The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has announced another prosecution and fine following an employee suffering serious injuries after a fall - click here for details.  The dairy company concerned was fined £10,000 for failing to take any steps to address risks that it had identified regarding the work being done by the injured employee and a civil claim for injuries is likely to follow.

It is recognised that working at height carries inherent risks and employers must take reasonable steps to minimise these risks for employees required to work at height. This has been reflected by both common law and regulations governing what is considered reasonable practice.

The main regulations governing the area are the Health and Safety: The Work at Height Regulations.  Under the regulations, employers must ensure that all work performed at height is properly planned, appropriately supervised and carried out in a manner which is safe as far as ‘reasonably practicable’. This includes a responsibility to ensure that those engaged in such work are sufficiently trained and competent to do so. This adds to the responsibility under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, under which an employer is required to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and to take account of employees’ capabilities when assessing health and safety.

While it is appreciated by the regulations that some work at height is unavoidable, an employer is under a duty to consider alternatives and avoid this if at all possible. Where it is unavoidable however, the employer must take suitable measures, as far as it is ‘reasonably practicable’, to prevent any employee falling a distance that may result in an injury. This includes ensuring that working platforms and the means of access are sufficiently strong, rigid and stable; there is enough space to work safely  and sufficient guard rails, toe-boards and barriers. Measures must also be taken to prevent gaps, slip or trip hazards  and overloading of the platform which may result in collapse.

An employer must also ensure that, if they cannot totally eliminate the risk of falling, they must minimise the distance it is possible to fall and the potential consequences. This requirement builds on the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations requirement to prevent any person falling a distance likely to cause personal injury. Where there is a risk identified, employers must also ensure that the employee is provided with suitable work equipment and protective clothing to ensure their safety.

As the regulations accept that it is not always possible to eliminate risks while working, there is a caveat that employers must only go so far as is reasonably practicable, which is frequently a matter for debate in civil claims.

The regulations are additionally supported by common law duties to prevent unsafe working environments and protect their employees’ health and safety. These include: to consider alternative means and additional equipment to avoid risks; to warn employees of any potential dangers; to employ safe and considerate fellow employees; and to ensure that employees’ are suitably and adequately trained.