Competence and organisation when working at height

​Workers observing correct working at height procedures. Image credit: Safesite

​By Jason Godfrey, General Manager of Safesite

A Crown Court ​case which saw three companies fined a total of £400,000 for a worker’s fall through a fragile roof has highlighted the importance of following Construction (Design and Management) regulations, and the need to ensure competence of all contractors working at height.

The case

Three firms have been fined after a worker fell seven metres through a fragile asbestos roof.

The worker was standing on the fragile roof at Dengie Crops Ltd in Asheldem when the asbestos sheeting gave way and he fell onto a concrete floor, hitting several pipes on the way down.

No protective equipment or safety netting was in place below to prevent the fall and the worker suffered a hematoma on the brain as a result. He survived, but was left with severe injuries.

Chelmsford Crown Court heard the Health and Safety Executive found three companies at fault for the fall. Dengie Crops Ltd had originally contracted Ernest Doe & Sons – an agricultural machinery supplier – to carry out the work. Realising they did not have the required experience, Ernest Doe & Sons then subcontracted the work the Balsham (Buildings) Ltd.

Balsham then subcontracted the work to Strong Clad Ltd.

The court was told Ernest Doe & Sons could not fulfill their role as principal contractor due to having no experience in construction. This then led to the repeated subcontracting of the project and eventually to the worker’s severe injury.

Ernest Doe & Sons also did not see plans from Balsham (Building) Ltd which highlighted the fall risk. None of the companies were deemed to have put sufficient measures in place, and 40% of the roof had no protective netting. They also relied too heavily on verbal briefings to workers reminding them where the netting was, rather than putting effective safety measures across the entire roof.

Ernest Doe & sons Ltd, of Ulting, Essex, pleaded guilty to breaching CDM Regulations and were fined £360,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,000.

Balsham (Buildings) Ltd, of Balsham, Cambridge, pleaded guilty to safety breaches and were fined £45,000 and ordered to pay costs of £7,000.

Strong Clad Ltd, of Castle Hedingham, Essex also pleaded guilty and were fined £7,000 and ordered to pay costs of £3,000.

HSE inspector Adam Hills said: “The dangers of working on fragile roofs are well documented. Every year too many people are killed or seriously injured due to falls from height while carrying out this work.

“Work at height requires adequate planning, organisation and communication between all parties. This incident was entirely preventable and the worker is lucky to be alive.”

​The CDM Regulations introduced in 2015 supersede previous requirements

CDM Regulations

New Construction (Design and Management) (CDM) regulations, designed to reduce accidents during construction projects through improved health and safety, design, planning and co-operation throughout the project, were introduced in April 2015.

The regulations, which supersede previous CDM regulations introduced in 2007, identify six core roles: Clients, Principal Designers, Designers, Principal Contractors, Contractors and Workers.

Under these new regulations clients are required to take responsibility and ensure that each phase of the construction process is planned so that it can be managed safely.

Clients now have a duty to:

  • assemble a team of competent professionals and ensure that each of their roles are clear
  • allocate sufficient time and resources at each stage of the project to ensure that health and safety issues are dealt with properly
  • ensure effective project team communication
  • provide suitable welfare facilities throughout the construction period
  • make sure all involved have the skills, training and expertise to carry out the work

With the repeated passing along of the Dengie Crops Ltd project, several of these vital requirements were overlooked.

​Competency is vitally important when working at height and can prevent fatal accidents and prosecutions. Image credit: Safesite

The importance of competency

When employing someone to work at height, it is vital to ensure that they are competent. But what exactly is competency, and how can you tell? It’s important to know that just because somebody has been doing a job for a number of years, this does not automatically mean they are competent.

The HSE defines competency as: “a combination of the experience, knowledge and appropriate qualifications that enables a worker to identify both the risks arising from a situation and the measures needed to deal with them.”

It also states that: “Individuals working at height need to be trained in the selected system of work and any particular work equipment chosen. For example, if a Motorised Elevated Work Platform (MEWP) is selected then the operator must be trained in its use; if nets are used then the net riggers must be trained in how to erect them safely. Managers should check that those doing the work are adequately trained.”

Working at height is highly specialist, and it is hugely important to ensure you commission a competent company and worker to assess all risk and carry out any work safely. Do not automatically assume someone is capable because they’ve never had an accident; more often than not, this is down to dumb luck.

Always ensure you stick to the work at height hierarchy when carrying out any work.

Tips to ensure competency:

  • Look for companies that are members of associations/institutes or affiliated to recognised industry bodies. The company will be kept up to date regularly by the association or group on important industry topics and updated on changes to legislation and standards that relate to their line of business, particularly their services and products.
  • Check that the company is registered with a recognised assessment scheme such as CHAS, Constructionline and/or SAFEcontractor. Every aspect of a registered company’s performance is vetted, including staff professionalism, training, products and services, environmental impact and health & safety record.
  • Ensure workers have had individual training. Always make sure that those carrying out the work have appropriate health & safety training and that it is up to date. This could include training on Work at Height, PPE, Ladders, Rescue, MEWPS, PASMA, First Aid, Asbestos Awareness, COSHH and Risk Assessor. Refresher training should be undertaken at least every 3 years.
  • Always ask to see evidence of training certificates and any relevant industry card schemes such as CSCS or CCNSG before allowing people to work on your premises.

Remember, if at any point you are concerned about competency or a contractor’s practices, do not proceed, and instead seek professional advice. It may take a little bit more time and effort, but it can save you from serious fines and even prosecution in the long run.

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