Working at Height – Greater Urgency Needed

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For anyone working in health and safety or with an interest in accidents caused by falls from height, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) annual report on workplace fatalities makes for depressing reading. Depressing in terms of the results and the fact they are so predictable given the category “falls from height” consistently tops the table in fatal accident causes.

Common causes of accidents while working at height include the incorrect use of ladders and stepladders, as well as using unsafe methods to reach a high location, such as standing on a chair or box. Workers are also hurt or killed as a result of falls from roof edges and through un-secure roofs, as well as from working platforms, scaffolding, and access equipment.

What is happening in relation to accidents that occur when working at height? What do the statistics tell us? Do we have enough information? What more can be done to reduce falls from height across the whole spectrum, from near misses to serious injuries to fatalities?

Still the leading cause of workplace fatalities, but is there a downward trend?

According to data reported through RIDDOR, 29 people died as a result of a fall from height in the workplace in 2019/20. That number is down on the previous year and the five-year average but falls from height still account for around 25 percent of all workplace fatalities. This makes falls from height the leading cause of fatal injury in the workplace ahead of being struck by a moving vehicle (which accounts for 18 percent of workplace fatalities).

What about the reduced level of death as a result of falls from height compared to recent years? The fact is we don’t yet know definitively if this is a downward trend or a one-off drop because of normal statistical fluctuations. The Covid-19 pandemic could also have had an impact as several weeks of pandemic-related lockdown are covered in these figures.

Time will tell whether there is a downward trend, and we’ll probably have to wait until we have a full 12 months of lockdown-free statistics. However, the fact remains that falls from height remain a major risk factor for workers in the UK.

Furthermore, even if falls from height fatalities are reducing, there is no room for complacency. That statistic, however big it is in future years, represents real people who went to work one day and never came home.

Do we know enough?

Even a cursory look into the figures shows we are only scratching the surface in relation to our knowledge of the working from height problem in UK workplaces.

For example, there were 5,214 reportable injuries caused by a fall from height in 2019/20. That is more than 14 every day.

The key phrase here, though, is reportable injuries, as this figure only covers injuries reported through RIDDOR. It is almost certain the number of falls from height incidents that occur every day will be significantly higher than 14.

This point is important as understanding the scale of the problem is crucial to pushing down the numbers further. After all, incidents reported through RIDDOR only account for accidents that result in either:

  • A specified injury such as a fracture or loss of consciousness.
  • An injury where the worker has to take more than seven consecutive days off work.

In other words, the RIDDOR figures that are regularly used to measure health and safety performance in the UK don’t include a potentially large number of falls from height accidents. Those accidents include injuries that are not specified and resulted in less than seven days off work, as well as many other potential situations.

Even within the RIDDOR reporting rules, there are anomalies. For example, while fractures are a specified injury, there are exceptions for broken thumbs, fingers, and toes. This is despite the fact, for example, there might only be marginal differences in the circumstances between a fall from height that results in a fractured wrist and one that results in a fractured thumb. Under RIDDOR, however, one is reportable, and one might not be.

All the above is even before we consider near misses, which are not reported or counted, and deliberate under-reporting.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Working at Height found compelling evidence of the latter as it was preparing its 2019 report, Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injury and Fatalities while Working at Height. It heard evidence that reportable falls from height incidents are not being reported because individuals and companies are afraid of the legal repercussions and the impact that a claim will have on insurance premiums.

What do we know?

While there is much we don’t know about falls from height fatalities, injuries, and incidents, there are some things we do know. These things can help bring us closer to a resolution that will reduce fatalities and serious injuries. As the work of the APPG is recent, it is a good place to start.

Firstly, the APPG looked at the reasons behind falls from height accidents in the workplace with the aim of finding the root causes. So, not reasons like the incorrect use of a ladder, but the circumstances that led to the situation being possible in the first place.

There are four reasons that stand out:

  • Employee culture – where employees become complacent when they regularly work at height. In these situations, corners are cut, and unnecessary risks are taken, not least when workers start thinking accidents happen to other people and not to them.
  • Lack of planning – this involves poor planning in a variety of areas, including risk assessments, design considerations, and risk mitigation. There also appears to be a significant lack of understanding of what planning is required, in addition to poor execution.
  • Training inadequacies – this includes training at all levels, including managers, supervisors, and workers. Of course, training is an issue that is always brought up when there are discussions about working at height. However, the APPG identified more than the usual working at height training requirements. They also found a problem in UK workplaces where managers don’t have good soft skills, so they find it difficult to properly communicate and motivate employees in relation to working at height policies and expectations.
  • Client considerations – many falls from height are in highly competitive sectors like construction, where employers and workers might cut corners to meet a deadline or reduce costs to win a contract.

What needs to change?

Again, we can turn to the APPG’s 2019 report as a starting point. For example, one of the report’s recommendations is to introduce the Scottish system of conducting Fatal Accident Inquiries across the UK.

Under the Scottish system, all workplace deaths, including those where the cause is a fall from height, are investigated in court, and the outcomes are made publicly available. The APPG believes introducing a similar system in the rest of the UK will improve the availability of information in relation to falls from height fatalities. The group also believes the Scottish system is better at holding employers to account.

The APPG also recommended enhanced reporting through RIDDOR to get more information on reportable falls from height accidents. Another recommendation was the creation of an independent body for the confidential reporting of any fall from height accident or near-miss, whether it meets the RIDDOR criteria or not.

The first of the above will improve our understanding, but it is quite narrow in scope. The success of the second depends on the quality of communication that will ensure all workers in the UK are aware this new body exists… if it is ever created. Even if it is set up, will workers use it?

It’s also important to ask why we don’t make a wider range of falls from height officially reportable rather than the suggested optional method. This could be through RIDDOR or another mechanism.

Going further

Looking beyond the APPG’s recommendation, there needs to be a discussion about our objectives in relation to working from height. In two of the APPG’s recommendations, the objectives seem to be, at least in part, about holding employers to account. That is undoubtedly required, but we also need to consider the evidence pointing to an under-reporting of falls from height incidents.

How do we square this circle, where those placing workers in danger, either through action or inaction, are held to account while also taking a society-wide learning and improvement approach rather than a default to punishment?

These are big questions, but there is one thing that is for certain – action needs to be taken with greater urgency than it is now.

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