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Work at height in construction: Don't ignore 'low-risk'

Falls from height are an all too well known cause of injuries and fatalities in the construction industry. And not just in construction; according to statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2008/09 there were 35 deaths, 4,654 major injuries and a further 7,065 injuries in the UK due to a fall from height.

Yet it is still the case that despite the known risk from working at height many businesses in the construction sector are still in danger of putting their employees at risk by focusing their priorities in other areas.

There has been a rise, for example, in construction companies going into administration, which may mean firms are thinking more about cost control and less about health and safety.

As part of our Simply Safety campaign, we're warning the industry to pay attention to the risk from falls at any height – and to not allow projects to be thought of as 'low-risk' when they could in fact have disastrous consequences.

Take these statistics from the HSE, for example. Last year, there were 276 falls from height of over two metres in the construction industry. But look at the figures for falls from a height of two metres or less for the same period: 936 construction workers were fatally or seriously injured from falls from these heights.

So although much good work has been done in construction to raise awareness of the dangers of working at height, more can be done.

It is imperative that construction firms do not think that because a height is relatively small it can be deemed low-risk. It can't. Falls from lower heights have the potential to cause injury ranging from sprains and fractures to major head injuries – and even death.

Our liability risk manager Phil Grace says: "Remember there is a risk of falling when working at any height. Falls from heights of just a few metres can result in serious injury to employees."

In a recent incident, for example, the employee of a Yorkshire building firm broke vertebrae and was left disabled after falling only three metres from a terrace retaining wall. Tellingly, there was no guardrail in place.

"In recent years, a considerable effort has been made to make construction a less dangerous industry to work in and the number of accidents has reduced significantly," said Mr Grace.

"It is essential, however, that as the sector continues to be challenged by the current economic conditions that site managers do not allow health and safety to become less of a priority."

And it isn't just in construction that health and safety is in danger of becoming less of a priority.

Recent research by IOSH, the chartered body for health and safety professionals, shows British businesses are failing to take steps to effectively manage injury and illness in the workplace.

Its survey of more than 850 business figures in the UK shows that firms are overlooking the financial cost of workplace injury and illness.

Those polled were asked to identify the top three areas that they would invest in to improve their prospects out of a list of seven – and health and safety came second to last.

Training, sales and marketing and processes and operations were the top three investment choices for firms (at 65 per cent, 55 per cent and 55 per cent respectively).

Just 25 per cent chose health and safety, followed by staff incentives (24 per cent).

The majority of firms were also ignorant as to the true cost of workplace accidents and ill health to the British economy. Only seven per cent estimated the losses - £22 billion a year – correctly.

It is vital, then, that construction firms do not let health and safety fall by the wayside.

Crucially, the Work at Height Regulations, introduced in 2005, require employers to do all they can to minimise the risk of falls from heights. A failure to do this can result in heavy fines, or firms even being ordered to shut down operations.

Simple measures can be implemented to minimise the risk of an accident in work that carries that chance of an employee falling.

Those responsible for the management of sites need to undertake risk assessments to establish appropriate measures that need to be in place for work at height projects.

"Site managers should consider the nature and duration of the work and determine the appropriate means of safe access, such as scaffolding, a scaffold tower or a cherry picker," Mr Grace said.

"If working at height is necessary, protection, such as guardrails or nets, should be put in place to stop people falling. Roofs must be capable of carrying weight and skylights should be covered. In certain circumstances, personal protective equipment, such as a work restraint system, harness or lanyard, can be used."
Now may be a difficult time for the construction industry, but coping with financial pressures must not be at the expense of safety.

By implementing formal health and safety strategies, firms will be minimising the risk of falls from height, working to safeguard their employees in the process.