Work at Height


We are now several years on from the introduction of the introduction into UK law of the Work at Heights Regulations 2005. Despite that, not all organisations have come to terms with the implications of this law on their work activities.  Many organisations still view the Work at Heights Regulations 2005 as construction-related legislation. The truth is that the regulations apply to all working at height activities in all workplaces. This may include:

  • manufacturing areas
  • storage areas
  • fabrication areas
  • mixing areas
  • silos
  • walkways
  • gantries; etc.

In common with nearly all recent health and safety legislation, risk assessment lies at the heart of the Work at Heights Regulations 2005

The risk assessment process aims to avoid the need for working at height where this is reasonably practicable, but where this is not reasonably practicable, to introduce measures to prevent falls and to mitigate the effects of such falls.

Falls remain the biggest cause of Britain’s workplace deaths accounting for about 27% of workplace fatalities. Causes of typical accidents involving working at height include using ladders and stepladders incorrectly, overstretching from ladders and standing on benches or chairs to reach high surfaces. Accidents can also involve access equipment, such as mobile elevated work platforms (MEWP) and suspended access equipment (SAE); window cleaning cradles for example. The big question is how can a business keep its workers safe, and stay compliant with its legal and regulatory obligations?

What is work at height?

Under the Work at Heights Regulations 2005, work at height means:

  1. work in any place, including a place at or below ground level
  2. obtaining access to or egress from such place while at work, except by a staircase in a permanent workplace, where, if measures required by these Regulations were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. There is no minimum height requirement before these regulations apply (such as the two-metre rule) This means that not only must the employer consider elevated workplaces, but any workplace where there is a risk of injury from falling further. This includes areas around ground level openings into vehicle inspection pits and sumps, etc., it also includes areas below ground level where there is a risk of injury from falling.

Employers’ Duties

The duties imposed on an employer by the Work at Heights Regulations 2005 with respect to the employer’s employees will also apply to any other person under their control. Under the new Regulations, every employer must ensure that all work at height is:

  • planned properly
  • supervised appropriately; and
  • carried out in a manner which is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe
  • selection of suitable work equipment
  • provisions for dealing with emergencies and rescue; and
  • regard for weather conditions (where appropriate)

The employer shall ensure that no person engages in any activity (including organisation, planning and supervision) in relation to work at height or work equipment for use in such work unless they are competent to do so or, if being trained, is being supervised by a competent person.

Risk Assessment

As is common in modern health and safety, risk assessment is a key element of the regulations. Regulation 6(1) requires the employer to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks arising from any work at heights. There will be no need for a specific risk assessment dealing with working at height if this subject has been dealt with fully and satisfactorily in the risk assessments already completed for compliance with Regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. For many employers, it will be necessary to revisit these assessments or to complete new “working at height” risk assessments to ensure compliance with the new regulations.

Avoidance of risks from work at height

The employer is under a duty to avoid the need for working at a height where it is reasonably practicable to do so (Regulation 6(2)):

“Every employer shall ensure that work is not carried out at height where it is reasonably practicable to carry out the work safely otherwise than at height.”

Work must be carried out in a manner such employees are not placed at risks of injury from falling from a height if this is reasonably practicable. Where reasonably practicable, work should be carried out at ground level (such as by the use of long-handled tools) rather than at height. This applies to maintenance activities as well as to assembly and production activities.

Prevention of falls

The requirement for prevention of employees working at a height from falling is introduced in Regulation 6(3):

“Where work is carried out at height, every employer shall take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

Where work involves access to areas from where a person may fall, access to that area must be prevented in some way. This may involve several solutions, such as:

  • the use of suitable scaffolding systems,
  • the use of mobile elevated work platforms and similar equipment,
  • the construction of suitable walls or guard-rails (including intermediary guard-rails and toe-boards),
  • the use of a harness and anchored lanyard that stops the person reaching the point from which they may fall (such as a 2m lanyard anchored 2.5 m from a fall, i.e. it is too short all allow the person wearing it to reach the edge over which they may fall).


The law on working at height requires employers to take into account the risk assessment when organising and planning work. That’s how the precautions (or control measures) required can be identified and work carried out with optimum safety. HSE’s clear advice is to avoid working at height whenever it is reasonably practicable to do so. That can mean using alternative methods such as telescopic water fed poles or, most simply of all, cleaning the windows from the inside. The next option should be using an existing place of work that is already safe: a balcony for example.

There are times when working at height is unavoidable. That’s when employers must make sure that the people doing the work are trained and competent, and that the equipment provided is suitable, properly maintained and will be correctly used.

Where use of the access equipment involves a risk of falling, additional measures to minimise the distance and consequences of any fall must be put in place. Prevent any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury (such as by the use of a scaffold platform, erected by a competent person, with double guard-rail and toeboards).

Equally importantly, arrest a fall with equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall. Options include safety nets, where work at height cannot be avoided or the risk of falling prevented.

Many HSE investigations of work at height accidents have been investigated and employers have been prosecuted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most common findings is that the work was not properly planned and supervised. Follow links to some HSE Prosecutions for Work at Height: Warburtons CaseTesco Case

Mitigation of the effects of falls 

The employer is under a duty (Regulation 6(5)) to mitigate the effects of falling from a height where it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks of the employee falling.

“Where the measures taken under paragraph (4) do not eliminate the risk of a fall occurring, every employer shall take:

  1. suitable and sufficient measures, including the provision of work equipment, to minimise—
    1. the distance and consequences; or
    2. where it is not reasonably practicable to minimise the distance, the consequences, of a fall; and
  2. without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (3), such additional training and instruction or other additional suitable and sufficient measures to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, any person falling a distance liable to cause personal injury

There are several ways of mitigating the effects of a fall from a height, these include:

  • the use of a suitable fall arrest system,
  • the use of suitably positioned and secured safety nets,
  • the use of rail lock systems on vertical ladders,
  • the use of suitably sited, specially designed airbags (note, there are, currently, no British or European Standards for such equipment),
  • etc.

The specific requirements relating to suitable fall arrest systems are outlined in Schedule 5 to the Working at Height Regulations. Where a risk on a person being injured by a fall exists, the regulations require the use of suitable falls prevention measures and fall mitigation measures. This is a case of both, not either/or.

Falling Objects

Regulation 10 establishes a statutory duty on the employer to take suitable and sufficient steps to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, injury to any person arising from falling objects.

In the case of elevated work and storage areas (such as mezzanine floors), this may mean the provision of: suitable, secure storage facilities; suitable toe boards; suitable fencing or netting; solid walls in place of guard railings; etc.

Danger areas

The Regulations place a duty of the employer to ensure that an area where there remains a residual risk of any person being injured as a result of either a fall or as a result of being struck by a falling object is indicated clearly. As a minimum standard, suitable warning signs (complying with the provisions of the Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996) must be displayed.


There has been a great deal of discussion on how the Work at Heights Regulations 2005 affects the use of ladders. The use of ladders is permissible only if the risk assessment has demonstrated that the use of more suitable work equipment is not justified because of the low risk and there is a short duration of use or the existence on site of features which the employer cannot alter.

The above will have the effect of making it difficult to justify the use of ladders for many tasks. Employers will need to consider suitable alternatives, which could include the appropriate use of tower scaffolding and the use of podium steps. Where ladders are used to gain access to elevated work levels, consideration should be given to the provision of a suitable stairway as the primary means of access and egress.

Inspection and records

The employer must make suitable arrangements for all places of work at height, and all equipment used for working at heights, to be checked/inspected by a competent person, with suitable records being kept.

Selection of contractors for working at height

Even when the work at height is contracted out, the employer still has responsibilities. When selecting contractors to work at height, an employer must ensure that the contractor is competent to do such work. In brief, the employer should: Determine the experience and competence of the contractor by addressing the types of questions below:

  • Do they have experience in the type of work?
  • Is this supported by references?
  • Do their workers have any appropriate qualifications, training and experience? (such as in the use of tower scaffolds, cherry pickers, etc.)
  • Are the contractors members of a trade or professional body?
  • What is their safety performance like (accident, incident and prosecution history)?
  • Can the contractor provide examples of methods of work, risk assessments, etc.
  • Do contractors have suitable procedures for managing health and safety?
  • Will the contractor be using subcontractors (and how will this be managed)
  • How will the contractor supervise and manage their site work?
  • How will the contractor monitor and check their safety standards?
  • How will the contractor inspect and check their equipment (both owned or hired)?
  • Do they have adequate insurance?


Work at height is still the major cause of death within the workplace. All work at height activities need to be risk assessed, with a view to avoiding the need to work at height. Where this is not reasonably practicable, the work at height needs to be carried out in such a way as to ensure the safety of all those involved.

Risk Assessment

Health & Safety Risk Assessment is a key element in an effective Health & Safety Strategy – not only that, they are a legal requirement!

Are you doing the right ones, correctly?

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