Falls from a height make up a significant proportion of personal injury claims brought against employers. Often the injuries are severe – involving brain and / or spinal injuries - and some result in fatalities. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has estimated that at least 50 people die each year as a result of falls from height at work and more than 2,500 suffer serious injury. Although these falls can be from a roof or scaffolding, they are often simply from a ladder.

As working at height presents such an obvious risk, it could be assumed that the legislation would be thorough and that employers are aware of the risks and how to manage them. But, sadly, the experience of the Penningtons Manches personal injury team suggests that many employers either do not know their obligations or, in some cases, wilfully ignore them.

There are many causes of falls from height which include lack of training, unsafe or unsuitable equipment, lack of risk assessments about access and working areas, and lack of safety precautions. Many workplace falls could be and should have been avoided with simple common sense and prioritisation of worker safety, which is why so many personal injury claims arise from these accidents.

HSE prosecutions, inquests and claims produce results ranging from changed procedures to punishment to compensation but the real value is in making employees aware of what protection should be in place and what their options are if something goes wrong.

The key legislation that applies to working at heights in a work context is the Work at Height Regulations 2005. The Regulations apply not just to workers obviously working ‘at height’ – such as scaffolding, in trees or from cherry pickers - but to any work at height such as standing on a chair or stepladder to perform an aspect of a person’s job. The starting point of the Regulations is that an employer should try to avoid the need for employees to work at height at all. They should consider whether suitable equipment or access would avoid the need for an employee to, for example, use a ladder to reach something.

If a job cannot be done without working at height, then an employer must properly risk assess, plan and supervise the work at height and provide appropriate equipment and training. The Regulations require the employer to take suitable and sufficient measures to prevent employees from falling, as far as is reasonably practicable. What is held to be ‘reasonably practicable’ will depend on a number of factors including the nature and urgency of the work, the experience of the employee, the resources of the employer etc. The Regulations further require consideration of the steps that can be taken to minimise the depth or impact of any potential fall if the risk of falling cannot be completely eliminated.

Employees should therefore consider their position whenever they are asked to do something at work that involves working at height. They should have the knowledge and training to do the job safely and have the right equipment and assistance. If they do not have this, they are entitled to raise this with their manager or employer.

When an accident of this type happens, it is important to ensure that an accident report is properly completed and, if serious injuries are sustained, the HSE should be informed.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the Penningtons Manches personal injury team, comments: “Far too often employers require their employees to work at height without proper advanced risk assessment and safety procedures being in place. We see this frequently in building and construction sites and particularly where employment periods tend to be short and there is a high staff turnover.

“The other scenario is where something unusual occurs and people act without thinking and put themselves or others at risk. It is vital that employees feel that their safety has been considered and they are confident in their skills and equipment before they undertake any work at height as the consequences can often be serious and sometimes fatal.”