October 26, 2015

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Working at height – a lesson from Bahrain

By David Towlson, RRC International

A colleague in Bahrain related this story to me:

“In the summer this year I developed a habit of walking to the nearby coffee shop to have my morning coffee after checking my emails. “The coffee shop is situated in the very busy financial district in the heart of the capital. One morning as I walked down the road trying to avoid the crazy road traffic I noticed from a distance that the coffee shop area was very busy with many policemen around, flashing vehicle lights, red tape isolating the area.

“I turned round trying to avoid getting involved just in case it involved public violence or other related security incidents. But curiosity took me back as I managed to walk to the other side of the building and enter the coffee shop only to be shocked by the scene of a man having fallen to his death three metres in front of the entrance to the shop.

“Apparently he had fallen from the cradle as he was cleaning the building glass windows of the 30 floor building when the wire snapped at one end of the cradle sending him down on his head to die.”

This is a salutary lesson about not only the dangers of working at height but also about equipment maintenance.  It is made the more real to me as I myself have visited this coffee shop many times.

Risk assessment for work at height issues is in principle relatively straightforward and easy. This is largely because the risks of work at height in most common scenarios are well known.  The choices available to you for managing those risks are also mostly well known too.  But where people really need the help is in making the right choices of access equipment in a given situation.

In the absence of specific legal direction, real companies have to weigh up the competing demands of time, cost, resources, space requirements (proximity of other buildings) etc against the benefits in terms of marginal increase in safety.  Individual home owners are even more aware of this – they don’t generally keep a handy mobile access tower or MEWP as a second vehicle in the garden (ah, now “drive your MEWP to work day” would be an idea).

So, in practice you are left with the following basic strategies for eliminating or controlling work at height risks:

  1. Building Design – The UK even has a code of practice covering building design for this exact purpose (BS 8560) – to encourage designers (i.e. architects) to take work at height access requirements into account from the very beginning and, as far as possible, eliminate the need for it.    There is a companion code (BS 8454) which covers training for work at height.

Example: one designer was considering using water-based exterior paint high up on a building but decided on balance to go for solvent based because it was far more durable and so would require far less frequent maintenance access at height.


  1. Hierarchical Approach – this is the familiar avoid work at height (if possible), prevent falls, minimise the distance of the fall mantra. Partly this is enabled by the previous point about building design, but these are also the choices you have to make with an existing building (where you have to live with the design or retro-fit). In this regard the HSE’s Work At Height Access Equipment Information Tool (WAIT) does sterling work raising your game.  The tool takes account of a range of important factors – height where you are working, duration of work, how often the access equipment has to be moved, whether there is restricted access, type of work (heavy vs light) and whether the access equipment needs to be freestanding or not.  You are then left with a range of informed choices.

Note however that you often need to use a combination of methods and have an eye for the overall risk.  Don’t end up reducing the specific risk of work at height but then increasing it in some other area through poor choices of control strategy (erecting some forms of protection is not without risk either).

Good old managing the way you work  needs to be factored into all of this.  For example,  that the effects of wind are more pronounced at higher altitudes and when carrying large sheet materials (as anyone who has been on a high protein diet will know…).  The old standbys of housekeeping/waste management, maintaining/inspecting equipment and trained play their part.  Finally, be prepared for emergencies – rescue from heights is not as easy as from the ground.

At the very least it’s acutely embarrassing after the relief of being caught by fall arrest equipment to face the realisation of “Now what do I do?”  You’ll just never hear the last of it.  Building sites can be so cruel…

David Towlson Director of Training & QualityDavid Towlson, Director of Training & Quality, RRC International

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