Last reviewed 17 October 2023

What are effective strategies you can apply to prevent falls in the construction industry? This article includes practical tips to ensure worker safety and reduce accidents on site.

Introduction

HSE Guidance HSG150: Health and Safety in Construction, observes that falls are the largest cause of accidents and fatalities in the construction industry.

The primary focus of guidance in this area tends to look at the general causes of falls, which are described under two categories; “working at height” or “slips and trips”, and in turn, support is offered on both of these topics, with the stated aim of helping with the identification of hazards, controlling risks and explaining how to “plan, organise, control, monitor and review health and safety throughout the life of a project”.

HSE also provides subject specific guidance looking at activities that may result in an increased risk of falls. Examples include roof work, ladders (and step ladders), scaffolding, mobile platforms, and fragile surfaces.

It should perhaps be noted that the guidance offered by HSE does not distinguish between “low” and “high” falls. This is in line with the approach adopted by legislation; for example, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 describe work at height as:

“(a) work in any place, including a place at or below ground level,

(b) obtaining access to or egress from such place while at work, except by a staircase in a permanent workplace,

where, if measures required were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury.”

Falls from height are not the only potential cause of injury. Falls onto things, such as; hot work; wet concrete; protruding reinforcement; onto equipment, such as machinery; moving plant or vehicles, can also have serious consequences, regardless of the distance involved.

In all circumstances, HSE favours a risk-based approach, applied in the following three stages.

Firstly, measures should be put in place to avoid working in a way which could result in a fall. If that is not possible, then the amount of that work should be minimised, and as a last resort, protective measures should be put in place to mitigate the possible consequences of a fall.

The third item can also be subdivided into two parts, general or “collective” protective measures, such as guard rails or improved lighting, and personal protective measures, such as harnesses or protective clothing.

Protective measures may be categorised as “fall arrest” or “fall restraint” systems. The former stops someone who is experiencing a fall, for example by using a net or a harness, while the latter is designed to stop them falling in the first place, perhaps by means of guard rails, warnings or edge protection.

However, although the individual may also be a contributing factor, these kinds of accidents come about for one of two reasons; either the workplace itself is not safe, or access to the workplace is inadequate.

There are a number of ways of dealing with both issues, so let us look at some of the options.

Prevention hierarchy

There are several measures which you can use to reduce or eliminate the incidence of falls. Most important among these are risk assessments. Every situation has its challenges, but by using simple techniques, the following hierarchy can be established.

  • Identify: List the potential hazards, the risk that they will occur and the potential consequences — injury, illness or, worst case, fatality. This can be used to determine the subsequent action.

  • Avoid: Where possible, work with the highest risk and most serious consequence should be reconsidered with a view to not having to do it at all. Working practices may be adapted so that work at height is not necessary. For example, it may be possible to undertake work at ground level and then lift it into position rather than carrying it out it in situ.

  • Prevent: Use an existing safe place of work, or access equipment such as scaffolds or mobile platforms fitted with guard rails. Include fall restraint systems such as a harness with a shorter anchor line which will prevent someone from getting into a position where they could fall. A good example of both techniques is the construction of the London Eye, the large observation wheel installed on the south Bank of the River Thames at the millennium, which was assembled on floating platforms before being elevated to vertical, meaning that work at height was minimised, so the risk to workers was significantly reduced.

  • Minimise: If complete avoidance is not possible, then it may be possible to reduce the amount of risky work. For example, the use of extendable tools could remove the need to use ladders or platforms.

  • Protect: As already mentioned, there are some protective measures which can be put in place to reduce the incidence of falls, either by stopping them happening, or by seeking to minimise the consequences. Examples include harnesses, safety nets or “soft landing” systems. An innovative recent example is the installation on some sites of proximity sensors and personal alarms which can alert workers when they are nearing a hazard. This can be in addition to visual or other audible warnings. However, while it is important, protection should always be seen as a last resort, as it is effectively acknowledging that the other measures are likely to fail.

  • Train and instruct: An important part of all stages of the hierarchy is to ensure that people are aware of the dangers, are able to identify and deal with them, and sufficiently experienced in the use of preventative measures, such as harnesses and other protective equipment.

In some cases, it may be appropriate for you to draw up a series of “method statement” showing the procedures to be undertaken to ensure certain activities can be carried out safely. These are sometimes referred to as risk assessment method statements (RAMS).

The introduction and advancement of new technology has introduced the possibility of many other control solutions, especially those involving remote detection and navigation.

Practical steps

As well as providing training and instruction to people who are at risk of falls, you can implement some relatively simple steps which can be taken to further ensure the safety of all concerned.

  • Make sure that workplaces and access to them are clean and dry. Working areas should be level, and without obstacles, or anything else which could be a hazard, such as uneven surfaces or coverings.

  • Where appropriate, provide environmental protection. Exposure to weather conditions such as rain, wind and snow can all impede workers’ ability to perform, as can extremes of heat and cold, but things like dust and noise can also present problems. Other factors, such as excessive noise, can prevent instructions from being heard and understood, so the use of earpieces may be considered in those circumstances.

  • Adequate lighting should be provided. It should also be noted that overly bright lighting or sunshine can also obscure vision, so it may be necessary to use shading as well as lighting in some cases.

  • Holes, edges and other hazards should be clearly identified. This can be achieved with visual markers such as tape; audible warnings; or physical barriers such as guard rails and edge protection.

  • PPE: Personal protective equipment should be made available that is suitable for the task being undertaken. As well as simple measures such as head and body protection, consideration should be given to appropriate fall restraint and fall protection systems. All PPE should be regularly checked and inspected — especially before each use — to make sure there are no defects or damage. And perhaps most importantly, it should fit properly.

  • Training should be tailored to the task being undertaken or the protection/prevention used. As well as general training for operatives, it may be necessary to provide training for particular topics, such as slips, trips and falls, and task-specific training in the use of certain types of PPE, including fall arrest and restraint equipment. As always, training should be delivered in a way, and in a language which the operative can best understand.

Summary

Accidents involving falls are among the commonest causes of injuries and death in the construction industry. It follows, therefore, that they should be one of the easiest to reduce and eliminate.

Although the industry has made significant improvements in recent years, there is still some distance to go. However, by following some simple guidelines, planning properly, with well-trained operatives using the right equipment in the right environment, we can continue to take steps in the right direction.