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Don’t Leave Safety to Chance When Working at Height

For those working at height, a company has a legal obligation to provide the necessary training and equipment to protect workers from falls.

For those working at height, a company has a legal obligation to provide the necessary training and equipment to protect workers from falls. However, it seems that some companies are still unawares as to what appropriate height safety equipment includes.

Last month, Davidson Williams (Merseyside) Ltd, a steel fabrication company, was fined £3,500 for failing to provide adequate health and safety protection to its employees. Three men were spotted working on a leaking sloping warehouse roof 16m above the ground in Birkenhead on 24 November 2011. The only equipment the men were using to protect themselves was hard hats and high visibility jackets, neither of which would have done much good had one (or more) of the men fallen.

And it gets worse. The sloping roof was covered in 400 clear plastic panels, any of which could have easily broken away had they been stepped on. Luckily, a concerned member of the public sent photographs to the HSE, who then led the prosecution against the company.

In 2010/11, the HSE reported 38 deaths as a result of a workplace fall in Great Britain, with another 4,000 suffering a major injury. In fact, falls from height are the biggest cause of workplace fatalities. Failure to provide appropriate equipment and training, as is the case with Davidson Williams (Merseyside) Ltd, puts lives in danger and, as these figures show, leads to severe consequences for the workers and the company involved. Christina Goddard, a HSE Inspector, proclaimed that the men involved in this case were fortunate given the risks involved. She also urged companies not to attempt to cut costs when it meant a compromise in health and safety.

Ms Goddard also pointed out the various ways in which “this work could have been carried out safely, including using harnesses, installing netting under the fragile panels, or erecting scaffolding. But none of these methods was chosen by the company.”

In this case it’s fairly obvious to see where Davidson Williams went wrong. There was absolutely no consideration for the health and safety of the three employees, although the motivations for this are unclear. Yet, what is a company’s responsibility when it comes to working at height?

Companies need to fully assess the situation to decide whether working at height is absolutely necessary. If this is deemed the case, then preventative and protective equipment needs to be provided, including a guardrail to prevent falls over the edge of the roof or through a fragile area, a fall arrest or work restraint system for if a fall should happen, and suitable anchoring. Employees also need to be fully trained so that they can use this equipment safely, maintain equipment appropriately, and understand and be able to execute rescue procedures.

In the Wirral case, the roof should also have been assessed to establish whether the surface was suitable for standing and working on. Roofs which are fragile, sloping, slippery and easily damaged put workers at risk, bearing in mind that all roof surfaces may become fragile with age and so need to be checked and assessed by a competent person.

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