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Working in the construction industry is fraught with danger, with workers facing risks ranging from exposure to dangerous substances such as asbestos, to being hit by objects falling from above. One of the biggest dangers, however, is the risk of injury or death caused by falling from height.

Falls from height statistics

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), falls from height remain the most common cause of workplace fatality, accounting for almost a quarter of fatal injuries to workers (23%) in 2011/12. In that year alone there were a total of 40 fatalities caused by a fall from height, as well as a further 3,067 serious injuries.

HSE figures also highlight how the risk of a fall from height is greatest in the construction sector. Twenty-five of the forty fatal fall workplace accidents in 2011/12 were in construction. Three quarters of fatal fall injuries to the self-employed (17 out of 23) and about half of fatal falls to employees (8 out of 19) were in construction. More than half of workers fatally injured by falls had a construction occupation.

To put this in context, no other industry sector had more than two fatal injuries from slips, trips and falls, according to the HSE.

Scottish worker sustains injuries in fall from height

The risks facing construction workers and the types of injuries they can suffer have been highlighted in two recent prosecutions brought by the HSE.

In one case, a worker from Larkhall suffered severe injuries when he fell over four metres from the flat roof of a single storey extension being built at Ardrossan. He was involved in spreading out polythene sheeting on the roof but fell over an unprotected edge. He suffered serious injuries including a fractured collar bone and bruising to his right lung. He needed an operation to insert a metal plate and bone graft to repair his collar bone.

The HSE carried out an investigation into the incident, and found a total lack of edge protection or any other means to prevent falls from height along the roof edge where the worker fell. The scaffolding had not been built around the full roof edge to allow patio doors to be fitted, but it was never assembled in that area even after the doors were put in. The work on the roof carried on and was therefore undertaken in an unsafe manner as a result.

The Motherwell based firm was fined £13,400 after pleading guilty to breaching Regulation 6(3) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

Failure to plan leads to serious injury

In a second, even more serious incident, a trainee employee suffered multiple fractures after falling eight metres from a house roof in North London.

The firm he was working for had been fitting a flue liner down the chimney as part of installation work for a wood burning stove. The 22-year-old trainee was attempting to slide together an extendable roof ladder while balanced at the top of the access ladder against the house.

However, a subsequent investigation by the HSE found that the access ladder he was using was not long enough to clear the guttering and so didn’t extend to a point where he could step off safely. When the roof ladder began to slip away in his hands, it pulled him off the access ladder. As there was nothing for him to hold on to help him regain his balance, he fell three storeys to the ground below sustaining serious injuries, including breaks to two vertebrae, his left ankle and wrist, a fractured pelvis and torn ligaments.

As with the first incident, the HSE found that the incident could have been prevented if only the firm had planned the work properly and used the equipment in a safe manner.

The company was fined a total of £30,000 and ordered to pay a further £5,840 in costs after being found guilty in absentia of two separate breaches of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE Inspector Keith Levart pointed out that there was no shortage of information about the safe use of ladders and that it was only a matter of good fortune that the injuries sustained by the trainee were not fatal.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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