Working at Heights

"I've always done it that way"

Every year, thousands of farm workers are injured and too many die in avoidable farming accidents. In fact, despite the promising news that there is some behavioural change occurring in the industry, agriculture continues to have the poorest safety record of any occupation in the UK.

Farming carries an above-average risk of falling accidents. Farming, forestry and horticulture employ about 1% of the national workforce but the risk of falling from heights or being struck by a falling object account for nearly 30% of all fatalities in agriculture, which only demonstrates that ‘Falls’ must remain high on the list of farming risks to be managed.

Any fall from height can lead to long term injuries and make it difficult to keep on farming. Most accidents of this type happen either because the work is not properly planned, the risks are not recognised, proper precautions are not taken, or the equipment used is either defective, not appropriate, or used incorrectly. 

There is a safety hierarchy (AvoidPlanPreventTrain) that you should follow when carrying out work at height:

  • Avoid work at height if at all possible
  • Where that is not possible and work at height is required, plan the task properly, using safe equipment. Consider whether you need specialist contractors to carry out the work.
  • Remember that preventing falls is better than mitigating against a fall, so given a choice between the two, good edge protection is generally preferable to soft landing systems (air bags / bales for example).
  • Collective measures such as edge protection / netting etc. are generally preferable to personal measures such as harnesses.
  • Provide training for any employees who are required to work at height

Specifically for work on fragile roofs the hierarchy is:

  • Work from underneath the roof using a suitable work platform (it is often possible to crop retaining bolts and replace panels from below)
  • Where this is not possible, consider using a Mobile Elevating Work Platform (MEWP) that allows people to work from within the MEWP basket without standing on the roof itself
  • If access onto the fragile roof cannot be avoided, perimeter edge protection should be installed and staging used to spread the load. Unless all the work and access is on staging or platforms that are fitted with guard rails, safety nets should be installed underneath the roof or a harness system used, and
  • Where harnesses are used they need adequate anchorage points. They also rely on discipline, training and supervision to make sure that they are used consistently and correctly

All too often ladders are seen as a default option when working at height, but if there is a better safer solution then it should be used. While ladders do have their place, they should only be used where the work is of low risk and of short duration, where three points of contact with the ladder can be maintained and the top of the ladder extends at least one metre above the landing place. Ladders should be well maintained and properly secured during use, preferably at the top. Farms and contractors should ensure that ladder use is controlled and is not seen as the default option. Use of ladders is at the bottom of the work at height hierarchy and there are better options in many cases.

Provided they are used safely, properly designed and erected scaffolding, scaffold towers or work platforms are all much better and safer options than ladders. They allow for work to be carried out from within a protected area.

However, despite what many might think, ladders and stepladders are not banned under health and safety law. In fact they can be a sensible and practical option for low-risk, short duration tasks.

Before using a ladder STOP and THINK…

  • Can working at height be AVOIDED?
  • If the task requires you staying up a leaning ladder or stepladder for more than 30 minutes at a time, you should be using alternative equipment.
  • Ensure only those workers that are authorised and familiar with the safe operation of the equipment or those undergoing supervised training are allowed to use the ladders or step-ladders.
  • Choose the correct ladder for the task.  Consider its weight capacity and its height.   Many injuries occur due to ladders being too short for a specific task, and instead of selecting a new ladder for the job, workers place the ladder on something to extend its reach or stand on the top rung to gain the necessary height.

Using ladders correctly:

  • Only use ladders/step-ladders for what the manufacturer intended it to be used for.
  • Never alter or try to lengthen the ladder. 
  • Never stand ladders on moveable objects, such as pallets, bricks, lift trucks, tower scaffolds, excavator buckets, vans, or mobile elevating work platforms.
  • Do not place a ladder on a traffic route or in front of a door unless they have been blocked off.
  • Watch out for overhead power lines.
  • Make sure the ladder is placed on firm, level ground.
  • Ensure the ladder is tied or footed to prevent it slipping.
  • Follow the 1 in 4 rule (i.e. 1 unit out for every 4 units up).
  • Avoid working on ladders in windy weather.
  • Ensure the all four feet of a stepladder are in contact with the ground.
  • Position the stepladder to face the work activity and not side on.
  • Only carry light tools and or materials – use a tool belt.
  • Do not overreach – think about it. It is much safer to get off the ladder/stepladder, move it, and then climb back up.
  • ALWAYS maintain 3 points of contact to ensure stability.