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Staying safe on scaffolds

Falls from height are the biggest single cause of deaths in the construction industry, with fragile roofs presenting one of the biggest safety risks.

Between 2004 and 2009 there have been around 30 deaths a year resulting from falls from height in the sector, with an estimated 20 per cent of these involving a worker falling through fragile materials.

To prevent deaths like these, it’s essential that work of any kind which requires access onto a fragile roof is properly planned and effective precautions are taken.

The use of scaffolding is a key temporary work at height precaution. Worryingly, our inspectors regularly find scaffolds that are not fit for use, having been poorly erected and often lacking adequate ties. We will not hesitate to take action where there is a serious risk to workers’ or the public’s safety.

Ensuring competence

All scaffolders must be trained and competent regardless of the size of the company they work for, and all equipment including scaffolding tubes, fittings and boards must be in good condition. 

They should be using the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation’s (NASC) TG20:08 as the standard for constructing scaffolding. HSE and NASC will soon be issuing a statement advising that this will be the only recognised standard from 2011, after BS 5793 was withdrawn several years ago.

To stay safe, scaffolders should follow SG4:05 which sets out safe systems of work to reduce the likelihood of scaffolders themselves falling. This guidance covers work sequencing and the use of harnesses and lanyards where protection cannot be provided by physical barriers. In 2008, Annex A to SG4 was issued in line with the requirements set out in the Work at Height Regulations 2005, prohibiting users from ‘tunnelling’.

These two sources of guidance can be obtained from NASC’s website at

Anyone using scaffolding should keep an eye on the website, as SG4 will be revised this year, and Appendix A guidance will be subsumed into the main document.

Many firms have moved to the use of advance guard rails which, in addition to safety benefits, can also prove more cost efficient with the systems being erected in half the time or less of other scaffolds.

Scaffolding is a useful safety tool when used properly, but can present risks of its own. Work at height is all about simple steps that can save lives.

For more information on scaffolding and working at height, visit


Philip White is chief inspector for construction at the HSE