There are 36 fatalities a year in UK workplace falls from height, but the government is reluctant to accept the recommendations of a report that could reduce the number.
Eighteen months have passed since the publication by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Working at Height of Staying alive: preventing serious injury and fatalities while working at height. The recommendations in the document (see Key takeaways, below) have been mostly gathering dust since their publication.
It’s a source of frustration to all concerned because, if the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) average figures have been maintained, as many as 54 lives will have been lost during this time.
Alison Thewliss MP, chair of the APPG, says: ‘Falls from height are consistently the leading cause of avoidable deaths in the workplace. That’s why the APPG was established and why it must continue to pursue its mission.’
At first glance, it would seem to be in everyone’s interest to reduce the numbers. As well as deaths, it’s estimated that non-fatal falls accounted for more than 63,000 injuries in 2018-19 in the UK. As Alison says: ‘Not only do we owe it to those who have lost their lives and those who have suffered life-changing injuries, but also to those who are affected in the aftermath. There is also a huge cost to society and the economy.’
Working at height: Don’t make the same mistakes
Galina Hobson CMIOSH has always been wary of heights. ‘I still am,’ she admits. ‘You can’t ignore the risk, but, if planned and controlled properly, it’s no more dangerous than changing a lightbulb.’
Galina has worked internationally on projects from a 72-storey tower in Moscow to residential apartment blocks in central London. Now, she runs the HSE department for specialist difficult-access contractor CAN (part of RSK Group).
‘I’m very lucky to work for a company that takes pride in doing things the right way,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, not all organisations have the same ethos. I see the same mistakes made in 2020 in the UK, that I witnessed 15 years ago in Russia.’
Galina says that a lack of planning, low risk-awareness and complacency are all too common. She gives two examples:
- ‘A ManSafe system is often used on roofs for fall prevention. It needs to be inspected regularly and certified to ensure it’s still compliant, but when routine checks are skipped, you can’t guarantee the system is safe to use.’
- ‘I was doing a site audit as external scaffolding was being taken down. I was talking to the site manager and looked out his office window to see a scaffolder standing on the only remaining scaffolding board on top of a three-floor high scaffolding. All the handrails had already been taken down, he was not clipped on and was busy throwing down the remaining material.
When it comes to working at height, Galina would like to see a greater focus on clients and architects or designers: ‘This isn’t something that can be changed overnight but I believe these are areas that can and should be addressed at government level.’
Driven by data
Peter Bennett, managing director of the mobile access tower industry association PASMA and chair of the Access Industry Forum (sponsor of the APPG), says that falls from height are often seen as isolated incidents. ‘If these fatalities were due to a plane crash, there would be an immediate investigation and inquiry, but because no connection is being made, not enough is being done.’
One of the changes Peter would like to see is a standardised process for reporting incidents. ‘Currently, it’s just free-text reporting, so it’s nigh on impossible to pull out the information you need to compare like-for-like.
‘The first thing that needs to happen is to ask some simple, but relevant, questions: Where are the falls happening? Are there a disproportionate number of incidents in any one sector? Were the people involved trained?
Falls from height are consistently the leading cause of avoidable deaths in the workplace
‘We’d like to see drop-down menus to choose from a relatively small number of work at height methods. The current free-text option allows companies to report the incident as a narrative, with potentially irrelevant detail, and the possibility of careful phrasing that may play down any fault.’
Data is also a particular concern for Rhys Baker, senior health, safety, environment and quality manager for Alimak Group in the UK, which specialises in vertical access solutions. He recalls the 1980s, when there was a culture of having to ‘man up’ when carrying out work at height tasks. Even now, he says, there are notable differences in the approach to work-at-height safety and compliance with legislation.
‘Industries such as oil rigs and nuclear are tightly controlled and implement stringent equipment checks and permit systems,’ he says, ‘whereas smaller construction projects and maintenance activities on tall buildings are generally managed by third parties on behalf of the owners and the approach does vary.’
The APPG’s report made four recommendations:
- Enhanced RIDDOR reporting for falls from height incidents (with no additional burden or cost to industry or regulators).
- An independent, confidential reporting system for near misses.
- Widening engagement to inform sectors outside construction of the dangers of a fall from height.
- Extending Scotland’s mandatory requirement for a fatal accident inquiry to the rest of the UK.
Two other areas were suggested for further consultation:
- The creation of a digital technology strategy to include tax relief for small, micro and sole traders, to enable them to invest in new technology.
- A major review of work at height culture to include legally binding financial penalties and funds that could be used to raise awareness and training.
Paul Williams, head of health and safety and compliance at One Manchester, says the Electrical Contractors Association also made recommendations to the APPG. ‘Much more emphasis should be placed on designing out the need for work at height wherever possible,’ he says.
‘Clients and specifiers can do much more to improve safety at height. Whenever possible and reasonable, they should carry out inspections more frequently. They should also take steps to consider access positions for maintenance workers.’
ATLAS’s representative for the APPG is the organisation’s immediate past president, Jason Harfield. He stresses that the focus isn’t just on construction. ‘The APPG is guided by the statistics that show that agriculture and forestry also have a role to play in combating falls from height. Our next APPG meeting will focus on working at height in rural and agricultural settings.’
Everyone is aware that COVID-19 has had an impact in terms of training and competency. Will workers suffer from a skills fade, for example? There will also be pressure on contractors to raise the pace of work as the economy returns to normal, with concerns this could lead to shortcuts.
Jason accepts that COVID-19 has affected training but says: ‘Our main frustration is that despite good communication with both government and the HSE, there is so far a reluctance to move to enhanced reporting. On a positive note, we have seen unprecedented collaboration between trade unions, regulatory bodies and employers.’
Alison insists that the APPG is fighting hard: ‘Despite all the challenges and disruptions thrown up by Brexit, the general election and COVID-19, the APPG continues to urge the government to implement its recommendations.’
- No Falls
The No Falls Foundation is a charity that aims to educate and inform about the dangers of falls from height. It undertakes and commissions research, as well as providing support to victims and survivors. nofallsfoundation.org
- Safety Steps
The Construction Industry Advisory Network has released a suite of documents for designers, clients, managers and operatives. accessindustryforum.org.uk/safety-steps