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The dangers of working at height are easy to neglect because the hazards around working with electricity seem more urgent. Here Dr Julie Riggs DProf MSc CMIOSH, Lead Diploma Tutor at Phoenix Health and Safety discusses the key issues for the electrical industry.
Cables and installations are often located overhead, so for electrical professionals working with ladders and other lifting equipment 'goes with the territory'. The latest annual statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that working from height was the most frequent cause of fatal accidents to workers in 2017, accounting for 28% of the total.
There were also 43,000 non-fatal accidents involving falls from height across all industries. Over 60% of deaths during work at height involve falls from ladders, scaffolding, working platforms and roof edges, and falls through fragile roofs are also a significant factor. These are everyday risks for anyone who works in the electrical industry, and that's why working from height safely needs to be a continuing priority.
What's the most likely cause of accidents?
According to the HSE, the commonest causes of accidents while working at height include using ladders and stepladders incorrectly, standing on benches or chairs and overstretching while reaching from ladders.
Accidents can also involve access equipment such as cherry pickers and other types of mobile elevated work platform (MEWP) and suspended access equipment (SAE). So how can electrical contractors keep workers safe while working at height? And how can they stay compliant with their legal and regulatory obligations?
Minimising risk, what HSE guidance tells us
In their working from height guidance HSE lists a number of simple steps that can help to minimise risk. They can be summarised as follows:
- Don't work at height if there's a practical alternative
- Use the correct equipment and ensure it's stable, strong enough for the job and in good working order
- Make sure workers can get to their working position safely
- Don't over-reach when working at height
- Be aware of fragile roofs and other surfaces, and take extra care if working on or near them
- Protect workers from falling objects
- Know the emergency evacuation and rescue procedures
What the law says
According the Work at Height Regulations 2005, employers and those in control of any work at height activity must ensure that the work is properly planned, well supervised and carried out by competent people.
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSW Act) makes it clear that employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of their employees. They must ensure that those affected by their activities are not exposed to risk, as far as is reasonably practicable.
What does a 'competent person' mean?
To be competent to work at height a person must have the right skills, knowledge, training and experience. Different tasks require different competencies, depending on the nature of the work and the equipment involved. For example working outdoors on overhead power lines requires different skills, knowledge and experience from rewiring a building.
Assess risks and keep re-assessing
You can't avoid a risk unless you understand it, so risk assessment is an essential aspect of safety. Consider everything that can go wrong, work out the necessary precautions and create a written record of the findings.
Next, inform your workforce on the risks and actions required. In the construction industry method statements have proved an effective way to manage the work and communicate the same information to everyone involved. Statements are for everyone carrying out the work and their immediate supervisors, so they should be as clear and uncomplicated as possible. Include simple sketches to clarify key points.
Finally, be sure to review the assessment regularly and change whatever needs changing. Sometimes the full extent of a hazard only becomes clear when the task has been completed.
Planning is vital
Keep this simple fact in mind: HSE investigates lots of work at height accidents. When employers are found guilty in court, one of the commonest finding is that the work was not properly planned and supervised.
The law on working at height obliges employers to use the risk assessment to plan the work and put the necessary precautions in place. When equipment involves a risk of falling, they must minimise the distance and consequences of any fall - by using by using a scaffold platform with double guard-rail and toeboards for example, or by providing safety nets.
When working on someone else's premises, it's important to consult the building owner or client. They will know better than anyone if the building design allows for safe access so that working from height can be avoided. Getting everyone working together with an agreed and co-ordinated approach is the simplest way to reduce risk.
Be proactive not reactive
When things go wrong at height injuries follow, sometimes fatal, so the 'prevention is better than cure' rule can save lives. Assess the risks accurately, prepare people and equipment thoroughly and never cut corners on safety.
Finally I hope you'll forgive a quick word about the importance of training and qualifications for key staff. At Phoenix we offer a wide range of NEBOSH, IOSH and other training courses suitable for employees and managers at all levels in the electrical industry.