Working at height continues to be a top priority for the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and falls from height remain a major problem. In 2008/2009 more than 4,000 employees (including in the construction industry) suffered a major injury as a result of a fall from height.

The majority of enforcement notices served by the HSE in the construction industry relate to work being carried out unsafely at height. In March 2010 nearly one in four construction sites visited by the HSE failed safety checks. In fact, in what is only the second UK corporate manslaughter case, a company is now to be prosecuted after an employee fell through a fragile roof.

What do the regulations say?

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work carried out at height where there is a risk of a fall likely to cause personal injury. The Regulations essentially require duty holders to ensure that all work at height is properly planned and organised and, in relation to fragile surfaces, that these are properly controlled.

The HSE believes that not enough is being done to minimise the need to work at height and, if working at height is unavoidable, it wants to see that steps have been taken to improve the protection of employees. Work at height incidents often occur due to poor management control rather than equipment failure. The most common issues involve a failure to:

  • Recognise a work at height problem.
  • Provide a safe system of work.
  • Ensure that safe systems of work are followed.
  • Provide adequate information, instruction, training and supervision.
  • Use appropriate equipment.
  • Provide safe equipment.

In relation to fragile surfaces practical considerations include:

  • Always assume roofs are fragile unless you can confirm otherwise – there may be non-visible damage caused by weathering or deterioration.
  • Avoid allowing employees to work on a roof if it is possible to carry out the work in another way, for example, approaching the roof from below.
  • Always use platforms to support workers' weight on a fragile roof. Furthermore, ensure platforms are wide enough and long enough to give adequate support across roof members and ensure enough platforms are provided on the roof.
  • Fit appropriate warning signs to buildings which have a fragile roof, particularly at roof access points. 
  • Protect against workers falling through fragile roofs adjacent to surface platforms by providing:
    • A properly installed safety net, scaffolding or similar close to the underside of the roof.
    • Suitable guard rails and tow boards at the edges of the platform(s).
    • Suitable coverings over all fragile materials within two metres of the working platforms.

Contractors and subcontractors

All contractors on site must be managed through the:

  • Proper selection of contractors.
  • Proper planning of work required to be done.
  • Monitoring of contractors.

Key action steps include:

  • Effective communication, including raising awareness of your health and safety policy.
  • Examining the contractor's arrangements with regard to health and safety.
  • Insisting on the provision of method statements and then checking them prior to the start of a contract.
  • Effective management of contractors on site. Check that they are carrying out the work as they said they would. For example, all contractor operations should be included in ongoing safety audits/inspections.

Second corporate manslaughter charge after roof fall death

Three company directors have just been charged with manslaughter by gross negligence after an employee fell through a roof in Greater Manchester. The first hearing is due to take place at Tameside Magistrates Court on 2 August 2011.

The company itself has also been summonsed for corporate manslaughter. This is only the second case to date to be brought under The Corporate Manslaughter & Corporate Homicide Act 2007 ("CMHA").

The first case brought under the CMHA, against Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings, failed to provide the anticipated insight into likely fine levels due to the company's "parlous financial state" and resulted in a fine of £385,000. The Sentencing Guidelines on Corporate Manslaughter suggest that fines would be expected to start from £500,000 and possibly rise to millions.

Points to remember

Regulatory offences are usually strict liability. The prosecution does not have to prove that the offence was committed deliberately or even negligently. The occurrence of an accident is usually sufficient to establish guilt.

The continuing HSE prosecutions for working at height breaches highlight the need for everyone, including senior management, to:

  • Understand how easily liability for an offence can occur.
  • Take responsibility to ensure regulatory compliance.
  • Lead by example.
  • Involve the workforce.
  • Review risk assessments.
  • Allocate adequate resources to manage risks.
  • Monitor performance.
  • Review performance regularly.

Failure to do so can lead to costly fines, legal costs and reputational issues arising. With effective regulatory risk and behavioural management, these risks can be avoided.