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Reliance on compliance is where working at height falls down

For most in the construction industry, working at height isn’t a question of if, but rather when.

From builders and roofers, to engineers and project managers, there comes a point when working at height is simply the only option. 

At this point, the most common questions asked are: what planning do I need to do?

What equipment is needed?

What constitutes a competent person, and how do I ensure I’m compliant?

No single answer

These are all good questions and certainly ones that should be asked. Unfortunately, there’s no single way to answer it.

The current regulations stipulate that employers and those in control of any work at height activity must make sure work is “properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people.

This includes using the right type of equipment for working at height.”

Compliance also depends on a number of factors, such as; the height of the task, the duration, conditions, and whether machinery is involved.

For any job where working at height is required, these assessments need to be made before commencement of the task to help identify the processes, equipment and practices that need to be put in place to ensure compliance and minimise risk.

Free resources

The Health and Safety Executive website provides a number of good free resources to help make those assessments.

While ‘the compliance question’ should be asked, with falls from height still the most common cause of workplace fatalities, accounting for 29 per cent of fatal injuries to workers, other questions that should be asked.

Can I avoid working from height?

Can I prevent a fall?

If not, can I minimise the chances of a fall occurring?

Do I have suitable fall arrest?

By asking these questions before you start any working at height activity you’re much more likely to prevent an accident and will be half way towards compliance.

Changing behaviour

Having spent 35 years in the industry, the single biggest cause of injury when working at height is people.

You can give workers all the right safety equipment, the classroom training and every certification under the sun, but it will count for very little unless we change the way people think about safety.

To give an example, a common analogy I draw is driving a car.

“You can give workers all the right equipment, but it will count for very little unless we change the way people think about safety”

You wouldn’t throw children in the back of the car and drive off without checking they are wearing their seatbelt.

Likewise, even if you were a passenger in the same vehicle, most would double check that the kids are buckled in. 

This same line of thinking needs to be applied on site.

Workers need to look out for each other, double check that the right safety precautions are in place and identify areas where risk of an incident at height can be reduced.

Using a seatbelt

Going back to the car analogy, it wasn’t until 1983 when seatbelts became mandatory for all passengers travelling in the front of a car and then 1991 for passengers in the back of a car.

At the time, there was some resistance from parts of society who failed to see the importance of such regulations.

After years of enforcement and the clever campaigning of the ‘clunk-click, every trip’ adverts, wearing a seatbelt finally become second nature.

Today, officials estimate that the seatbelt has saved the lives of around 50 per cent of those people who’ve since been involved in a collision.

By wearing a seatbelt, motorists were compliant.

However, by reinforcing the message, and the underlying reason for why we needed to comply with the law, we were able to change attitudes and behaviour and ultimately save lives.

As an industry, we need to embrace this notion and ensure that staff are presented with the right education, training and messaging every day. 

By encouraging others to challenge unsafe behaviours, not only are they ensuring compliance, they could be saving lives as well as ensuring compliance. Otherwise, simply relying on complying will be our downfall.

Paul Hughes is head of safety, health, environment and quality at Hewden Stuart

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