19th Dec, 2020 Read time 12 minutes

How to work safely at height

This article has been provided by Tap Into Safety and looks at how workers can be safer when working from height.

 Safely working at height is critical to keep your employees from falling to the ground, the level below or into holes such as trenches and service pits. Ideally, we should complete work at ground level, but in many instances, that is not possible.

Because so much work we do requires employees to work at height, organisations must put in safety measures and train in safe practices. In this article, we take a look at what safely working at height means and the measures you can take. 

Falls from height can lead to serious injuries that often result in fatalities. Sadly, there has been no improvement in the number of fall from height fatalities or the fatality rate in Australia in the past eight years. The statistics reveal that:

  • Every year, an average of 29 people die from work-related falls.
  • Falling from a height is the cause of 11% of all work-related deaths.
  • Half of the fatal falls involve distances of three metres or less (31% from a height of two metres or less, and a further 19% involve falls from between two and three metres).
  • The industries with the highest numbers of serious falls-related claims are Construction (20%), Manufacturing (12%) and Transport & Storage (11%).
  • Falls from ladders are the primary cause of work-related fatalities from heights (16%) followed by falls from trucks and semitrailers (11%).
  • Falls-related fatality rates increase with age, 65% of fall from height fatalities occur with workers aged 45 years and over.

How to lessen the risk of working at height

Where Possible Eliminate the Risk at the Design Stage

At the start of any project, the design of plant and structures can significantly impact the risks of a fall. Working on the roof, for example, creates significant risk, but there are things that you can do to provide work areas to safely work at height. Safe building design includes using non-fragile roof materials, locating plant items such as air-conditioners on the ground, or away from roof edges, using permanent safety mesh, considering the location of anchor points and mounting roof vents at low-level.

Access to areas at height should have safe entry to, and exit from, and edge protection, for example, permanent guardrails. Safe entry and exit not only applies to buildings and structures, you should ensure that you consider scaffolds, elevated work platforms and mobile plant that also require handrails, guardrails and barriers, toeboards, stairways and ladders. All of these protections help to support safely working at height.

Work on the Ground or a Solid Construction

Where practical, eliminating the risk of a fall by working on the ground is the best solution. However, where that is not possible, establishing a solid construction that has barriers installed to prevent a person falling over edges and into holes supports safely working at height. You must construct a barrier that can withstand the force of someone falling against it.

Barriers should consist of guardrails, solid balustrades or other structural components, for example, wire mesh supported by posts and provided with a reinforced top edge. The top of the guardrail or component should be between 900 mm and 1100 mm above the working surface. If you use a guardrail system, it should also have mid-rails and toe-boards or wire mesh infill panels.

Holes, penetrations and openings must be made safe immediately after being formed, for example with covers, barricading or by embedded mesh. The cover should also include signage indicating its purpose as a cover, for example, ‘DANGER HOLE BENEATH’.

Make temporary platforms that are safe to use

Temporary work platforms include scaffolds, elevating work platforms (EWP’s), mast climbers, workboxes, building maintenance units, portable or mobile fabricated platforms or any other platform that provides a working area designed to prevent a fall. These must be installed/built to a high standard and following relevant procedures. 


A person with management or control of a scaffold must not allow the use of a scaffold from which a person or object could fall more than 4 metres. Scaffolding work platforms are generally rated as light, medium or heavy-duty with specified weight and usage. Scaffolds must be strong enough to support the weight of your employees and the materials and tools that they are using. There are several different types of scaffolds, including fixed, frame, temporary and mobile. To safely work at height using a scaffold, they all require a level, flat, compacted surface, free of open floor edges and penetrations and installed well clear of powerlines.


Elevated work platforms (EWP’s) and scissor lifts are commonly in use to make safely working at height a controlled process. The main hazards related to the use of EWPs are unplanned contact with electric lines, overturning the machine, falling from the work platform, and potential crushing risks when elevating the platform or moving laterally. While working inside the EWP, your employees should be wearing a fall arrest harness. The fall arrest harness lanyard should be as short as possible and attached directly to the designated anchor point on the EWP,  and not to the handrail.

Workboxes and other platforms

Mast climbing work platforms are hoists with a working platform that is used to raise workers and material to a temporary working position. Workboxes and work platforms consist of a platform surrounded by edge protection, designed to provide an elevated work area for people working from the box. Workboxes are designed to be supported from above by a crane, hoist, or other mechanical devices, whereas work platforms are designed to be supported from underneath or the side by forklifts or other mechanical devices.

All workboxes must be securely attached and not suspended over people. Safely working at height while in the workbox, requires your employees to be attached to the anchorage by a lanyard and harness unless the workbox is fully enclosed.

Guardrails, toeboards and safety mesh

Where there is a possibility of a fall from height from 2 metres or over, guardrails help to protect to keep your employee’s safety working at height. Guardrails include handrails set at 900-1100mm and mid-rails. Installing toeboards and safety mesh prevents tools and materials from falling to the level below. These materials can act as projectiles if they come into contact with people and structures below.

Safety mesh does not prevent falls from the edge of a roof or through holes in a roof. You should always use safety mesh in conjunction with other types of fall prevention devices such as edge protection (e.g. guardrails), or other control measures such as fall arrest systems.

You should use guardrails to provide effective fall prevention:

  • at the edges of roofs
  • at the edges of mezzanine floors, walkways, stairways, ramps and landings
  • on top of plant and structures where you require access
  • around openings in floor and roof structures, and
  • at the edges of shafts, pits and other excavations.

Safely working at heights also means preventing falls into excavations and trenches. You should either install guard railing, including guardrails fitted to the top edges of trench shields, or a barrier approximately 1.5 metres back from the excavation, to prevent people from approaching the trench.

Training on proper ladder safety

Choosing to use a ladder to work at height should be your last choice after ruling out all other options. Too often, are the first consideration and using ladders results in a significant number of serious and fatal fall injuries.

Safely working at height using a ladder starts with selecting one that suits the work you wish to carry out. Inspect the ladder before use for any defects and if damaged, do not use. Note the load rating, which should be at least 120kg.

When setting up a ladder, you should check that:

  • it is the correct height for the work to avoid over-reaching or stretching
  • the locking devices are secure,
  • it is not placed so that the rungs support the weight of the ladder and any person using the ladder
  • you have set it up on a solid and stable surface to prevent the ladder from slipping
  • you place extension ladders at a slope of 4:1 (that means the distance between the ladder base and the supporting structure should be about 1 metre for every 4 metres of working ladder
  • it is secured at the top and bottom

Safely working from height when using a ladder means always maintaining ‘three points of contact’. When you’re going up or down a ladder, you should always have two feet and one hand, or one foot and two hands, on the ladder.  When you’re working from a ladder, you should have two feet and one other point of contact with the ladder, such as your hand or thighs leaning against the ladder.

Fall risk behaviour research findings

2019 research experiment investigates how construction workers react when they think that they may fall and the best way to train about fall from height risks. The study uses a VR system with a motion-tracking feature to monitor employees as they walk between two high buildings on a suspended plank of wood. One group of workers was shown an avatar demonstrating safe walking behaviours, and another was shown an avatar walking quickly and falling. The workers then had to walk the plank.

The results are very interesting in that the group, which was shown a positive walking example before they walked had a stable and slow walk, and most of them followed the norms shown by the avatar. The group who observed a negative falling scenario tended to walk in a more unstable and faster way, and most of them presented irregular walking trends. Their fear of falling and the consequences, as shown in the negative scenario triggered unsafe behaviours. The negatively reinforced learning method did not produce a safer response. Training that uses shock and negative and alarming imagery fails to reinforce safe behaviour.

This study and other research show the importance of training safe practices from a positive perspective. Your employees need to recognise height and fall risks but also need to be shown how to keep themselves and others safe while performing high-risk tasks such as working at height.  

To Conclude

This article discusses what safely working at height means in terms of falls from height and to depth and the measures you can take to promote safe practices. Falls from height often result in serious injuries that lead to fatalities. The research demonstrates that training in safe height practices needs to be done using positive examples and not rely on shock methods and serious fall consequences because negative scenarios lead to poor choices.

Designing out the need to work from height and perform activities on the ground where possible is the first step in safely working at height because that removes the risk. However, when work at height must occur, then temporary platforms such as scaffolds, EWP’s, workboxes and other working platforms provide a higher level of protection than ladders. You must place this equipment must be on a firm and secure footing, and your employees should also wear fall arrest PPE.

Too often, we use ladders to work at height when temporary platforms are a safer alternative. When using ladders, they must be suitable for the work that you wish to perform, securely footed and stable, and you must maintain three points of contact at all times.

Training employees to think carefully about their equipment selections and how they work at height should be a priority for organisations from the outset.

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