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Learning lessons from the construction industry with Chris Epps, the Health and Safety Standards and Technical Co-ordinator from the NHBC.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), falls remain one of the main causes of fatal injury in Britain’s workplaces. In 2009/10 there were 26,061 reported major injuries to employees and of these, 16% related to falls from height.

Unsurprisingly, this percentage is higher in the construction industry and, according to figures from the House Building Federation, such injuries account for nearly 25% of all accidents. Health and safety surrounding working at height therefore remains of key importance for any workplace, and lessons taken from the construction industry can be applied across all sectors in the drive to keep employees safe.

“Working at height” applies to any employee who is working in a place from which they can fall. Theoretically this means that an employee could be just two or three inches from the ground or even working at ground level with space below them. However, the Work and Height Regulations, brought into force in 2005, make no distinction between low


and high falls; if an employee is deemed to be working ‘at height’, appropriate measures must be taken to prevent the risk of falling.

Initially, it is important to judge if working from height can be avoided all together; the window cleaning industry is a good example of where this has been achieved. It is now a rare sight to see cleaners on ladders; instead, window cleaners use extending poles from ground level, avoiding the risk completely.

Secondly, where working from height cannot be avoided, employers must install a safe working platform with solid barriers to prevent falls, perhaps using scaffolding with guard rails or cherry-pickers. Where individuals are working alone, harnesses and lanyards must be used to prevent falling to a place of danger.

Finally, if it is not possible to install safe working platforms, the impact of a potential fall should be minimised. On a construction site for example, erecting soft safety decks such as nets and airbags can minimise harm if an

accident happens.

Planning and communication is central to the success of these kinds of measures. Employers in every industry must mitigate the risks associated with working at height, taking into consideration aspects such as weather, visibility, complications and employee experience. Work equipment must be fit for purpose as well; working at height in the theatre for example harbours different risks to those presented in tree surgery.

As well as mitigating risk, effective communication can help ensure that people working at height understand the risks involved and how they can be managed. A breakdown in communication often signals the first problem for health and safety measures, and is made more difficult by the complexity of a project; in the housebuilding industry, it is common for many different tradesmen to work on a site at the same time, and without active feedback, accidents will be more likely to happen. A scaffold erected for one job, for instance, could be adapted by another tradesman

without the prior user’s knowledge, increasing the risk of a fall.

Effective communication is particularly vital when working with newer employees who may not have adequate experience and knowledge. Official statistics show that young workers in construction are more at risk of injury, and without effective and regular training and management from supervisors, this risk could increase.

At NHBC we are very aware of the dangers that working at height poses for the house building industry, and are proactively working with builders and developers to minimise risk. We help raise awareness by monitoring sites and investigating accidents. These risks are not localised to construction though, and with effective planning, communication and the sharing of best practice, falls from height across all professions can be minimised or avoided all together.

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