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April 13, 2011

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Work at height – Trends in high places

Working at height can be dangerous and ultimately fatal if not done safely but, despite this well-known fact, some organisations are still failing to take the sensible and practical steps necessary to protect their workers’ lives. The HSE’s Justine Lee discusses where and how most at-height incidents occur and emphasises what should be done to prevent them.

In February this year, the HSE carried out an intensive inspection programme of construction sites around the country. Of all the enforcement notices issued as a result, more than half (52.6 per cent) related to unsafe working at height. In 159 cases, the work was being done so unsafely that the inspector was forced to stop it there and then. (Figures correct at time of going to press.)

The incentive for getting health and safety right should not be the threat of losing money if an HSE inspector deems it necessary to close the site – it must be worker safety. Last year, 42 people died needlessly in construction, with falls from height responsible for more than a third of those deaths, making them the biggest killer in the industry.

  • The Work at Height Regulations 20051 clearly lay out the steps duty-holders should take to protect their workers. The three key points to think about are:
  • Assess work-at-height risks carefully. Make sure that all work at height is planned, organised and carried out by trained and competent people;

Follow the hierarchy for managing risks from work at height – take steps to avoid, prevent, or reduce the risks; and

Choose the most suitable equipment for carrying out the work. Select measures to prevent falls, such as mobile elevating work equipment (MEWP) and scaffolding before other measures, such as nets or airbags, which may only mitigate the distance and consequences of a fall. Personal protective equipment should only be selected as a last resort. 

A 50-year-old maintenance worker was killed when he fell through a fragile roof-light panel as he was checking roof-repair work carried out by other contractors. The covers, which had been provided when the repair work was carried out, had been removed and the roof-light panels were unprotected.

Areas of concern

Nearly three quarters of all construction fatalities (69 per cent), regardless of cause, occur in the refurbishment, repair and building maintenance sector. The majority of deaths caused by falls also occur in this sector, particularly during roofing work.

All too often, things go wrong as a result of a combination of avoidable reasons, such as:

  • lack of understanding of how risky the job is – often because of its short duration;
  • lack of planning to ensure there is a safe method of getting to the work area and, once there, that the work can be carried out from a place of safety;
  • lack of planning to ensure the person who has arrived to carry out the work has the correct access equipment with them on the day. This can lead to the work being undertaken using unsuitable access equipment and thus creating unnecessary risk; and
  • lack of training to ensure everyone involved in the work is competent.  This includes those involved in the organisation, planning, supervision, and the supply and maintenance of equipment.

A roofer was part of a gang that was re-sheeting a large steel portal-frame warehouse. Approximately 50 per cent of the roof was netted underneath. The roofer was moving a sheet from a storage pile at the opposite end of the building when he fell through an uncovered fragile roof-light in an area of the roof that was not protected by nets.

Fragile roofs 2,3

Falling through fragile roofing materials accounts for almost one in four (22 per cent) construction deaths resulting from a fall from height. When it comes to preventing falls, in most cases straightforward physical protection measures can prevent accidents occurring. All too often, however, a lack of foresight and poor management means protection measures are neglected during high-risk work, and accidents occur as a result.

It is also vital that designers and contractors understand that whatever roofing assembly has been specified, all non-fragile roofs will deteriorate with time and, at some point, the assembly will become fragile. Depending on the material used, and weather conditions, this could happen over five or 50 years. A competent person will be able to confirm that the roof is still in a good and non-fragile condition, and state how often it will need to be checked.

In some cases, work near, or on a fragile roof can be avoided altogether, but in other cases this is just not practical. If you are working on, near, or crossing fragile material – whether the job is construction, maintenance, repair, cleaning or demolition – you will need to identify what the material is and put in place precautions to prevent a fall.

Unfortunately, workers are too often ill-equipped and unprepared for a job. For example, they may only have a single crawling board when they really need a sufficient number of stagings fitted with guard rails to prevent access to the fragile material.

Sometimes it is not possible to remove all risks of a fall, in which case something like fall-arrest netting should be provided to minimise the effect of a fall. Also, some work can be carried out from below. For instance, there is a method that now allows profiled roof sheets, or rooflights, to be replaced with glass-reinforced plastic sheets (GRP) and special fixings using powered access, or a tower scaffold.4

In summary, the hierarchy for work on fragile roofs is:

  • work from underneath the roof using a suitable work platform;
  • where this is not possible, consider using a MEWP that allows people to work from within the MEWP basket without standing on the roof itself;
  • if access on to the fragile roof cannot be avoided, perimeter-edge protection should be installed and staging used to spread the load. Unless all the work and access is on staging or platforms that are fitted with guard rails, safety nets should be installed underneath the roof, or a harness system used; and
  • where harnesses are used they need adequate anchorage points. Training and supervision must be provided to ensure they are used consistently and correctly.

A 50-year-old roofer was killed when he fell from the edge of a pitched roof. He was understood to have been carrying out extensive work to repair the roof following storm damage. There was no edge protection, and the access ladder was not secured.

General roofing work

Roofing work carried out by smaller contractors on domestic premises can also be risky if not done properly. To help improve standards on smaller jobs, the HSE’s Construction Division has published a leaflet on roof work as part of its new ‘Busy Builder’ series,5 which includes such advice as:

  • Almost all domestic roof work will require properly erected scaffolding, which includes guard rails and toe boards. This should be provided at the front and back of the property, and around chimneys and dormers, where appropriate. If the work requires access within 2 metres of gable ends, edge protection will be needed there, as well as at the eaves;
  • Use a controlled means for raising and lowering materials to and from ground level, e.g. gin wheel, chute, hoist, etc;
  • Use debris netting and close-fitting scaffold boards to stop materials falling into the street;
  • Ladders can be used to access the work area but working from ladders is allowed only as a last resort and for short-duration work, when it has been assessed that no other more suitable piece of access equipment can be used; and
  • Make sure you and your workers are properly trained and competent to carry out the work safely.

Safety in design

One role that is often overlooked when planning work at height is that of the designer. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 impose duties on designers to identify and avoid foreseeable risks. (The term ‘designer’ has a broad meaning and relates to the function performed, rather than the profession, or job title.) CDM apply on all major construction projects, and on minor building works and small projects involving refurbishment and repair work. 

Designers are required to think about the health and safety aspects of a building during the construction phase of the work, as well as considering the lifetime operation of the building with regard to its use, frequency of cleaning, and maintenance. 

For example, if there is no alternative to placing a plant room on the roof, consideration should be given to whether physical protection can be installed to allow safe access to it. Another example is if the windows are to be cleaned using a mobile elevating work platform, the provision of a hard standing around the perimeter of the building must be specified. For new build or refurbishment work, clear and unambiguous specifications for the use of non-fragile roofing materials must be provided.  


Industry, through the Construction Industry Advisory Committee (CONIAC), is supporting the HSE in tackling the poor practices used in work at height. The Safety Working Group, which has members from both the HSE and industry, aims to change attitudes within the construction industry so that, similar to driving without a seatbelt, it becomes socially unacceptable to work at height without taking precautions.

To meet this goal they have formed three sub-groups, each of which has been tasked with looking at a different aspect of working at height – these are: work equipment and methods; education, training and competence; and worker involvement and leadership. This huge task is part of an overall 25-year plan to build competence in the construction industry and create healthier, safer workplaces.   


1 HSE publication INDG401 ‘The Work at Height Regulations 2005 (as amended): A brief guide’ –
2 HSE publication HSG33 ‘Health and Safety in roof work’ – hsg33.htm
3 HSE publication INDG284(rev1) ‘Working on roofs’ – pubns/indg284.pdf
4 Further guidance about this system will be released later this year, together with a new information sheet about working safely with fragile roofing material
5 HSE leaflet ‘Roof repair work; what you need to know as a busy builder’ –
Further advice and reading

National Federation of Roofing Contractors publications –
• Guidance Sheet A: Fall Protection and Prevention for Working on Roofs
• Guidance Sheet K: Temporary Edge Protection
• Technical Bulletin 17: Guidance Note on the Use of Rooflights with Profiled Cladding Systems
 CIRIA publications –
• C662 ‘CDM 2007 – Construction work sector guidance for designers’
• C663 ‘CDM 2007 – Workplace “in-use” guidance for designers’
• C686 ‘Safe access for maintenance and repair – guidance for designers second edition 2009’
Advisory Committee for Roof Safety publications –
• Recommended practice for work on profiled sheeted roofs
• Test for non-fragility of roofing assemblies
• Safe working on fragile roofs
• Guidance Note for competence and general fitness requirements to work on roofs
• Practical method of providing edge protection for working on roofs
• Information Sheet No1 – Selecting a competent roofing contractor
• Recommended practice for use of safety nets for roofwork

Justine Lee is part of the HSE’s Construction Division, with particular responsibility for work at height.

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13 years ago

Despite the reported unsafe WAH practices and the industry focus on WAH….this will not change unless more stringent measures ensure compliance. 50% of all working at height do not even know how to WAH safely.
I invented and now marketting a product to help reduce the risks when working from a scaffold platform…..companies are very reluctant to use the product unless they are told they have to by Safety conscious Principal Contractors. Compliance appears to be of a very reactive nature.