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March 19, 2008

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A guide to working at height

Those who regularly plan and organise work at height activities will have also communicated safe systems of working for those activities. The question is: which methods have the most influence on workers’ perception of the risks of falling from height and, ultimately, their behaviour and compliance with a safe system of work? Debbie Shrives attempted to find out.

Three years on from the introduction of the Work at Height Regulations 2005, the Health and Safety Executive’s statistics are showing a welcome downward trend in work at height fatalities. While the reduction may be partly attributable to the control measures required by the Regulations, learning more about the people who actually carry out work at height will complement these control measures and address the fact that work at height remains the most common cause of work-related deaths.

The factors that influence falls from height are reasonably well-known. HSE research,1 for example, identified the following pan-industry factors:

– At the direct level: competence, risk perception, compliance and operational equipment regularly appear as being the most significant factors.

– At the organisational level: training, management/supervision, safety culture, and process design are judged as being significant.

– At the policy level: company culture and safety management are considered most significant.

– At the environmental level: the market is considered to be most significant. However, the regulator is considered to offer the greatest potential for influence.

The same research also listed the most commonly used measures in industry to reduce falls from height (eliminating the need to work at height, designing in measures to facilitate safe work at height, providing PPE, etc.) but less attention seems to have been paid to how effective these measures actually are in terms of how they influence risk perception and risk-taking among those who work at height.

The study

This realisation prompted me to carry out my own study2 of employees at two large UK organisations — a water services provider and a civil engineering firm — who provided access to their employees working at height.

The questions the study sought to answer were as follows:

– How do individuals working at height perceive the risks?

– To what degree are their perceptions of the risks of falling from height influenced by their personal knowledge, experience, and interest in the matter?

– Are the risks of falling from height being under-stated as a result?

– What, if any, under-statement is attributable to organisational factors and the risk communication process?

In all, 70 workers agreed to complete, anonymously, a 14-question survey, which asked them to identify how often they worked at height, when they received instruction and training, how this was provided, and whether they understood the way they were meant to work safely as a result. It also asked them to consider what difference the training they had received had made to the way they worked, what other sources of work at height information they were exposed to — for example, their work colleagues, newspapers, magazines and the Internet — and whether these sources had made any difference to the way they worked.

The survey also set out 10 work-at-height risk factors and asked workers to provide their personal rating of the fall risk, and to list any other factors they felt would also increase their chances of falling from height. The final questions in the survey related to whether workers had experienced a fall from height and, if so, were they injured, and did they report the fall to their line manager.

Although the study was limited and qualitative, it nevertheless produced a number of useful insights into the perceptions of those who work at height.

The ages of those who took part in the survey ranged from under 20 to 59, with the majority being between 40 and 49 years of age. Years of service ranged from under five years to more than 25 years, with the majority of workers having completed fewer than five years with their company. A small number of participants combined supervisory and management roles with their work at height activities.


The survey participants were asked to rate the following risk factors on a scale ranging from ‘very low — highly unlikely to fall’ to ‘very high — certain to fall’:

– Working without taking regular breaks;

– Working without first receiving practical training in the correct use of access and/or fall arrest equipment;

– Using and not reporting, or replacing faulty equipment and PPE used for access;

– Using the wrong tools, or PPE for the job;

– Working when unwell;

– Working without carrying out simple checks to make sure the work area is safe;

– Working in bad weather conditions;

– Working without receiving specific instruction from a line manager;

– Using equipment on which you are not trained, e.g. MEWPs; and

– Working with colleagues who deliberately don’t follow the safe way of working laid down by the line manager.

Analysis of the ratings found them to be clustered at the medium, high and very high end of the risk scale. Although there was no unanimity in what might have constituted the greatest risk factor, there were high levels of agreement on other issues. For example, 49 per cent of the workers rated the use of faulty access equipment or PPE as very high risk; 50 per cent felt that working in bad weather conditions was a high risk; and 43 per cent agreed that working without regular breaks was a medium risk.

Perhaps the more interesting findings related to the factors that respondents felt were at the lower end of the risk scale: 24 per cent rated working without receiving specific instruction from line management as a low risk, while 4 per cent felt that using equipment they were not trained to use presented a very low risk. This is rather worrying, given the number of cases routinely reported in the ‘In Court’ pages of SHP in which a work-related death has been attributed to the victim’s lack of training on the equipment they were using.

Other factors cited by workers as increasing their chances of falling from height included inadequate lighting, working under the influence of drugs and alcohol, stress, long working hours, inexperience, and lack of competence (working with young people and those from different construction backgrounds were particularly mentioned).

What influences these perceptions?

The three most common factors that influenced workers’ perceptions were found to be:

– training;

– experiences shared with other work colleagues; and

– information gleaned from the Internet.

Of the workers who received training, 36 per cent said they had made ‘significant’ change to the way they worked at height to comply with a safe system of work, and 51 per cent said they had made ‘some’ change. (Those workers on whom training or information shared among colleagues had no effect in terms of changing their behaviour during work at height are discussed below.)

The most commonly provided types of training were general risk-awareness training, and job-specific instruction for work at height. The majority of those questioned received this training either in a classroom environment, led by an external trainer using DVD and handouts, or as an on-site toolbox talk delivered by their line manager. Practical training sessions on site with either a line manager or an external trainer were found to be less common.

Just as influential in changing behaviour, however, were other sources of risk information, such as tips from colleagues based on their own experiences, newspaper articles, leaflets, magazines, and the Internet. Of the workers who sought such alternative sources of information 20 per cent said they had made ‘significant’ changes to the way they behaved during work at height as a result, and 69 per cent said they had made ‘some’ changes. Information shared by colleagues was found to have the greatest impact for ‘some’ change in behaviour, followed by information obtained from the Internet.

While it is reassuring that formal training influences more ‘significant’ changes in behaviour towards compliance with safe systems of working, the fact that other sources of information influence workers in making at least ‘some’ changes to their behaviour during work at height should not be ignored.

Are the risks being under-stated?

The immediately apparent answer to this question was ‘no’, given the aforementioned clustering of survey respondents’ ratings of work-at-height risks at the higher end of the scale. Examination of accident data provided by the participant companies bore this out, in that only five of the 70 workers questioned had fallen from height in the previous two years, and only one of them reported an over-three-day injury. Encouragingly, three of the five workers did report their fall to their line manager.

The higher-end perception of the risks from falling from height combined with the large percentage of workers making ‘significant’ or ‘some’ change to the way they worked to comply with a safe system of working at height — regardless of the source of influence — could be considered as having positively contributed to this relatively low number of reported accidents.

Organisational factors and the risk communication process

Workers were asked whether they received instruction in a safe way of working directly before starting work at height, and to rate the frequency of this instruction on a scale. Given the low level of accidents reported among this group, the two highest responses were unexpectedly polarised, with 31 per cent receiving instruction ‘all of the time’ and 22 per cent ‘hardly ever’ receiving instruction!

Given that training is shown to be influential in fostering ‘significant’ changes in behaviour and compliance towards a safe system of working at height, consistency in this area is important if any under-statement of the risks is to be avoided. This is particularly so because alternative — and just as influential — sources of work-at-height risk information cannot necessarily be monitored and controlled for accuracy and alignment with the organisation’s overall work-at-height policy and good practice in the way that formal training can.

Workers were also asked to identify the way in which safe systems of work were usually communicated to them directly before starting the job. Verbal instruction was the most commonly cited method, followed closely by written instructions, and a combination of both. When asked if this ‘usual’ method of communication enabled them to understand the safe way of working for the job in question, the majority of workers stated they did ‘all of the time’ and ‘very often’.

In light of the low number of reported falls from height, these results would indicate that the methods used by the organisations to communicate safe systems of work are successful in reaching workers and avoiding any under-statement of the risks.

Minority rules

While my research found that training is effective in influencing risk perceptions and fostering compliance with a safe system of working at height, it would be inadvisable to overlook those workers for whom training or information shared among colleagues had no effect in changing their behaviour during work at height.

Identifying and reaching individuals like these is a challenge for anyone responsible for controlling work at height risks, although such workers’ views do not necessarily mean they represent a significant risk to themselves and others. For example, they may already be operating within a proven, safe system of work, in which case formal training or a cautionary tale heard from one of their colleagues in passing may simply serve to reinforce the knowledge they have of their ‘safe behaviour’, giving them no perceived reason to change.

Perhaps the bigger challenge is to get through to those who ‘hardly ever’ or only ‘sometimes’ understood the training they received, as well as those who failed to report a fall from height regardless of whether they were injured or not. If a limited study like this identifies a number of workers who fall into these categories, it is reasonable to conclude that most other organisations that have workers operating at height will also need to pay particular attention to the needs of this group.


1 Bomel Ltd (2003): Falls from height — prevention and risk-control effectiveness, Health and Safety Executive Research Report 116, HSE Books.

2 The author carried out the research in summer 2007 as part of her work towards an MSc in health and safety management at Leicester University. She was awarded her degree with merit, as well as the University’s prize for best dissertation in 2007.

Further Reading

– Adams, J (1995): Risk, University College London Press

– Sjöberg, L, Moen, B and Rundmo, T (2004): Explaining risk perception: an evaluation of the psychometric paradigm in risk perception research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Department of Psychology, Rotunde publikasjoner.

– Sjöberg, L (2000): ‘Factors in Risk Perception’, in Risk Analysis, 20 (1): 1-11

– Kasperson, RE, Renn, O, Slovic, P, Brown, HS, Emel, J, Goble, R, Kasperson, JX and Ratick, S (1988): – ‘The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework’, in Risk Analysis, 8 (2): 177-187

Maslow, A (1954): Motivation and Personality, Harper & Row, New York

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