Working at height

Last updated: 19 Dec 2023

This article explains how you can mitigate the risks associated with working at height and what the law says.

What’s classed as working at height?

Falling from a height is one of the primary causes of workplace fatality and major injury. In 2022/23, there were 40 fatalities caused by falling from height – 30% of all fatal injuries, and it accounted for around 8% of all non-fatal injuries to employees.

Work at height is usually defined as work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance that could cause injury.

This could include working on a fragile roof, on a ladder, or even through a hole in the floor. The height at which the work takes place does not need to be great to cause injury.


The law on working at height

The main law governing work at height is the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR). The regulations apply to employers or people in control of work at height, such as facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height.

The WAHR regulations apply whenever people work at a height that could cause injury if they were to fall.
The WAHR require that:

  • Work at height to be avoided, if possible
  • Work at height which is not avoidable must be properly planned, which includes carrying out a risk assessment, appropriately supervised and carried out by competent people
  • Precautions are taken when working on or near fragile surfaces
  • Plans are drawn up for emergencies and how people can be rescued, for example, by agreeing a procedure for evacuation
  • All access equipment such as ladders, work platforms and safety nets, are periodically inspected and maintained.


Assessing the risks

When planning a task that is likely to involve work at height, employers or those in control of the job must carry out a risk assessment, which will help them to keep people safe.

Before work at height starts, employers must follow three steps:

  • Avoid work at height where possible. It might be that the task, or parts of it, can be carried out while standing on the ground, such as by using extending tools or by lowering equipment to the ground.
  • Where work at height cannot be avoided, prevent falls using either an existing place of work that is already safe or the right type of equipment, such as a work platform.If the risk of a fall cannot be avoided, employers must minimise the distance and consequences of a fall by using the right type of equipment. Measures that protect a number of workers, such as safety nets and air bags, should be given priority over individual equipment, such as harnesses.

If the task is low risk and short duration, a ladder or a stepladder could be the best piece of equipment to carry out the job. However, they should not normally be used for more than 30 minutes at a time. In these cases, an alternative piece of equipment should be used.

All work at height is risky, but working on a roof is especially so. Falls from roofs, through fragile roofs and roof lights are one of the most common causes of workplace death and serious injury.

The following are likely to be fragile:

  • roof lights
  • liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs• non-reinforced fibre cement sheets
  • corroded metal sheets
  • glass (including wired glass)
  • slates and tiles.


Staying safe when working at height

Although your employer has a legal responsibility to ensure that suitable precautions are taken when working at height, there are some things that you can do to protect yourself.

These include:

  • Do as much work as possible from the ground
  • Before works starts, check that the equipment you are using is suitable, stable and strong enough for the job, and does not have any defects
  • Do not overload the equipment or overreach
  • Take precautions when working on or near fragile surfaces
  • Ensure you know about the emergency evacuation and rescue procedures

If you are using a leaning ladder:

  • Check its condition before use (see below)
  • Make sure it’s at an angle of 75°
  • Make sure it has been secured, either by tying it to a suitable point, using a stability device, or by getting a colleague to foot it.

Before using a ladder or step ladder, you should check the following:

  • Stiles – are not bent or damaged?
  • Feet – are they missing, worn or damaged?
  • Rungs – are they bent, worn, missing or loose?
  • Locking mechanisms – are they bent or are the fixings worn or damaged? Engage any locking bars.
  • Stepladder platform – is it split or buckled?
  • Steps or treads on stepladders – are they contaminated? Are the fixings loose?