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Critical considerations when working at height

Each year many people are seriously injured and some even killed as a result of being struck by an object that has fallen from a height.

The dangers seem obvious, as do the measures we need to take to keep people safe. But the reality is that accidents and incidents continue to happen.

“We often underestimate how serious the potential outcome from such an incident will be”

Planning and organising working at height sits at the heart of Work at Height Regulations, with risk assessments needing to be completed to help decide what needs to be done to control the risks.

Tricky to predict

The rules go on to specifically cover the risks from falling objects (Regulation 10) and danger areas (Regulation 11).

However, when we are carrying out our risk assessments we often underestimate how serious the potential outcome from such an incident will be because it is usually impossible to predict what exactly will happen as something falls on its way to earth.

There could be a number of factors affecting the outcome of an incident that need to be considered. For example:

  • A falling object will not necessarily fall in a straight line – it may hit something on the way down or ‘sail’ away from the point it started from.
  • The heavier an object is and/or the further it falls, the more damage it could do.
  • Working inside or outside could have a bearing. If outside, then the wind may affect the way object might fall, for example.
  • When it hits the ground an object may bounce or roll; knowing where it may finally come to rest after this is likely to be a guessing game.
  • How the object strikes someone is also down to chance. A sharp edge could do more damage than a flat surface, or someone may receive a glancing blow rather than be struck square on.
  • The shape of the object or tool could also be important. A screwdriver or welding rod may become a spear.
  • Who might potentially be working beneath or above you – and how many – are important considerations.
  • There’s also the question of whether anyone could have moved underneath you without you knowing.

There may well be others but the above provides food for thought when assessing the risks.

Obvious safety question

We all have a part to play. Putting the right controls into place can also present challenges, but it is worth remembering that when it comes to working at height the first question to ask is an obvious one – yet is sometimes overlooked.

Namely: can the work be planned or organised in such a way that working at height is avoided?

“When it comes to working at height the first question to ask is an obvious one – yet is sometimes overlooked”

This will eliminate the risks associated with falling objects. Designers should carefully consider what can be done here. You can too.

Where working at height cannot be avoided, it becomes necessary to put controls in place.

Barry Thompson is a safety, health and environment adviser for Osborne

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