How to safely manage work at height

Work at height is a major cause of accidents and a key target area for HSE enforcement. In this article we give an overview of what you need to know to ensure you plan and organise work in accordance with your legal obligations.

It will come as no surprise to hear that working at height is an area of frequent concern for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and often an area of targeted enforcement from the HSE.

In Great Britain a common trend is that over half of the fatal injuries to workers are from three kinds of incident:

  1. contact with moving machinery;
  2. falls from height; and
  3. suffering an impact from a vehicle.

These statistics explain why work at height is a priority area for the HSE.

Where you are involved in a work at height incident, the HSE tend to strongly consider prosecution because it is such a well-known risk. Given the substantial guidance in this area, ignorance is no excuse and duty-holders should refresh their memory through the HSE website if they have not recently done so.

For some people (scaffolders, roofers etc) working at height is a daily occurrence; however, for those that are not commonly working at height, there can sometimes be a failure to appreciate the risks of this type of work, or even that a particular job would be considered as “work at height”. This can lead to risks not being considered or managed, and inadequate control measures being in place.

When should the regulations be considered?

Working at height is frequently construed too narrowly, with people thinking about roofers and scaffolders, however, it can include everyday jobs such as changing light bulbs or working near to an excavation or manhole. These are examples of work where there is a risk of injury from falling or falling objects.

The key questions to consider when deciding whether or not the work is classed as working at height are:

  • Can anyone or anything fall?
  • Could injury result from the fall?

Before any work starts, the absolute basics that should be considered by those responsible for the works include:

  • Consider the HSE hierarchy for work at height. The starting point is to avoid working at height, but where this is not possible, prevention methods should be adopted. You should also look at the equipment to be used in conjunction with any steps that should be taken to minimise the effect of any incident.
  • If the work involves roof work, ensure that a competent person assesses the roof using a safe system of work and ensure that the work is properly planned in advance.
  • Ensure contractors have allowed sufficient time to carry out the work safely.

Focus areas

There are some aspects of working at height which are particularly prone to incidents, including fragile roofs, asbestos, excavations and ladders.

Fragile roofs

When considering working at height, many people will think about falling from a structure such as over an edge, from a ladder or platform, but one common error is not considering the risk of falling through a structure or material. The HSE estimate that on average seven people per year die following falls through fragile roofs or roof lights Often, the roofs themselves are not always initially considered fragile (but without definitive proof that the material is not classed as fragile, it should be treated as such) but the roof lights are. In fact, it is often the roof lights that are the reason for the need to access a roof in the first place as they tend to require maintenance. It is also important to remember that materials can become weaker over time. It is for this reason the importance of carefully considered method statements and risk assessments can never be overstated. Employers might send a member of their maintenance team up to “have a quick look” without properly planning safe access. It is this very situation where many accidents happen.


Asbestos is a highly dangerous material but unfortunately asbestos roofs are not uncommon. So, it is not just whether a roof is fragile or has fragile elements, but in the case where there is an asbestos roof, there will be additional legislation and requirements that need to be adhered to. 


Another area where adequate assessment (and therefore control measures) often falls short of the mark, is where work is undertaken at ground level but adjacent to an excavation or close to a manhole. The perception that the work is taking place on the ground is misleading - there is still a risk of falling and sustaining injury. Such works should be treated in the same manner as work at height.


Where work at height is taking place, care needs to be taken with the equipment used. The HSE have been keen to dispel the myth that ladders cannot be used. Where a decision is made that a ladder is appropriate for use, it is essential that the equipment is safe for use. This includes checking the feet to ensure that they are in place and are not damaged. Ladders must be secure and safe and inspection regimes should be in place to ensure this with written records of inspections being kept.


The key legislation in this area is The Work at Height Regulations 2005. However, there is other legislation that a prosecution could be brought under. In particular, consideration should be given to both the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007

Top tips

The following are legal requirements that need to be considered when planning and carrying out work at height.

  • Check that the place (for example, the roof) where the work is to be undertaken is safe. Ensure that people, equipment and materials cannot fall from or through the roof.
  • Account for weather conditions that could compromise safety such as high winds, extreme temperatures, fog and heavy rain.
  • Take steps to prevent objects from falling or, if this is not reasonably practicable, take suitable and sufficient measures to make sure no one can be injured, e.g. use exclusion zones to keep people clear of the danger area below the work.
  • Store materials and objects safely so they won’t cause injury if they are dislodged or collapse.
  • Ensure that a plan is in place for emergencies and that employees know the emergency procedures. It is not acceptable to just solely rely on the emergency services for rescue in any rescue plan.
  • Think about foreseeable situations ensuring that they are proportionate to the work task and duration.

If in any doubt about the planning and organisation of the work, seek competent advice.

If you have any questions or would like further information, please contact one of our specialists below.


This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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