Last year approximately 58 organisations were prosecuted by the HSE for incidents where failings in the working at height regulations had been identified. Fines totalling £3.8M together with six suspended prisons sentences and five community service orders being handed to Directors of the organisations being prosecuted; additionally other prosecutions may have been brought against the organisations and their Directors for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. In this article we look at how prosecutions such as these can easily be avoided.

Where are the failings?

A summary of the above prosecutions identify that whilst 30% of these were associated with failure to adequately assess the risk of working at height 60% of these were as a result of failures by the organisations in the Organisation and Planning of Working at Height.

Using Contractors

If you use contractors who carry out work at height, remember you have a responsibility for contractors working on your site and in the event of an incident you can be prosecuted alongside the Contractor if you have not ensured that the contractor has provided a risk assessment and suitably organised and planned the work.

What is working at Height?

Working at height means work in any place where, if there are no precautions in places, a person could fall a distance sufficient enough to cause them personal harm. E.g. using a ladder, a fall through a fragile surface or into an opening in the ground.

Risk Assessment

Why do you need a risk assessment?

Firstly it’s a legal requirement of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Where you employ FIVE or more people you are legally required to document your risk assessments; and secondly when done properly it’s an effective tool to manage risk in the workplace.

What makes a good risk assessment?

During my career working in various industries as a Health and Safety professional I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in risk assessment. A risk assessment has five simple steps:

These 5 steps are recommended by the HSE and done correctly the required outcome is a suitable and sufficient risk assessment.

The HSE provide templates and these do not include scoring systems but what makes a better risk assessment is where the organisation uses a matrix to give a rating to the identified risk. Using these risk ratings the organisation can easily identify their significant risks and ensure that these are reviewed more frequently than others, which are considered low risk or well controlled. What makes a good risk assessment is one, which is a living, breathing document which records any changes or improvements and is reviewed in the event of change or occurrence related to the activity.

Is risk assessment enough?

Even if you have a good risk assessment this is not enough if it is not specific to the task at hand. Many organisations use ‘generic’ risk assessments, which will not identify all hazards. For example consider a construction company who has a risk assessment for roof work. The risk assessment is likely to have identified most foreseeable hazards which could occur whilst carrying out roof work and will identify the generic controls required e.g. competence, use of work equipment, safety boards and lines, guarding and exclusion zones etc. However what this generic risk assessment cannot do is to identify the weather conditions at the time of the work and the various risks, which may be posed on a client’s site, which is unfamiliar to the construction company’s employees.

Organisation and Planning

What is Organisation and Planning?

A risk assessment looks at who can be harmed and how, the likelihood of the hazard and the extent of the injury and in theory the risk assessment should include a elements of organisation and planning but in reality many organisations have generic risk assessments and this vital task specific organisation and planning is missed.

What do you need to do?

The first step of planning working at height is to apply the Hierarchy for Work at Height. Only when one level is not reasonably practicable should the next level be considered. All those who may be affected by the activity should be considered not just those working at height.

Passive Systems

Where it is decided that method of fall arrest is required the plan should consider passive systems such as nets or air bags before a fall arrest system such as a harness – remember PPE should be considered as the last line of defence.


The plan should take into consideration the working conditions of the day. Those in control of the work should make an assessment of the conditions and stop the work in the event that the conditions are not suitable for the task e.g. high winds or severe rain which may make surfaces slippery.



Those conducting the work should be able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge and experience including relevant up-to-date training and qualifications required to carry out the work.


If a contractor is carrying out the work, they should provide a documented Method Statement prepared by a competent person before the work begins. It should be appropriate to the nature and scale of the work and take into consideration access to the place of work and the use of equipment such as working equipment, scaffolding or ladders etc. It is vital as a client of the contractor that you review the risk assessment and method statement and ensure that it takes into consideration specific elements of your site e.g. overhead power cables which may be in the vicinity of the work area or the fragility of a roof etc.

Permit to Work at Height

A permit to work system is another way to ensure correct organisation and planning of work at height and can be implemented on your site in the event of your employees being required to conduct work at height to carry out general maintenance for example changing lights. Where a risk assessment can be in place to identify all the foreseeable hazards and set out specific control measures; the permit to work will ensure that task specific hazards are identified and suitable controls are put in place; placing a person or persons in control of the task, ensuring that all employees involved in the task have the required competency, that equipment being used is identified and checked for suitability, that correct exclusion zones are in place etc.


Where work equipment and PPE are used a competent person must inspect them. Depending on the type of equipment they will be subject to various levels of inspection at different times throughout their lifetime

The necessary regulation should be applied such as Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment (LOLER) Regulations for example.

Emergency Plans

Plans to be implemented in the event of an emergency such as a fire for example should include the following:


To use or not use that is the question….

This is the question often asked by employers and there is no one answer but there are some easy to follow guidelines. Firstly it is important to remember that the use of ladders does not mean that there is no requirement for a risk assessment or planning as discussed above.

In short ladders should be used as a way of gaining centimetres rather than meters in height or should be used as a last resort as a means of access on then only by competent, authorised persons. When not in use ladders should be secured to prevent unauthorised people using.

What can SQE Assurance do to help?

If after reading this article you decide you would like more advice or support with your risk assessments we can help in several ways. SQE provide a Competent Person package, which can include risk assessment review. If, however, this service is not for you we can provide Pay-As-You-Go assistance with risk assessments or Risk Assessment Training for your employees.