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Have you got a head for heights?

PLANT HIRE - Phil Bishop hears how the Work at Height Regulations have affected the industry

IN 2003-04, falls from height caused 67 deaths and nearly 4,000 major injuries at work. According to the Health & Safety Executive, they remain one of the single biggest causes of workplace death and injury.

It is a key role of the HSE to reduce industrial accidents, so promoting safe work at height is a clear priority.

The int roduct ion of the Work at Height Regulat ions just over a year ago was the culmination of vigorous campaigning by the HSE over several years.

The regulations demand that working at height should be avoided.

If that is not possible, then steps should be taken to prevent falls by either working from a permanent, safe place of work at height, or by selecting the most suitable temporary equipment.

Any remaining risk of a fall should be m inim ised , for example, by using fall arrest equipment and/or erecting guard rails.

Despite sensational headlines in the tabloids suggesting the HSE was banning ladders, the Work at Height Regulations do no such thing.

They do, however, demand that a full risk assessment takes place before any work at height and proper planning is carried out, which therefore leads to seemingly more expensive alternat ives to ladders suddenly becoming more attractive.

David Graham, Speedy Hire's group sales and marketing director, says access equipment sales have increased significantly since the introduction of the Work at Height rules.

'The regs have had a big effect on people's behaviour, ' Mr Graham says, 'and that is being reflected in their purchasing strategy as well as their behaviour on site.

'People have looked at alternatives for working at height.

Manufacturers have responded with new equipment and so have the rental companies in stocking it.'

Speedy itself has spent £2.7 million raising awareness of the regulations, with a huge marketing campaign involving roadshows across the country.

'The issue has always been how do you change behaviour at site level, ' Mr Graham says.

A controversial aspect of the new regulations was the elimination of the so-called '2 m rule'. Under the previous regulatory regime, 2 m was defined as 'at height'. These regulations deliberately have no lower limit as HSE figures indicated that some 60 per cent of fall accidents involve falls from less than 2 m.

When introducing the regulations, the HSE policy division undertook to review the 2 m issue after the first year.

That review is now being carried out, although the May 15 deadline is now very close.

The HSE's report on this review is expected in October.

There are indications that, despite some continuing voices of dissent, most sceptics in the industry have been won round.

Richard Lockwood, head of the HSE's construction safety unit, offers strong evidence that the Work at Height Regulat ions have had a real impact.

The official statistics are still being processed and will not be published until November.

There are many anomalies in the way accidents are reported and recorded that need to be reconciled, with main contractors and subcontractors reporting the same accident twice, for example. But he says that indicators have been developed to track falls from height.

'The trend is really very strong, ' says Mr Lockwood. 'We are pretty sure that we've reduced major accidents from falls at height by 15 per cent.'

Major accidents, he says, are defined as 'broken bones, hospitalisation and life-threatening injuries'.

'We think the results are about the same for fatalities, ' he adds. That suggests that 10 lives have been saved in the last 12 months and 600 serious injuries prevented by the Work at Height Regulations.

Mr Lockwood's team has studied specific trades that are deemed to be particularly exposed to working at height. He says that among painters and decorators, major injury falls have declined 30 per cent.

Among electricians, according to a survey of larger members by the Electrical Contractors Association, major injury falls are down nearly 50 per cent.

'We think a lot of this has come out through the application of the regulations, ' Mr Lockwood says.

Painters and decorators were among the most vocal against the removal of the 2 m rule, expressing concern about extra cost for no benefit.

'But painters and decorators have found that they can st ill compete on price if they work off a platform and can improve productivity, ' Mr Lockwood says.

For the first year, the emphasis was on spreading the message about the new regulations and safe working at height. The softly-softly approach is coming to an end though. Contractors working on refurbishment jobs in particular should also be warned that HSE inspectors will start paying them more attention.

'We will be pushing harder with more formal enforcement actions this year, ' says Mr Lockwood. 'So far it has been about getting used to it. Now we are going to lift the enforcement profile.'