speakers – same old egos – same old rhetoric – same old commercially vested interests

Haven’t they realised, it all comes down to time and money in the end!

12 years ago

DavidH even if you accept your vision of future enforcement not being increased an attitude of huffing and saying thats it i’m taking my ball home isnt helping anyone.

What this discussion is doing as far as i can see is getting everyone to work together to speed up the way competence (at all levels) in regards to work at height can be tackled in a collaborative manner.

I commend this sort of leadership activity, its long overdue.

12 years ago

I’m sorry do I live on another planet! More panels and yet more jaw – jaw isn’t going to make the slightest difference. For example, during a recent discussion with a gentleman who was quoting me for some roof repairs, I touched on working at height training – “Oh that’s just common sense in’ it”. He hadn’t got a clue about his or his employers’ responsibilities. It just goes on and on! Increased enforcement action is the only way to drive this, but hat ain’t going to happen now.