Falls from height account for a significant proportion of workplace and at-home serious and fatal accidents in many countries around the world. In this article Andrew Sharman argues that we must to engage, encourage and empower workers to think differently about how they perceive risks in the workplace.

Falls from height account for a significant proportion of workplace and at-home serious and fatal accidents in many countries around the world. In this article Andrew Sharman argues that we must to engage, encourage and empower workers to think differently about how they perceive risks in the workplace.

We’ve all seen them haven’t we? The images in magazines and on the internet, those adrenalin-fuelled daredevils hell-bent on extreme sports. Each time we see them we catch our breath as we observe how they constantly push the limits whilst at the same time carefully seem to manage the ultra-fine balance between life and death. As we look on in wonder, are we witnessing a super-high degree of skill, learned through years of dedicated practice? As we look on in disbelief, though, we can’t help but wonder if they’re just lucky. Or plain stupid. What’s in their mind? Why do they do it?

Now, to set the record straight, I’m apt to partake in some pretty unusual hobbies. B.A.S.E. jumping, paragliding, sea kayaking, motorcycling and swimming with sharks would all feature in the ‘Hobbies & Interests’ section of my CV. But I’m not referring to these sorts of activities here – in fact, to be abundantly clear, I don’t even consider these ‘extreme’ sports, they are (at least to me) simply an activity with a degree of risk to be managed – just like football, rugby, martial arts, trail-running – and, arguably, even table tennis and almost any other sport you can think of. Rather, I’m referring to those idiots on ladders. The chap repairing the roof. The bloke installing the new satellite dish. Those two guys who realise they don’t have enough scaffolding and so create an alternative access using whatever comes to hand. The worker stretching out to joint a cable just out of reach. The engineer replacing a broken streetlamp. The painter leaning out to get that last little bit… These aerial acrobats have become so popular that there’s even now dedicated PowerPoint slideshows doing the rounds with photographs of such high-jinks, typically generating a guilty giggle and often incorporated into safety toolbox talks.

It doesn’t matter where we are in the world, we’re likely to find at least one ‘idiot on a ladder’ or working at height somewhere. Some of you, as health and safety practitioners or operational managers may have even found them in your own workplaces. Only last week during a site visit the factory manager I was with did a double-take as we turned a corner to find a forklift truck, engine running, driver in place, its forks raised to maximum height, with a ‘working platform’ made out of an old pallet, upon which stretched upwards the longest ladder I’d ever seen. Right at the top, many metres above us, was an intrepid maintenance technician – clearly no sufferer of vertigo – with wrench in hand, attempting to fix a leaking pipe. A few metres away, a pile of temporary scaffolding pipes and clips sat silently, just begging to be noticed.

Work at height has been a priority issue for most workplace safety regulators and inspectors around the world for many years. Without doubt, most readers of this journal would consider work at height as a potential ‘high risk’ task that requires careful assessment and planning, and diligence in execution. But why isn’t our assessment of these risks shared by the workers engaged in carrying out the task? And why is it that they seem so… oblivious to the very real and present danger that they place themselves in?

Falling from the stars (and stripes)

Falling from heights is one of the most common causes of admission to hospital in the United Kingdom, USA and several other supposedly ‘developed’ nations. Unsurprisingly it also ranks in the top ten of Accidental Deaths for many of these countries too. So why has our thinking not developed to such a degree to allow us to see the risks for what they are? But it’s not just the ordinary folks – in the last twelve months legendary tough guy Brad Pitt has taken a tumble leaving his handsome face scuffed and scarred, and Tom Cruise suffering a similar fate too.

Assessing the risks

The accidents above highlight two key issues. The first is around assessment of the actual risks – subsequent investigations in each case found that the formal risk assessments were, at best, lacking. In two of the events, risk assessments were not even completed.

For example, in its investigation of the oil platform death, the Health & Safety Executive found that the task had not been properly planned: “Assessing the risks of the job properly would have identified that the potentially sharp edge presented a very clear danger to anyone suspended and working on ropes rigged against it.” But it transpired that the risk assessment had failed to include the risk of ropes being cut or damaged by such sharp edges and instead simply referred to “generic (work at height) procedures… rather than being really focused on the job in hand.”

I’m confident that readers will be savvy with the art of robust risk assessment and don’t intend to use page space here to harp on about the importance of this, or clipping on, cordoning off areas below, or the use of hard hats above and below. Instead let’s focus on digging deeper. The second key issue is perhaps the more challenging: risk perception. So, let’s return to the oil platform. During the set up of the job, the deceased and his team members were aware that the access ropes needed to run over the edge of the hatch, however they did not spot the very real risk of the rope being severed by the hatch edge, instead they “just saw a rather dirty piece of steelwork and didn’t recognise it as being sharp.”

Golden rules

worker at heightWork at height often features in an organisation’s Golden Rules for workplace health and safety. The logic behind Golden Rules is sensible: identify the biggest risks of fatal or serious injuries and create an absolute non-negotiable rule for their control. Just like on the Pakistan construction site in the case study above, many of our clients have in the past typically include a statement such as “All work at height must be properly controlled. Those working at height must always wear a harness and be clipped on at all times.” But that doesn’t mean that it always happens like that, does it? Could it be that the workers’ perception of the risk doesn’t match the intent of the rule?

The absence of accidents does not equal the existence of safety

Further discussions with our man revealed that he had never suffered a fall from height in his career; he’d “always been careful” he added. This notion that a wealth of experience makes us invincible to risk is reinforced in some people because “it’s never happened to me”. But as I’ve suggested in previous articles and also in my book From Accidents to Zero, the absence of accidents does not equal the existence of safety. In fact, ask anyone who has survived a fall from height and almost all will say that they didn’t see it coming. Some, like Jason Anker[1] will even go out of their way to share their story in the hope that it prevents someone else suffering the same fate.

So what can we do about risk perception? Whether it’s working at height, or any other potentially risky work task, maybe an alternate angle could help. All too frequently risk assessments are completed at the desk-top. In the event that the assessor gets out to the work location, the activity is often done in relative silence, perhaps ignoring the workers themselves. In our bid to create safety in the workplace employee engagement is vital. It’s time to build dialogue rather than assume alignment on risk. Try asking workers “What is slow, inconvenient or uncomfortable about doing this job safely?” – it’s a sure-fire winner to get them thinking. You’ll either get suggestions for improvement, or confirmation that things are under control. With the latter you then have room for a follow-up: “So, if I were working with you today, what would I need to know in order to go home safely after work?” More thinking encouraged, and a verbal confirmation of the risks, rules and procedures associated with the job which serves well as salient reminder to the worker. If you spot a risk that’s not been mentioned this can be dropped into the conversation at this point and discussion continued. You might even try “So what could we do to make this task even safer?” Safety dialogues like this can be done at any time, not just during the risk assessment process, and by anyone, not just the safety manager. They can even be used by managers and supervisors on a daily basis to boost risk awareness right around the workplace.

The time for toolbox talks showing idiots on ladders has passed, let’s move beyond ‘superheroes on stilts’ and use good old-fashioned conversation to engage, empower and equip our workers with enhanced risk perception skills. It might just stop them – and you – from falling from grace.