Very tall constructions are still seeing workers killed every year. But experts argue that while the extreme height is what kills, being prepared is what prevents it.
As the construction industry starts to rebound in the UK, buildings will be heading upwards rather than outwards. According to a report by New London Architecture, there are 525 buildings with 20 floors or more planned for London alone. OSH professionals will be increasingly facing the problem of how to consistently operate safely at height.
‘Some people seem to struggle with what work at height actually is,’ says Ray Cooke, health and safety adviser to the No Falls Foundation charity (nofallsfoundation.org) and former head of the GB Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Construction Sector Safety Team. ‘Reporting of injuries [RIDDOR] used to distinguish between low and high falls, and many seemed to think that low falls somehow did not pose any significant risk. That was false thinking. Work at height applies to situations where a person could fall any distance liable to cause personal injury [Work at Height Regulations 2005], and the measures set out in the regulations must be followed.’
How differences in height impact working conditions are important to recognise, he argues, because all too often at-height assessments typically default to ‘height’ as a catch-all concept, creating complacency and a failure to think clearly about risk. ‘Training alone isn’t enough. The specifics of the task, the equipment and the systems of work must all be considered too.’
Case study: Head for heights
Peter Cullen, GKR Scaffolding, says: We are ambassadors for designing out risk, ensuring that working at height risks are eliminated or minimised.
At Battersea Power Station, we constructed hanging scaffold for the iconic wash towers at ground level and then crane-lifted them into place. We fabricated a specific lifting beam and lifted a complete scaffold onto the north wall to reduce working at height and minimise handling components at height.
We have a strong legacy finding practical safety solutions from working on the Shard in London. There, GKR developed the ‘Elimin8’ fitting, which we use to tether materials to eliminate the risk of them falling from height. We also introduced a 100% tool tethering policy and issued Petzl climbing hard hats with chin straps as standard PPE. This has since become our industry standard.
HSE figures bear out the risks: falls from height comprised around a quarter of fatal accidents at work last year. Of the 111 fatalities in 2019-20, falls from height caused the most deaths – 29. This figure may be down on the 40 fatalities from height that occurred during 2018-19, but Ray says the numbers are still shockingly high. ‘Height may be the headline, but in my experience,’ he says, ‘injury or death at height is always the result of poor management, planning or organisation. How we talk about height needs rephrasing more as a management and planning issue rather than one purely about equipment.’
Experts agree on some common safety omissions – for example assessments undertaken for on-site details without specific visits. Objects falling from height can often be forgotten, while options on how to rescue people in trouble can also be overlooked. This includes whether there is access for rescue services, and if emergency services have the equipment needed – local fire brigades didn’t have long enough ladders at the Grenfell Tower disaster, for instance.
'Death at height is always the result of poor management, planning or organisation'
It’s with thorough planning that surprises can be avoided. ‘We have a clear system for designing out risk, where we have eight “gates” and you can’t move to the next without adequately completing the one you’re currently on,’ says John Dowling CMIOSH, the newly appointed health, safety, environment and sustainability director at Balfour Beatty. ‘We have to be assiduous writing down what we think all the challenges are, assessing a project each time on its own merits, and not thinking we can cut and paste from something similar we’ve done before.
‘Even when we return to a familiar building, we have to factor in new variables, such as dilapidation, and new environmental factors, such as the weather.’
‘The whole area of at-height work needs constant attention,’ argues Malcolm Shiels CFIOSH, chair of IOSH Construction Group, and framework safety, health and environment manager at Costain Group. ‘There’s still a case of needing to get the basics right – for instance whether there are steps that can be taken to not be at height at all, such as using extendable tools – but also if there are policies to minimise how far someone falls if a fall happens.’
He continues: ‘The key is assessing for risk, not height. At Costain we operate a lot on bridges and gantries – two to six metres [6.56ft to 19.69ft] tall. But while we have the right evaluations in place, what’s more concerning is some SMEs, who don’t often have systems or resources to assist on health and safety. In these cases, they often just want to get on with the job and go home safely. A better culture of accident prevention is still needed there.’
It’s a mindset Peter Cullen CMIOSH, health and safety director at GKR Scaffolding, shares. ‘We see more near misses and incidents in terms of slips, trips and falls at lower level at GKR, despite the fact we have worked on the highest buildings in the UK. So I often talk about the ‘high-rise mindset’ for all jobs.’ He adds: ‘At ground level and four metres [13.12ft] up on a pavement gantry, complacency can set in. This is where the potential for incidents is higher.’
If workers on Balfour Beatty-run projects identify anything they think has changed from the brief they are encouraged to stop, evaluate and return at a later date. John says empowering staff to call out any on-site risk is a vital part of at-height safety management.
GKR and Balfour Beatty also have a 360-degree review of all projects, where lessons are discussed and written back into best practice, with Balfour Beatty bringing in OSH professionals to sit in on these meetings. Peter adds: ‘We’ve done a lot of work building psychological safety within teams so that our people can speak up without fear of blame, reprisals or not being listened to.
‘A blame culture suffocates learning. Near misses go unreported, and we miss the opportunity to prevent an incident or find a better way of working.’
But where there are exciting moves is in innovation. Technology is making planning much easier. ‘We worked on the North Bridge in Edinburgh, which presented us with the issue of accounting for pedestrians and cars underneath,’ says John. ‘In 3D and even 4D, we can zoom in, and this gives us a fantastic
way of visualising potential at-height work issues.’
Drones, says Ray, are much cheaper and more effective now, and can even determine whether at-height work by a human is even needed at all. ‘Sometimes the best planning is to determine that no at-height work is even needed,’ he says.
Peter adds: ‘Good technology delivers an advantage. We have been able to recreate scenarios that would be dangerous to recreate in real life to deliver the physiological reaction that traditional training simply couldn’t.’
Could more be done? Of course. Working at height, vigilance will always prevent more accidents. But with planning, reviewing and learning from each project, height should be something that is as everyday as working at ground level.
Designing in safety: Dos and don’ts
- Think about every eventuality: Leave no stone unturned. Proper planning prevents poor performance.
- Learn from last time: But don’t be complacent. A thorough review should provide action plans for the next at-height job.
- Don’t copy and paste: Each new job will have its own unique hazards. The height might be similar, but the dangers will be different.
- Don’t assume your safety gear will save you: Most accidents and loss or life are caused not by faulty equipment but by failure to plan properly.