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Civil Engineer blog

Working at height - our duty to prevent harm and protect each other

17 February 2020

Working at height is the biggest single cause of fatal and serious injury in the construction industry. ICE’s Health, Safety & Wellbeing Panel Chair, Ciaran McAleenan discusses the duties and responsibilities of employers, contractors and individuals to protect workers and the public.

Working at height - our duty to prevent harm and protect each other
The dangers of working at height

The construction industry is prone to many hazardous situations, and there are times, if proper controls are missing, when it can be dangerous. As stated in the introduction work at height is the single biggest cause of fatal and serious injury in our industry, with over 60% of deaths during work at height involving falls:

Falls from height continue to happen

The industry has come a long way in implementing measures that protect workers on the construction and maintenance of infrastructure assets. Despite this progress, incidents can and do still occur, causing death or life-altering injuries. For example, in early 2020, a construction worker at University of Birmingham was fatally injured after falling from the lift at a building site. A second man involved in the incident was also seriously injured and remains in hospital at the time of writing.

Incidents such as this have reduced in frequency, however with a prevention through design approach to project delivery they could be eliminated. In 2018 the courts heard how an employee working in a loft space fell through a plasterboard ceiling onto the staircase below, sustaining a punctured lung, six fractured ribs, a fractured vertebra and a fractured shoulder. The HSE investigation found that there was poor planning of the pre-plaster work and a lack of understanding of the risks associated with working at height in the loft without adequate fragile surface protection.

In the aftermath HSE issued a reminder to construction companies and their advice serves as a stark reminder that those in control of the work need to understand the nature of the hazard, identify the risk of any exposure to it, plan to eliminate it if possible, or where it is not possible, take appropriate precautions to prevent workers and others from being harmed.

Protecting yourself, the workforce and the public

The damage caused by such workplace incidents can be immeasurable for those affected personally (the injured worker), for their families and their colleagues.

Not only must we protect the workforce, but we must also protect the public, for instance in an incident at Sellafield in October 2019 a member of the public managed to climb a disused 88-metre (290ft) chimney which had no ladder at ground level.

While the intention of highlighting this is not to dwell on or attribute blame to any persons or to comment on adequacy of precautions. That falls to the investigation to determine.

The incident is a reminder of the need to consider the risk of falling from heights on infrastructure in the built environment long after its construction and maintenance phase, indeed the requirement to consider the likelihood of harm is a whole-life consideration that extends right through until demolition.

Duties and responsibilities

Employers and self-employed contractors are legally obliged to assess the risk of working at height and plan the work, so it is carried out safely and healthily.

The designers’ responsibility, when considering a construction project is to prevent harm through a well-considered design, following contemporary best-practice.

Faced with the possibility of work having to be carried out at height designers should seek to avoid such a possibility by eliminating the hazard or the circumstances in which the workforce is exposed to it. Where avoidance isn’t possible mitigation measures are to be addressed.

Any control measures (including training and instruction) that designers consider appropriate should be made available to the contractor and client so that in future (throughout the whole-life of the structure) the hazard and precautions are known.

Method statements, widely used in the construction industry help manage the work and communicate what is required to all those involved. HSE states that the three key issues are:

  • Risk assessment (knowing the harm and its impact)
  • Precautions required (knowing what to do to prevent harm)
  • Method statements (documenting precautions, clearly and concisely

Full details and further guidance on protecting the workforce are available from HSE's website.

ICE learning programmes on work at height

ICE recognises that health and safety is one of the most important subjects that needs to be addressed at work, to maintain compliance with the law and to protect the workforce. To facilitate ICE members continued professional development, the Institution has published a suite of interactive and responsive modules related to health & safety, which includes a specific module on work at height.

View these at our ICE Learning Hub

  • Dr. Ciaran McAleenan, NI Committee Member & Chair of NI Region Expert H&S Panel