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Managing work at height risks

By Stuart Marshall
Senior Risk Manager

For many years, work at height has been the primary cause of workplace fatalities in the UK.

In the period 2020/21, there were a total of 142 workplace fatalities and of these, 35 (25%) were caused by falls from height.

Fatal falls from height occur extensively in the construction industry. Falls from height also often cause life changing injuries. Common causes are falls from ladders, scaffolds, work platforms and through roof leading edges.

Where work is being carried out at height, there is also a potential risk of falling objects, such as tools or materials, to hit fellow workers or passers-by.

Health and safety

Work at height is defined as any place of work, where, if precautions are not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. This could include:

  • Work above (or below) ground floor level
  • Work adjacent to a surface that does not offer protection against falls (i.e. fragile surfaces)
  • Work next to holes in the ground (i.e. manholes)

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA etc) requires employers to ensure the health and safety of all employees and anyone affected by their work, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employees have a duty to take care of their own health and safety and that of others.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work at height activity and is specifically intended to prevent death and injury caused by falls from height. The Regulations place duties upon a wide range of individuals, including employers and workers, but also on those responsible for controlling work at height, for example, building owners or managers who may bring in others to carry out maintenance activities on their behalf.

Financial implications

In addition to the human impact of a serious workplace injury or fatality, which includes loss of income, pain and suffering, worry, stress, damage to staff morale and lost productivity, there are also huge financial implications, which can include:

  • Fines
  • Increased insurance costs
  • Retraining
  • Loss of management time

Prevention of falls from height is very often simple to achieve by ensuring that the work is properly planned and supervised, those involved are competent and that the correct and most appropriate equipment is provided.

Taking time to plan work at height can save lives and offer significant cost savings. Getting things right is usually far cheaper than getting things wrong.


The Work at Height Regulations requires that a hierarchical approach is taken when planning work at height.

For each step, it is important to consider what is reasonably practicable in the circumstances. ‘Collective’ protection measures (i.e. those that protect more than one person, such as fixed edge protection) should be used in preference to ‘personal’ protection.

Avoid work at height - So far as is reasonably practicable. Consider an alternative way that the work could be done, for example assembling items to be used at height at ground level.

Prevent falls - When it isn’t reasonably practicable to avoid work at height, take steps to eliminate falls, irrespective of the height, for example:

  • Using extensive edge protection
  • Using work restraint equipment

Mitigate risk - When it not reasonably practicable to avoid or prevent falls, mitigate the distances and consequences of a fall, for example

  • Using safety harnesses
  • Using safety nets or soft-landing systems

Free risk insight factsheet

To help businesses be more prepared, we’ve produced a free Work at height risk insight factsheet with information on:

  • Legal duties
  • Planning
  • Fragile roofs
  • Methods of protecting against falls
  • Types of personal fall protection equipment
  • Other equipment used at height

Download your free copy here.

QBE Contractors Combined insurance

Every project can be different, so contractors need to be open-minded, agile and adaptable. That’s why we have the insurance to match. Our new Contractors Combined packages the main insurance covers into a single policy to meet the specific needs of the mid-market contracting sector. 

Customers can also access a library of Risk Snapshot guides, guidance notes, toolkits and other risk management material, along with RoSPA accredited online health and safety e-learning.

You can find out more about QBE Contractors Combined insurance here.