Health and safety at work

Work at Height

Work at height means work in any place where, if precautions were not taken, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury. You are working at height if you:

  • work above ground / floor level
  • could fall from an edge, through an opening or fragile surface
  • could fall from ground level into an opening in a floor or a hole in the ground

Work at height does not include a slip or a trip on the level, as a fall from height has to involve a fall from one level to a lower level, nor does it include walking up and down a permanent staircase in a building.

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work at height where there is risk of a fall liable to cause personal injury. They place duties on employers, and those who control any work at height activity (such as facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height).

As part of the Regulations, you must ensure:

  • all work at height is properly planned and organised
  • those involved in work at height are competent
  • the risks from work at height are assessed, and appropriate work equipment is selected and used
  • the risks of working on or near fragile surfaces are properly managed
  • the equipment used for work at height is properly inspected and maintained

Ladders and stepladders

The law says that ladders can be used for work at height when a risk assessment has shown that using equipment offering a higher level of fall protection is not justified because of the low risk and short duration of use, or there are existing workplace features which cannot be altered.

Short duration is not the deciding factor in establishing whether an activity is acceptable or not – you should have first considered the risk. As a guide, if your task would require staying up a leaning ladder or stepladder for more than 30 minutes at a time, it is recommended that you consider alternative equipment.

You should only use ladders in situations where they can be used safely, eg where the ladder will be level and stable, and where its reasonably practicable to do so, the ladder can be secured.

Working platforms

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 changed the meaning of working platforms, which were traditionally seen as fully-boarded platforms with handrails and toe boards. A working platform can now be virtually any surface from which work can be carried out, such as:

  • a roof
  • a floor
  • a platform on a scaffold
  • mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs)
  • the treads of a stepladder

Guard rails

For non-construction work, there are no prescriptive dimensions. However, guard rails, toe boards, barriers and other collective means of protection should be of sufficient dimension to ensure a person cannot fall through or over them.

In the absence of any standards, HSE operational guidance suggests that guard rail heights in non-construction activities should be a minimum of 950mm. Any protection below this height should be justified on the basis of a risk assessment.

For buildings, factories, warehouses, offices, public buildings, retail premises etc., sufficient dimensions for guard rails or similar barriers will be achieved by complying with the Building Regulations – which require guard rails to be 1100mm.

For plant, machinery, equipment etc., sufficient dimensions will be achieved by compliance with any relevant EN standard. For example, BS EN 14122-3:2013 (covering the safety of machinery access) specifies a top guard rail of 1100mm, while the essential health and safety requirements of the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 specify that such equipment is 'designed and constructed to avoid falls’.

Mobile Elevated Working Platforms

If you are thinking of using a MEWP, consider the following things:

  • height: how high is the job from the ground?
  • application: do you have the appropriate MEWP for the job? (if you're not sure, check with the hirer or manufacturer)
  • conditions: what are the ground conditions like? Is there a risk of the MEWP becoming unstable or overturning?
  • operators: are the people using the MEWP trained, competent and fit to do so?
  • obstructions: could the MEWP be caught on any protruding features or overhead hazards, e.g. steelwork, tree branches or power lines?
  • traffic: is there passing traffic and, if so, what do you need to do to prevent collisions?
  • restraint: do you need to use either work restraint (to prevent people climbing out of the MEWP) or a fall arrest system (which will stop a person hitting the ground if they fall out)? Allowing people to climb out of the basket is not normally recommended – do you need to do this as part of the job?
  • Checks: has the MEWP been examined, inspected and maintained as required by the manufacturer's instructions and have daily checks been carried out?


Read the HSE's scaffolding FAQ (link opens in new window).


You should make sure that people with sufficient skills, knowledge and experience are employed to perform the task, or, if they are being trained, that they work under the supervision of somebody competent to do it.

In the case of low-risk, short duration tasks involving ladders, competence requirements may be no more than making sure employees receive instruction on how to use the equipment safely (e.g. how to tie a ladder properly) and appropriate training. Training often takes place on the job, it does not always take place in a classroom.

When a more technical level of competence is required, for example, drawing up a plan for assembling a complex scaffold, existing training and certification schemes drawn up by trade associations and industry is one way to help demonstrate competence.