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Working at Height Is Dangerous – Are You Doing Enough to Protect Your Staff?

Scaffolding on buildingWorking at height can be extremely hazardous and rigorous rules are in place to ensure that employers guard against the obvious risks. In one case, a company which failed to match up to its legal obligations was taken to task by a health and safety inspector and ended up embroiled in costly litigation.

The company had been engaged to carry out maintenance work on the roof of commercial premises. When a health and safety inspector made an unannounced visit to the site, two self-employed subcontractors were working on the roof, which was fitted with numerous fragile roof lights.

The method of work in use was to place plywood boards over the roof lights nearest to where the men were working. The company argued that that represented an ‘industry standard’ means of ensuring safety at heights and that the men were fully trained for the task they were carrying out.

The inspector took the view that the safety measures were inadequate and issued a prohibition notice, requiring work on the roof to cease until the matters set out in the notice were remedied. The notice was, however, subsequently overturned by an Employment Tribunal on the basis that the method employed was reasonably safe.

In upholding the inspector’s challenge to that decision, the High Court noted that no amount of training could rule out the possibility of a fall through an uncovered roof light due to illness, inadvertence or stupidity. The company had failed to provide necessary equipment to ensure the men’s safety or to take all reasonably practicable steps to minimise, or eliminate, the risk of such an accident.

Even if the method of work used conformed to standard industry practice, it did not follow that it necessarily complied with the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 or the Work at Height Regulations 2005. In those circumstances, the prohibition notice was upheld.