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The working at heights conundrum: would you call this working at heights?

13 February 2019 | by Neil Pulham

By Neil Pulham


The official regulations define working at height as “working at or below ground level and obtaining access to such a workplace except by staircase where, if measures of regulations are not followed, there is potential for a fall resulting in injury”.


Bit of a tongue-twister, granted, but that sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it?


However, I have a bit of a conundrum for you. Imagine temporary portacabins stacked on top of one another on a building site with an external metal staircase providing access to the upper cabins. If you use that staircase, are you technically ‘working at height’?


I’ve posed this conundrum at a few NTS train the trainer sessions, and it has certainly prompted some lively debate among attendees.


The answer? It absolutely is working at heights!


This is for one very simple reason: those portacabins are not a permanent workplace. It all comes down to someone’s perception of a permanent workplace which, admittedly, isn’t always that obvious on the face of it.


In our example, because those portacabin offices are placed temporarily during site construction, they’re not a permanent workplace, and accessing those upper portacabins via an external staircase falls within the working at heights regulations (after all, falling from the top would leave you with a significant chance of sustaining an injury).


This often comes as a surprise to our trainees, but I think it’s the same on a wider scale. Site managers and key stakeholders of businesses at which such installations might take place are unlikely to be aware of this fact, and therefore may inadvertently neglect to ensure the staircases are as safe as they should be.


The first step to ensuring instances such as this are properly accounted for is to be aware of the intricacies of the working at heights regulations. Thankfully, now you’ve read this blog post, you’re aware of how it impacts stacked portacabins! Beyond that, checks would need carrying out to ensure the staircase is properly attached and that an anti-slip surface is applied. It’s also important to ensure the staircase is left uncluttered and to undertake general housekeeping related to the portacabins to ensure the area is as safe as possible.


These solutions are thankfully pretty straightforward; for instance, to ensure the stairs are always clear, you may simply need a sign that politely requests workers avoid leaving items on them, whilst simultaneously raising awareness across the site that using the stairs is classed as working at height. As with so many things health and safety related, it’s often the smallest changes that will lead to a successful risk assessment.


Some common sense clearly needs to be applied, too; we certainly wouldn’t advise that workers attach safety harnesses to themselves when using such staircases, after all!


It’s important to bear in mind that this isn’t a huge, undiscovered danger on working sites, it’s simply a great example of some of the more unusual circumstances that fall under the scope of the working at height regulations. It also demonstrates that we don’t always realise when an action we’re undertaking is subject to regulations; this discovery takes place a lot during our train the trainer sessions (manual handling is a classic example - we do so much every day that falls under that bracket!).


If you’re tasked with providing in-house training for working at heights, why not book yourself a space on one of our sessions? Check out the latest course dates by clicking here.

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