Work at height
Work at height covers all work activities where there is a possibility that a fall from a distance that is liable to cause injury could occur. The definition in the regulations states work at height is:
(a) work in any place, including a place at or below ground level;
(b) obtaining access to or egress from such place while at work, except by a staircase in a permanent workplace, where, if measures required by these Regulations were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.
This includes work above ground/floor level and areas where falls could occur from an edge or through an opening or fragile surface, or falls from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground.
This is regardless of the work equipment being used, the time a person spends working or the height at which the work is performed. Fire and rescue services must be aware that any place of work could potentially include a work at height environment, depending on local conditions and circumstances.
Note: work at height does not include a slip or a trip on the level, as a fall from height has to involve a fall from one level to a lower level, nor does it include walking up and down a permanent staircase.
The primary function of the work at height regulations is to legally require employers, including the fire and rescue service, to ensure that all work at height is risk-assessed, properly planned, appropriately supervised and carried out in a manner that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe. The regulations state that plans should include planning for emergencies and rescue.
Examples of work at height include:
- All training or work where there is a risk of falling
- Using any ladder including roof ladders
- Working on an aerial appliance decking or platform
- Working on the roof of an appliance
- Rope rescue work and training
- Working in confined space
- Working on cliffs
- Working on tower cranes
- Firefighting and rescues on embankments, docks and quays
- Offshore firefighting
- Working on fixed structures
- Working close to an excavation area where someone could fall
- Working near a fragile surface
- Maintaining vehicles and property
Establishing safe systems of work
Fire and rescue service personnel should only work at height when absolutely necessary. Where there is a risk of falling from height, the hierarchy 'avoid, prevent, minimise' should be used:
- Avoid work at height where it's reasonably practicable to do so
- Where work at height cannot be avoided, prevent falls by using an existing safe place of work, such as a non-fragile roof with a permanent edge protection
- Where risk cannot be eliminated, minimise the distance and consequences of a fall by using collective and personal protection
To reduce risk of injury or damage, personnel should always consider using alternative methods before committing to higher-risk options. For example, for access to a dangerous structure, they should consider using aerial appliances instead of rope-based or ladder systems.
When essential, work at height can be achieved in various ways.
Ladders vary in length and are usually manufactured from aluminium using a riveted and trussed construction. Double or triple extensions are commonly used in the fire and rescue service.
Turntable ladder (TL): A self-supporting and power operated extension ladder mounted on a turntable. The ladder assembly is mounted on a self-propelled chassis above the rear axle. The ladder usually consists of a main ladder and three or four telescopic extensions.
Hydraulic platform (HP): A platform attached to two or three booms, which are hinged together and assembled on a self-propelled chassis. The lower boom (or booms) pivots in a vertical plane, while the third takes the form of a hinged or telescopic extension arm at the upper end of the second boom.
Aerial ladder platform (ALP): These appliances combine the principle features of turntable ladders (TL) and hydraulic platforms (HP) on a single appliance.
A working platform is any platform that can be used as a place of work or as a means of access to or egress from a place of work at height (aerial appliances fitted with a cage are deemed a working platform). Working platforms can also include any place of work on a scaffold, cradle, mobile platform, trestle, gangway, gantry or stairway.
All working platforms should be properly supported and provided with guard rails and barriers set at an appropriate height. Working platforms must be used in accordance with manufacturer's instructions.
Rope access and rope rescue
Rope access and rope rescue can be achieved using a variety of systems and with many types of equipment. Systems can be used in isolation or in conjunction with other work at height equipment, including working platforms and aerial appliances.
Specialist wire systems
In UK fire and rescue services, these systems are generally only used by nationally accredited urban search and rescue (USAR) teams or, in some cases, specialist rope rescue teams.
The line access and casualty extrication equipment (LACE) used by USAR teams usually involves wire winches, rather than fabric rope systems, in circumstances where there is an increased risk of damage such as in a collapsed structure or confined space environment.
Collective and personal protection
Collective protection is equipment that does not require the person working at height to act for it to be effective, i.e. collective protection offers effective protection to more than one person. Where practicable, collective fall protection should always take precedence over personal protective equipment (PPE). An example of collective protection is a guard rail.
When planning work, the safest practical option should be selected; however, fall arrest may be the only option in certain circumstances. Fall arrest systems are designed to halt the operator after they have fallen and slow their descent to a level where the kinetic energy created by the fall is gradually dissipated to reduce the risk of injury. Once the fall arrest system has been used, it may no longer be fit for further use (as in the case of personal fall arrest lanyards), so a pre-planned rescue system may also need to be set up to recover the stranded user.
Fall arrest systems commonly used in industry and fire and rescue services comprise a full-body fall arrest harness, a suitable anchor system and a fall arrest attachment. The fall arrest attachment may take the form of:
- Personal fall arrest lanyards
- Mobile fall arrest devices
- Retractable fall arrest block (inertia reel)
Some examples of where fall arrest may have to be deployed are:
- On fragile structures/surfaces
- Climbing a steel vertical ladder
- Climbing a latticework tower or mast
- Traversing along a latticework structure such as a crane jib
When fall arrest is used as a method of fall protection, the risk of falling remains. Continuous attachment to suitable anchor(s) must be maintained, and anchor position, potential fall distance, length of attachments and available clearance must be continually assessed.
Any work at height should include the provision for timely rescue and evacuation.
Whichever system or technique is selected, fire and rescue services and operational commanders must always carry out an analytical risk assessment, which relies on the experience and knowledge of the incident commander. In certain circumstances, the outcome of this risk assessment may be to withdraw temporarily until subject matter experts with appropriate knowledge and experience can assess the situation.
For more information, please refer to the HSE guidance for working at height.