Work at height

Table talk: fall protection

Four experts discuss the parliamentary report Staying Alive, the use of technological innovations to improve hazard perception and encouraging the reporting of poor practices.

Work at height roundtable

Watch the recording, split into two parts, here

NICK WARBURTON (NW): What are the main failings that contribute to fatalities and injuries from falls?

PETER BENNETT (PB): There are things like pressure on resources and time. My gut feeling is that [work at height operatives] become inured to the risk. They become so used to work at height that they don’t see there is a problem. That is the anecdotal evidence we have from some survivors of falls. They thought it would never happen to them.

ellie 010519 002ELEANOR HILL (EH): We’re talking about things like behavioural safety, [site] culture and culture of the organisation. How the individual thinks about going to work, setting him or herself up to work. That continual risk assessment, that continual hazard perception.

ALAN HARRIS (AH): Complacency and lack of training also make a difference.

JAMES SAINSBURY (JS): Education, education, education. You are only ever as good as what you implement on the ground.

EH: Training is essential. But it’s also the experience in implementing that training, implementing that learning, implementing that knowledge. That comes back to the culture.

Eleanor Hill, council member, ATLAS

Eleanor Hill has sat on the Association of Technical Lightning and Access Specialists’ (ATLAS) council for more than ten years. She has worked as a specialist in the work-at-height industry for more than 15 years. As Delta International’s managing director, she specialises in complex and innovative access solutions at height.

It’s costly and time consuming to investigate a near-miss, but not as much as investigating an accident

AH: That could also mean that supervision and management control of your operatives need to be on top of the working practices and the safe systems at work that you produce as a manager and are implemented on site. That only comes through supervision.

NW: The All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) report, Staying Alive, makes four recommendations for better work-at-height practices, including an improved reporting system. Peter, you are involved in the APPG. What is so significant about this?

PB: The way data is gathered for reporting injuries, dangerous occurrences and fatalities makes it difficult to analyse and see the trends. The APPG put forward a proposal to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ask an additional eight or nine questions [through RIDDOR]. The first is, was the work-at-height equipment being used designed for the purpose? If we can say it was, then what kind was it? Was it a tower? Was it a scaffold? Was it a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP)? Was it a ladder? That then streams it in the direction of different organisations. Ask these additional questions from a drop-down menu and it would not put any additional burden on the industry.

Alan HarrisAH: The National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) publishes a safety report every year with data provided by its members: 17,000 scaffolding operatives. It asks 12 questions. These include: was the incident in the yard? Was it on level ground? If it was work at height, what were the height and the circumstances that caused the incident? It doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort for members to produce.

JS: The statistics don’t really sum up the true scale. We look at the worst side of it, which is the fatalities. How many falls happen that people don’t report back on? We live in an environment where you don’t want to be a whistleblower. You want to get on with your job. These no-blame cultures have to be driven from above, from the CEO, from the board, all the way through the different chains of command.

Alan Harris, NASC health and safety committee chair

Alan Harris chairs the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) health and safety committee and is owner of Pro-Fix Access, a scaffolding contractor based in Hampshire. He has more than 35 years’ experience in scaffolding and access and is passionate about increasing safety standards throughout the industry.

The issue is that smaller companies are not imparting the culture of going home safe after a day’s work

EH: Thinking about better reporting. There are a lot of very responsible bodies, trade associations, doing their own reporting. There are responsible contractors who want to see that information, get hold of that data and do something with it. A central place where it all could be fed into and collated would not be a bad thing.

PB: We should have better reporting of incidents involving falls from height. The first thing we need to know and understand is: what is the problem? How big is the problem? What is it we’re dealing with? This [reporting system] would get us to that situation. Then we ask for [the reporting of] near-misses.

AH: Do you think the fear of prosecution and loss of reputation is why people are wary to report near-misses?

PB: The APPG took evidence from a number of voluntary reporting schemes. If you’re concerned about that, you don’t need to tell us who you are. We’re more concerned about gathering data. The only thing that we then need to guard against is duplicate reporting.

EH: At Delta, if you have a near-miss, we ask operatives to tell us. It is free learning. Yes, it’s costly and time consuming. It’s a bit of a pain to investigate a near-miss, but not as much as investigating an accident. Let’s do the near-misses, sort those out and then we don’t have to deal with the accidents.

Peter Bennett OBEPB: There’s an important point to make in respect of industry- or association-led reporting systems. Those systems can work well if your organisation is in direct dialogue with contractors. It doesn’t when there are too many intermediaries in between to collate that information.

EH: It comes down to client education as well. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations say you should be choosing responsible contractors.

AH: There’s always this race to the bottom, “We can be cheaper”. When there’s a recession everybody starts to cut prices and it’s not a case of whether they can do the job properly or do it safely and on time. The client often thinks, “They’re considerably cheaper, so I’ll place my order with them” and hopes nothing happens.

Peter Bennett, managing director, PASMA

Peter Bennett is the managing director of the Prefabricated Access Suppliers’ and Manufacturers’ Association (PASMA) and a founding member – and latterly chair – of the Access Industry Forum (AIF). Instrumental in establishing the All-party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height, he serves on national and international standards-setting committees.

In my discussions with designers, architects [and clients], I have not met anyone who takes responsibility seriously to eliminate risk of falls

PB: There is a level within the industry where you have responsible clients and responsible contractors that employ responsible sub-contractors. Then there’s this sub-culture underneath where nobody is paying particular attention to whether this organisation or that sub-contractor has the credentials and is competent to undertake the work.

JS: It’s about the specification that is driving the project. Consider what you put into these buildings. You look at the hierarchy of risk and you always try to eliminate [each factor]. You do that all the way through that process. At the top of that pyramid should be the client. It goes back to education. You’re putting up these buildings to last for the duration of how long they need to use them for. You also need to look at refurbishment and ongoing use.

PB: In my discussions with designers, architects and by extension their clients I have not met anyone yet who takes the responsibility seriously to eliminate risk of falls. I don’t see it. Designers and possibly the clients are more intent on the aesthetics. To me it is an opportunity missed because there is so much that could be done by designers to eliminate the need to work at height.

EH: We work on a lot of structures where we see no consideration about how access is going to be sought. Then we are into temporary access. I’m neither an architect nor a designer, but I would have thought that to design in access would be so fundamental.

AH:Some architects can see things that are in place for future maintenance of the project, but on numerous projects we have worked there was nothing in place.

NW: How can technology help by reducing the number of work-at-height activities?

james sainsburyEH: We use drones for heritage structures. If we know maintenance is required on a heritage chimney, we would use one first to see what we’re looking at, to check the access. It can’t eliminate everything, however. But it can help to do better planning, to make sure your access methodology is robust and fit for purpose and you have eliminated as much risk as you can.

PB: We use drones. Our office in Glasgow is in a grade B listed building. We still had to get up there, but we knew what we were going up to see. We knew where repairs had to be done, and we knew that we could do the risk assessment and method statement based on, there is a valley [on the roof], we’re not working outside that valley, so there’s no risk of fall. We’re not going over the top of the ridge.

James Sainsbury, international fall protection specialist, MSA Safety

James Sainsbury has worked in the fall protection industry for more than 15 years, initially with Latchways, fulfilling roles as design and specification team leader, area sales manager and account manager for Horizontal Systems, UK. After MSA Safety’s acquisition of Latchways, he recently became international fall protection specialist (architecture and roofing).

We’ve used virtual reality for roofing and confined space work. It allows operatives and decision makers to understand the risks

EH: With refineries we have a work-at-height element, but we also have a confined space element. So, when these big outages happen and operatives are dropping down the inside of structures, we’ve got a special camera that can withstand very high temperatures and we would access the inside of a structure. It’s [about] reducing and eliminating as much risk as we can. We know what we’re looking at before we even get in there. It’s fantastic technology, when used in the right circumstances.

JS: We’ve used virtual reality for roofing and confined space work. It allows not only the operatives but also the decision makers to really engage with the technology and understand the risks. To experience selecting the right protective equipment and gaining an understanding of why they need that equipment. You can take a virtual fall. You can experience falling a number of metres and self-rescuing. This allows you to think: “If I do fall, what am I going to do now?”

EH: We don’t use virtual reality. We work so high that we climb test all of our operatives. Virtual reality is excellent but it’s still not the same as being 150 m up in the air. It would be excellent for hazard perception. It comes back to culture and continual risk assessments. If you could have some kind of virtual reality programme, where an operative had to be taken through the steps of work at height, maybe accessing a working area and being aware of the hazards around them, that would be very useful in a very safe environment. It would open up discussion in a training context as to where the hazards were and how we’d respond to them.

AH: There is technology being developed for the scaffolding industry for new trainees to get a feel for what it’s like to work at height and the perception of those hazards. What is a risk? How do they change their complacency of being on a scaffold with double handrails and a fully boarded platform to working over water, for instance? That will give you an idea of what you have to look at when you’re working above water or on high-rise buildings. Although that will be useful to trainees, I’m not so sure experienced scaffolders will find that to be a benefit. We’d like to think that they’ve had their training and experience and are competent to carry out the work. But anything unusual and new could be used to have a run-through prior to going out on site and building that particular structure.

JS: What it does allow you to do is update the software for new technologies. It allows you to roll that out to app-based platforms on which you can share it with people on the ground as a refresher. It’s never going to replace the need for specific, dedicated training.

NW: Cost is obviously an issue, particularly for smaller businesses. If we are going to use technology to help to improve safety, do you see any technologies that could help?

PB: One area that presents possibly a game-changing opportunity is developing mobile apps that are in the hands of people at the sharp end to get information to the people who need it. We’ve yet to scratch the surface in terms of the power of that. For instance, recording inspections. The technology is there. So, record the inspection, geo-position it, time stamp it, date stamp it, allocate it to the person who’s put it together. A mobile app could record an operative’s work. That can then be added to their continuing professional development (CPD). You are making it easy for people to demonstrate experience.

Eleanor HillEH: That starts your culture rolling, doesn’t it? It’s getting buy-in from each and every individual operative in their career in their working progression. As soon as they’ve got buy-in in their career progression they’ve got buy-in on safety.

JS: In our training culture we adopt that mentality. It’s useless giving a week’s training every year. If you can show that you’ve engaged, that you’ve demonstrated that skill on site, that you can showcase that in your work and the reporting, you can keep that refresher training to a minimum, which minimises the cost and the exposure and keeps that understanding going. Operatives can impart that knowledge to their colleagues.

EH: I know what training operatives enjoy and don’t enjoy. You don’t want operatives to switch off training. You want operatives who want to learn. You want operatives who want to be engaged when they sit in a training centre. Obviously, there’s training that’s mandatory, that they have to do. But then we also try to give them the very exciting, informative courses that are going to help them progress. They come back buzzing.

AH: The scaffolding industry introduced a CPD programme around two years ago and a lot of people were up in arms that they would have to attend. “I’m already a qualified scaffolder, but now I have to go back to the classroom.” It’s a two-day course and goes through changes in legislation since the last time they qualified. Around 90% of responses have been that they’ve learned something. Those who were against it at the beginning have changed their minds. Everyone agrees CPD is the way forward for our industry.

NW: We have already touched on culture but, when we talk about work at height, what do we mean by safety culture?

EH: It’s a very hard one to define, isn’t it? The term “safety culture” gets bandied about all the time. It’s more than being safe because you don’t want to lose your job, or you want to satisfy your boss, or because you know it’s important and you know what the rules are. It’s got to be very personal to the individual. It’s all about teamwork, about believing that nobody should get hurt. That you are responsible for yourself and others. Making sure that everyone goes home safe.

When we think about the personal aspect it’s [about] understanding the ripple effect as well. Anybody who has ever heard Jason Anker speak, he talks emotionally about the ripple effect of how it affected his children and his family. [Anker was paralysed from the waist down after falling from a ladder in 1993 and is now a speaker on behavioural safety training.] If an organisation, be it a trade association or a contracting company, can get everybody to buy into the fact that it can have far-reaching impacts, then you’ve got your safety culture. That’s what should drive you.

Cam-30AH: The issue is that smaller companies are not imparting the culture of going home safe after a day’s work… their attitude is often, “Get the job done as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible”. If you don’t change that mindset, you won’t have much chance of raising the bar.

JS: I don’t think any of us wake up wanting to put ourselves in danger, but it’s the unknown danger, the unknown risks you need to be aware of.

PB: Jason Anker is one of the ambassadors of the No Falls Foundation. We put his video on at the start of the Ladder Association training course for the simple reason that, for those who are sent along to a ladder training course, they very much feel, “This is a waste of my time, and I’m just ticking a box”. But when they see the video they realise that’s why they are there. It’s time for people to accept and realise that people should be trained to use ladders because they’re every bit as dangerous, some even say more dangerous, than other work-at-height equipment.

We’ve just commissioned a further video from Jason Anker’s daughter, which is “Abbi’s Story”. Her story tells of the aftermath, not just how it affected her father and how it’s affected her, but how it’s now affecting his grandchildren. What people don’t realise is, generally with falls from height, it’s not a minor injury, it’s a major injury. It’s going to affect the rest of your life. If you take those numbers and add to them, and add to them, year after year, there are a lot of people out there whose lives have been changed and continue to be changed by a fall from height.

JS: It’s not overly relevant for falls from height, but my father was in the construction business his whole life and, 40 years after his exposure to asbestos, he lost his life. That’s part of me, part of my DNA. It’s something I pass on to my children and friends when they’re doing DIY projects. It’s understanding those risks.

PB: We have not even touched on the domestic environment. I could not begin to guess how many injuries there are there.

AH: The large DIY stores. I don’t know why they can’t be doing a little bit more on instructional videos on basic DIY use of work-at-height equipment or something of that nature.

EH: One of the best cultural tools I’ve seen in an organisational context is from ExxonMobil. They have implemented a scheme called LPS, which is loss prevention system. It talks about a continual risk assessment, so they give their employees and their contractor operatives a toolkit with seven tools.

But the [ExxonMobil] one that is particularly relevant is called SPSA, safe performance self-assessment. It is to do with this 24/7 hazard perception, risk assessment and continually asking, “What is the worst that could happen to me?”. It is this mental discussion, constantly assessing if the situation or the work environment has changed, constantly assessing if you need to stop. Have a bit of think about what’s going on and re-adjust what you’re doing. But then they talk about taking it home. So, when you drive out the gate at the end of a working shift, you’re still using hazard perception, you’re still assessing the risk.

NW: Do we need a major review of work-at-height culture? If so, what should it include?

JS: We have the work-at-height regulations, we have CDM, which has been recently updated and is a key driver. Can we do more? Of course we can. Education, driving that culture from the top down.

EH: There’s some fantastic stuff being done. Maybe it needs to be pulled together somewhere centrally. Think about the HSE – they’ve had their funding cut by just over 40% in the past ten years. There is not the money there for them as a body to pull things together. That’s ideally where it should sit.

Cam 40PB: I don’t want to sound as if we’re being negative all the time because the UK is one of the, if not the, best performing [countries] in the world. But that’s not saying that we can’t do better. I’ve been in this line of work for 40 years. Since the day I got involved, falls from height have been the number one cause of fatality and serious injury.

When I first went into the industry it was perfectly acceptable – not even perfectly acceptable but expected – that on a Friday lunchtime, down the pub, a couple of beers, and drive home. If you were caught by the police, it was considered to be pretty bad luck. Now, in the space of a fairly short period it has become socially unacceptable. I would like it to get to the stage where we have the same approach to unsafe work at height.

Also, maybe we need a different approach for those hard-to-reach groups that will not listen. We need to have all the good approaches of nudging them in the right direction, getting them to understand that this could have an effect on them and their family. But maybe there are some who will not be told. Maybe we should introduce a fine.

AH: There’s enough industry guidance that’s free. You can go on to the HSE website. You can download just about anything you want on work at height. But these guys are not taking up the opportunity to access that information.

NW: Should the HSE do more?

AH: It’s a difficult question. There should be more inspectors in the field holding these people to account. There are far too many incidents that go unreported because they don’t want to be prosecuted. They’ll tell someone, “Stay at home for a few days, sort yourself out and come back to work on Monday”. A lot of that goes on. We need to get to those people, but how?

EH: Trade associations. I sit on the council body for ATLAS and cannot remember the last time we had regular, continual dialogue with the HSE. That surely would be an ideal way for the HSE to start talking to industry – having an identified HSE representative who can start that dialogue with trade associations and then disseminate that information to their members. It still doesn’t get that swathe of people underneath who aren’t responsible contractors, aren’t members of trade associations.

AH: The HSE has two inspectors on the NASC health and safety committee, which produces guidance for the entire scaffolding industry. It has a member who sits on the technical committee that produces technical guidance. So we do have these people on board and their knowledge is fantastic.

EH: You’re a large trade association. We’re quite small, and it would start to pull in some of that smaller subset.

PB: The HSE is short both in terms of manpower and financial resources. One reason the Access Industry Forum was formed was so that the HSE could have a direct dialogue with the entire industry. It’s hamstrung and cannot do the things it would like to do. That is one reason we are pushing the APPG report Staying Alive. We’re saying we need to get to policymakers, we need to get to the government, to the politicians to say, “It needs to come from here. There needs to be a change and the changes are outlined in [the report].” The other thing is maybe it’s time for us to apply penalties. Any revenue that it generates would go back to do more work to get that virtuous circle going, to prevent and minimise the number of falls from height.

Cam-20NW: We touched on encouraging workers to disclose poor practice anonymously. How do we create a situation in some of the industries where it’s harder for the workers to feel they can do this?

EH: It’s the culture again and that woolly concept of trust. From the dialogue I have with my operatives, they want to know that something will change. You can report and report and report, but if nothing happens at the end of it they’re going to stop reporting. So, they’re fine to have buy-in, but they want to see things improving. They’ve got to understand that they’re giving the information, but that the people they are giving the information to will strive to make things better.

AH: We produce an annual report, which includes reporting from operatives, but it’s only the people who are regulated. It’s the unregulated scaffolding contractors that we don’t get the information on and they’re less likely to report it for fear of being prosecuted.

But if you are a trained and competent employee, would you really want to work for that type of organisation? Would you rather work for an organisation that treats you with respect and will give you the back-up you require? If you work for a “cowboy” company, that is not going to change. You can tell the manager, the boss, the owner whatever you like, but if his attitude is to get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible, they’re not going to implement any changes.

JS: It also comes back to having the data. We all know statistics don’t lie. There are fatalities out there. But it is understanding where they’re happening. A percentage of those will be happening during construction and some of them will be reactive maintenance as a building is going through its life. We can build the building safely, but how do we manage the smaller companies to understand they’re going up to a live building and they need the correct safety equipment? These companies may be very small, single-figure personnel companies. It’s disseminating the information to those companies.

PB: The APPG took evidence from two anonymous reporting systems. One was CROSS, the confidential reporting on structural safety. The other was CHIRP, which is the aviation and maritime industry’s anonymous reporting. There is no reason why this could not be rolled out in work at height. If we can get the data on near-misses at the precursor stage, we can hopefully prevent serious injuries and fatalities.

NW: Is there anything that we have missed?

PB: There are no organisations that are promoting the avoidance of work at height. There’s no remit to that. So, part of what the No Falls Foundation will be doing is commissioning the research into the causes of falls, what the underlying causes are. That will be fed by the enhanced reporting and the reporting of near-misses. Also, one of my bugbears is TV DIY shows. What troubles me is, with few exceptions, all the work at height is absolutely abysmal. I would like to put it out there that the work at height industry would like to advise the shows, free, how to do that safely.

EH: Maybe that is that continual risk assessment? That’s how we embed it into the culture and you get responsible operatives. You’ve got a responsible client, a responsible contractor, responsible operatives because they’re seeing it all the time and they’re seeing it in a familiar home setting as well.

Watch the videos


Nic Warburton is acting editor, IOSH Magazine

 Nick Warburton was previously acting editor of IOSH Magazine. Before that he was editor of SHP and he has also worked on Local Authority Waste and Recycling and Environmental Health Practitioner


  • Peter Bennett's comment

    Permalink Submitted by JEFFREY SMITH on 3 June 2019 - 07:58 am

    Peter Bennett's comment that, in terms of designers and clients, he has "not met anyone who takes responsibility seriously to eliminate risk of falls" needs to be challenged as it rather simplistic. What does he mean by "seriously"? Surely not everyone is just paying "lip-service"? As a designer and Principal Designer (the latter still being a misnomer after the HSE having tried planning supervisor and CDM-C), there are so many influences and influencers on design. Of course more can and needs to be done to eliminate or at least reduce risks but, in my experience, cost often over-rides everything else. For years I have tried to minimise the need for people to have to go on roofs for maintenance work but it cannot always be avoided owing to site restrictions elsewhere precluding the application of alternative solutions.

  • The outputs reflect spre

    Permalink Submitted by Dale Banham on 25 June 2019 - 09:32 am

    The outputs reflect spreadsheet management that is rife today! What is missing is the reality where irrespective of the size of clients the operative is a modern slave (do as you are told by clients and contractors - not subcontractors) due to procurement processes, tickbox site management and a constant reduction in CPH&S Plans. Over zealous risk averse approach through paper is the issue when many operatives who are trained but have to work to shortened deadlines, restrictive paper practices, and on SME sites danger plank access across beam storeys up! More adhoc unannounced visits will enable a full visual understanding.


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