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Working at Height - FAQ's

Date posted: 10 January 2017

What is “Work at height", and how do I comply with the law?

“Work at height" refers to a whole host of work scenarios in which you could find yourself falling a distance that could potentially cause personal injury. Basically, a fall from height involves a fall from one level to a lower level.

Whether you're working from above ground or floor level, or in an area in which you could fall from an edge or through an opening or fragile surface, this involves working from height. You could even fall from ground level into a hole in the ground or an opening in the floor.
In many common DIY, cleaning and decorating jobs working at height involves working from a stepladder or ladder, and in these situations over-stretching is a major cause of falls. Even standing on a chair or bench to clean high surfaces puts you at risk of a fall from height.

To avoid potentially such accidents it is crucial to plan your job properly, and to use the right equipment. And, if you don't feel competent, experienced or suitably trained yourself to carry out the job safely, it is time to bring in someone who is.

Here we take a look at some frequently asked questions about working up ladders or from any height:


What must I do to comply with the Work at Height Regulations 2005?

These regulations apply to all work at height scenarios. They place duties on employers and those such as building owners or facilities managers who control any work at height activity. These duties include ensuring that:

  • all work at height is properly planned and organised, including a thorough risk assessment and careful selection of appropriate work equipment
  • those undertaking work at height are competent and use the appropriate equipment
  • the equipment used  is properly maintained and regularly inspected
  • any risks of working on/near fragile surfaces are properly managed

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 provide comprehensive details.


How can I establish whether or not someone is 'competent' to work at height?

Ensure that those working at height have sufficient skills, knowledge and experience to carry out the task. If they are being trained they need to be working under the supervision of somebody who is fully competent.

If the job involves using ladders for a short duration in a low-risk scenario, you may simply need to ensure employees receive instruction on how to use the equipment safely (e.g. how to tie a ladder properly so that it is secure) and appropriate training, which may take place on the job.

Where more technical competence is necessary, for example creating a plan for assembling a complex scaffold, you may need to consider looking for employees whose competence is demonstrated by training and certification from recognised trade associations/industry.

Using ladders and stepladders

Is a ladder the right equipment for the job?

Ladders are fine for low-risk work that also does not take too long to undertake. Your risk assessment needs to demonstrate that this is the case, and therefore that using equipment offering a higher level of fall protection is not justified. In other scenarios, it may be that ladder use is justified because there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered to accommodate safer equipment.

However, if the task demands remaining up a leaning ladder / stepladder for more than 30 minutes at a time you should consider alternative equipment. Ladders should also be avoided if it is not possible to set them up safely - i.e. level, stable and secure.

What is a "working platform"?

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 changed the meaning of working platforms, which were previously regarded as fully-boarded platforms with handrails and toe boards. Now a working platform can be almost any surface from which work can be carried out, including:

  • a roof
  • a floor
  • a platform on a scaffold
  • mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs)
  • treads of a stepladder

What rules apply to the use of guard rails on working platforms?

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 say that in construction work handrails must have a minimum height of 950mm, and that any gap between the top rail and any intermediate rail should not be greater than 470mm. Toe boards also need to be suitable and sufficient.

In work other than construction there are no specific dimensions prescribed for guard rails, although they – as well as toe boards, barriers and other collective means of protection –  need to be of sufficient dimension to protect a person from falling through / over them. HSE's operational guidance does however say that guard rail heights in non-construction activities should be 950mm, and if protection is below this limit it would need to be justified based on the risk assessment.

The HSE says that for buildings, factories, warehouses, offices, public buildings, retail premises and so forth, sufficient dimensions for guard rails (or equivalent barriers) will be achieved by complying with the Building Regulations (i.e. guard rails must be 1100mm). For plant, machinery, equipment and so on, sufficient dimensions will be achieved by complying with any relevant EN standard. For example, BS EN 14122-3:2013, which covers the safety of machinery access, specifies the requirement of a top guard rail of 1100 mm.

What is the difference between 'collective' and 'personal' fall prevention measures?

The term "collective protection" is referring to equipment that does not require the person working at height to act in order for it to be effective (e.g. permanent or temporary guardrails, scissor lifts and tower scaffolds).
"Personal protection", on the other hand, refers to equipment that requires the individual to act in order for it to be effective, such as correctly putting on and then connecting a safety harness via an energy-absorbing lanyard, to a suitable anchor point.

Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPs)

What considerations should I make when using MEWPS?

  • Bear in mind the following factors whenever you are thinking of using a MEWP:
  • Height: How high from the ground does the job require workers to be?
  • Application: Do you have access to the appropriate MEWP for the specific job?
  • Equipment condition: Has the MEWP been examined, inspected and maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions?
  • Operators: Are those using the MEWP suitably competent, trained and fit to use the equipment?
  • Environment and ground conditions: Are ground conditions suitable for using a MEWP, for example is there a risk of the MEWP becoming unstable or overturning? Are there overhead hazards to consider, such as branches or power lines, or any protruding features that the MEWP could get caught on? Is there any passing traffic and, if so, what can you do to prevent any collision risk?
  • Restraint: Do you need to use either a work restraint (which prevents a person climbing out of the MEWP) or a fall arrest system (which prevents a person hitting the ground if they do fall out)?


Who can put up scaffolding?

Scaffold systems must be designed, erected, altered and dismantled only by competent people, and the work from scaffolds must be carried out under the direction of a competent supervisor – as required by the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

How can I prevent falls while putting up scaffolding?

Use an advanced guard rail system to help prevent falls or, where this is not possible, ensure that workers wear harnesses to arrest their fall in the event of such an accident.

How frequently must a scaffold tower be inspected?

Once the tower is built it needs to be inspected by a competent person:

  • before any use;
  • at suitable intervals, depending on the specific environment and use; and
  • whenever something happens that could potentially affect the tower's stability/safety.

Do I need to use a tag system on scaffolding?

A visual tagging system on scaffolding can help to manage scaffold inspection procedures. It supplements inspection reports and is a handy means of making sure anyone who needs access to the scaffold knows that it has been inspected and is deemed safe for use.

Although such tag systems are not a legal requirement, the law does require inspection of scaffolding from which a person might fall two metres or more and the issue of a report by a competent person, on completion and at least weekly after that point. Your risk assessment may reveal the need for more frequent inspection of scaffolding, and additional inspection may also be required following bad weather conditions -- and always after any modification to the structure.

What safety considerations should I make when using a Mobile Access Tower (Scaffold Tower)?

If you are considering using a scaffold tower you will need to be competent in erecting, using and dismantling the scaffolding. Essential safety features should be supplied when you purchase or hire the tower, including:

  • comprehensive user instructions which cover one of the two recognised safe assembly and dismantling methods;
  • purpose built platforms incorporating trapdoor entry and exit, with enough platforms for them to be installed at 2 metre height intervals during assembly and dismantling;
  • guardrails fitted all the way around every platform at a minimum height of 950mm, and with a maximum vertical gap of 470mm between guardrails and platform;
  • a built-in access ladder/staircase to enable safe ascent and descent from the tower;
  • four stabilisers of the appropriate size for the height of your chosen tower; and
  • toe boards that prevent materials from falling from the tower.

What are the two recognised safe assembly and dismantling methods for scaffold towers?

They are:

  1. Advance Guardrail (AGR): Guardrail side frames are installed before anyone gets onto the platform – with installation from ground level for the first platform level, and from the protected position of a platform below for each higher platform level.
  2. Through The Trap (3T): Guardrails are put in place before stepping onto the platform – the operator is positioned within the open trap door, seated on the platform, from which position they install/remove the guardrails.

You can get legal clarity, referring to the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (as amended) from the HSE.

Best at hire has a wide range of Access hire equipment suitable for both DIY and building projects which involves working at height. For safe advice and the best platform for your needs, speak to one of our representatives today.


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