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Knowledge Share: Managing Work at Height in Schools

Apr 17, 2023

‘Way too often, work at height is carried out without proper planning and preparation. People are often misinformed and take unnecessary risks because they think low level work at height isn’t dangerous. This simply isn’t true.’

I have recently read an article about the sad and unnecessary death of a school caretaker who fell 2.5m whilst cleaning a bike shed roof. This accident could have easily have been avoided and this tragedy could have been prevented. A life was lost and the employer of the school, in this case the local authority, was guilty of failing to properly plan the work, supervise its undertaking and for failure to provide a safe work method. Had the work been properly planned, risk assessed and supervised, the activity could have been carried out safely. The person who died would still be with us.

As a result of this tragedy, I wanted to write a blog about managing work at heights in schools.

Risks From Work at Height in Schools

Schools are often thought to be safe places, however, there can be many risks associated with schools. Caretakers and Site Officers face numerous risks on a daily basis whilst undertaking their duties from hazards such as chemicals, gas, electricity, slips/trips, and of course from working at height. JCH Safety work with a number of schools assisting them with risk management and fire safety. Work at height is an area where we have experience with working with schools. JCH Safety specialise in providing health and safety assistance to education establishments of all varieties. We have regularly worked with schools to make arrangements for emergency egress from school roofs and to assist in the planning and installation of roof edge protection. We work with schools to protect staff and students from the risk of falling from height but also from being injured from falling objects which can equally be dangerous.

What is Work at Height?

Work at height refers to work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, where a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. Examples of work at height include roofs, ladders, tables, vans, minibuses and raised platforms. It is recommended to undertake a risk assessment prior to working at height to determine if there is a work at height risk and if the work can be avoided.

Work at height doesn’t have to be on roofs or high on ladders. It can be as simply as a couple of feet above the ground or indeed, next to a hole in the ground. People are sadly killed and injured from falling from low level heights every year across a variety of industries. As a result, you must not be mistaken to think that low level works do not need proper planning. The above case of the death of caretaker clearly demonstrates this.

There are good reasons why people are told not to stand on chairs and tables and not to get too close to the edge in vehicles. It is vital that staff are trained in the risks associated with work at height and that management are aware of their duties to supervise and protect their staff.

The Legal Position

All employers are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff. This duty of care means that employers must identify any health and safety risks to which employees may be exposed at work and take appropriate measures to control any workplace risks. Various legislation applies to work at height including the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Work at Height Regulations 2005. Failure to fulfil your legal duties can and does result in prosecution. Worse, it can result in tragic accidents that can easily be avoided.

An employers’ duty of care for their employees includes protecting them from harm, providing a safe environment to work in, and providing adequate training. Therefore, this is relevant to any work which must be carried out ‘at height.’ To fulfil an employers’ duty of care (for both physical and mental health), employers should publish a health and safety policy if they employ more than five people, take out and maintain Employers’ Liability Insurance which covers employees against accidents and ill health, provide training, establish a health and safety at work committee, appoint a competent person to evaluate risks and hazards and ensure risk assessments are carried out. Employers must give workers information about the risks in their workplace and how they can protect themselves. Employers also have a legal and ethical duty to prevent physical and psychological harm to staff. Failure to protect people from harm can result in prosecution, injury and potentially the death of persons associated with the work at hand.

How to Manage Work at Height Risks?

When planning any activities which may involve working at height, such as getting balls off a roof, trimming hedges, painting and decorating or replacing ceiling tiles, a risk assessment should first be carried out. It is useful to prepare some generic risk assessments for regular tasks, such as changing light bulbs for example. For less frequent tasks, specific risk assessments should be carried out prior to undertaking the task. A risk assessment should be carried out by someone who is trained to do so and who has the necessary experience and competence to do so.

In preparing the risk assessment the following control measures should be considered  as part of the process:

  1. Can the activity be avoided? Remove the risk by avoiding the task altogether.
  2. If the work has to be undertaken, can the task be safely done from an existing place of work, or is the use of a means of access and egress to undertake the task necessary?
  3. If you need specific access equipment, it is vital to ensure the provision of suitable work equipment to carry out the task. This will prevent a fall occurring, e.g. edge protection, use of a tower scaffold or step ladder.
  4. The consequences of a fall should be considered and the provision of equipment to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall, e.g. use of fall arrest systems, should be considered.
  5. It is vital to ensure that the person tasked with the job has received suitable instruction and training. This is to ensure everyone doing the work knows what they are doing and are sufficiently trained to do so safely.

A risk assessment should be produced and a safe system of work should be prepared in order to manage the risk of harm from heights. This will ensure that the risks are managed and that the task undertaken has been considered properly. Planning and preparation are key to safety!

The above measures are part of a hierarchy of control that should be considered when managing work at height. The emphasis will vary depending on the activity, the environment, and the personnel involved. No single type of control measure will normally be adequately effective on its own and the solution to preventing accidents is to design a work process that is holistic in its approach. Consult a competent person when planning hazardous work.

Remember Fragile Surfaces

At JCH Safety, we are always talking to clients about the risks of work at height and the risks associated with roofs in particular. School roofs are hazardous places. They often are fitted with plant and machinery, are not fitted with edge protection and can be fragile. When planning roof work consideration must be given to the risk of falling from a roof but also of falling through it. You must never allow work to be carried out on a fragile roof or close to skylights without first ensuring the roof is safe to work on. If it is not safe, then special measures must be deployed to keep persons safe from harm.

How Can JCH Safety Help?

The above pointers should certainly make you think twice before carrying out, or authorising hazardous tasks. JCH Safety are expert chartered health and safety practitioners and fire risk assessors. We work with a variety of clients across the Midlands, including a number of schools. We provide one off advice and also service level agreements for health and safety services. If you require any assistance with health and safety, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We can help schools with:

  1. Competent health and safety advice
  2. Fire risk assessments
  3. General risk assessments
  4. Safe systems of work
  5. Training
  6. Policy writing

If you are looking for the services of a friendly health and safety advisor, please do not hesitate to contact us today.

JCH Safety work across the Midlands in Nuneaton, Coventry, Birmingham, Warwickshire and across Leicestershire.

Check out our online Work at Height Awareness Training  Working at Height – JCH Safety Health & Safety Consultants Coventry