Safer Working at Height

What is working at height, what are the risks, and how to do it safely in your workplace

Published 18 Nov 2021

What is Working at Height?

Working at height is the performance of any type of work at an elevated position where the worker is at risk of falling and getting injured as a result of insufficient or non-existing safety precautions. Different countries have their own definitions and rules for what they consider as working at height but they all agree that working at height is one of the leading causes of occupational injury and fatality across industries.

A Major Cause of Injuries and Fatalities in the Workplace

Working at height is one of the most dangerous types of work and is recognized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as one of the leading causes of workplace injuries and fatalities.

Almost 900 fatalities occurred within a year due to falls, slips, and trips in the workplace according to the most recent data provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest HSE data from the UK reports that falls from a height is the leading cause of fatal accidents for workers. Safe Work Australia states that working at height accounts for 13% of all work fatalities between 2015 and 2019.

Due to the inherent risks brought by working at height, countries have established their own guidelines for what they consider to be working at height.

What Height is Considered Working at Height?

For a worker to be considered working at height depends on the type of work and the applicable local regulations. Below are some of the countries that defined what is considered working at height and required the corresponding safety precautions.

What is Working at Height in the US

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workers must be provided proper fall protection if they are at “elevations of four feet in general industry workplaces, five feet in shipyards, six feet in the construction industry and eight feet in longshoring operations.” Converted to metric, that’s at a height of 1.21 meters for general industry, 1.52 meters for shipyards, 1.82 meters when working in construction, and 2.43 meters high for workers in longshoring operations.

OSHA also stresses that fall protection is required for all employees, regardless of fall distance, if they are working directly over dangerous equipment and machinery.

What is Working at Height in the UK

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), workers considered working at height if they are in any of these situations:

  • Working above ground or floor level
  • Could fall from an edge, through an opening, or fragile surface
  • Could fall from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground

For any work activity that involves working at height, UK regulations require employers and those in charge of the activity to ensure the following:

  • Proper planning of work at height
  • All those involved in the work at height should be competent
  • Risk assessment of the work at height and the right equipment should be used
  • Risk management when working on or near fragile surfaces
  • Work at height equipment should be properly inspected and maintained

What is Working at Height in Australia

In Australia, people who work at two meters (6.56 ft) or higher are required to have the proper fall protection equipment that fits the type of fall hazards present in the working area. If the work is at a height of less than two meters, proper risk management that involves conducting a risk assessment is required to identify and eliminate or control risks.

Conducting a risk assessment using a risk assessment template can help workers and safety officers determine the likelihood of occurrence and severity of the risks present when working at height and proactively formulate safety measures to protect themselves against the risks brought by working at heights.

Activities that are Considered Working at Height

With the variation in local regulations in mind, here are some examples of activities or jobs that involve working at height:

  • Roof work and activities on fragile surfaces
  • Work with the use of ladders
  • Activities near an excavation or trench
  • Work that involves scaffolding
  • Jobs that require being on scissor lifts and other similar Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MEWPs)
  • Maintenance work or any job at an elevation that requires the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as a harness

There are certain activities or situations, however, where work involves an amount of elevation but is not considered working at height like using the stairs in the workplace to go from one area to another or people working on their own homes and the activity is not intended for a business or a trade.

What are the Most Common Causes of Accidents When Working at Height?

The aforementioned activities that are considered working at height are risky because of the incidents that may happen and result in injury or fatality if there is a lack of safety precautions. Here are some causes of accidents when working at height:

  • Slippery or wobbly surface that may cause slips and falls during or after certain weather conditions
  • Incorrect use of ladders or ladders that may not be in good working order
  • Workers who may be over-reaching while working at heights
  • Fragile surfaces such as roofs that may fail if there’s too much load
  • Failure of tools and equipment such as MEWPs
  • Losing balance while at an elevated position
  • Unprotected edges such as lack of handrails along walkways
  • Insufficient or absence of PPE (see below image for an example of complete PPE while working at height)
Working at height

Working at Height

How to Make Working at Height Safer?

The first line of defense against risks of working at height is to determine what those risks are and come up with safety measures to protect the workers against such risks.

  1. Conduct a risk assessment to know what risks are involved not only with working at height but also with the job to be done. Consider accomplishing a task on the ground if it can be done on the ground.
  2. Once the risks have been assessed, implement the control measures whether they be engineering controls, administrative controls, reinforcing the use of proper PPE, or eliminating sources of risks.
  3. Conduct toolbox talks at the start of every shift especially in the construction industry, where working at height is common, to highlight safety.
  4. Empower employees with working at heights training in order for them to be competent when it comes to working at heights.
  5. Proactively conduct safety inspections to reinforce safe practices and to catch risks. The information gathered during inspections can be used to improve the safety of working at height.

SafetyCulture staff writer

Erick Brent Francisco

Erick Brent Francisco is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture since 2018. As a content specialist, he is interested in learning and sharing how technology can improve work processes and workplace safety. His experience in logistics, banking and financial services, and retail helps enrich the quality of information in his articles.

Erick Brent Francisco is a content writer and researcher for SafetyCulture since 2018. As a content specialist, he is interested in learning and sharing how technology can improve work processes and workplace safety. His experience in logistics, banking and financial services, and retail helps enrich the quality of information in his articles.