Working at heights always involves the risk of a fall. But it’s not just the steelworker on a skyscraper handling a rivet gun 850 feet in the air who needs to be careful; a dangerous fall can occur even when completing routine tasks like going up a ladder to reach items up on a shelf.
In fact, the most common height to fall from in the workplace is 6–10 feet, accounting for 25% of all fall-related deaths. Even a responsible employer who takes health and safety seriously and provides workers with the requisite equipment and training needs to stay vigilant in keeping workers aware of the hazard of falls when working at heights. When considering health and safety when working from heights in your workplace, take extra care and be mindful of these four hidden causes to reduce the chance of falls.
A workplace with a strong health and safety culture will include robust training for their employees who work from heights. However, employees will grow more complacent as they become more comfortable working from heights. The same height that gave them pause and a knot in their stomach when they started will begin to feel natural as their experience grows. To combat the complacency curve in the workplace, supervisors should draw attention to the risk of a fall on a regular basis and share stories of workplace falls that were a direct result of overlooking risk. Remember that risk assessments in the workplace aren’t just a box to check, but rather a daily part of a strong health and safety culture—and that avoiding the onset of complacency will help prevent workers from getting too comfortable with risks inherent in working at heights.
Working from heights while drowsy or tired makes a fall more likely. An over-extended worker can struggle to maintain focus and allow their mind to wander from their work, which can cause them to make an error that could lead to a fall. Supervisors can combat fatigue in the workplace by ensuring workers have ample breaks throughout the day and are not working alone for long stretches.
Checking in with workers and asking about their physical and mental well-being is also a great idea; a quick chat could reveal an employee had trouble sleeping the night before. Armed with that knowledge, the supervisor could then remind the worker of the hazards of working from heights while tired. Often, simply heightening awareness of hazards can mitigate the chances of an incident. The goal should be an engaged and alert workforce that is much less likely to become tired and distracted.
An employee experienced and trained in working at heights, and armed with all appropriate equipment arrives late on the worksite. Sheepishly, he reports to his supervisor who urges him to hurry up and get to work because of a sudden change in the production schedule.
Meeting deadlines is important but it can’t supersede worker safety. Tight deadlines or errors that delay work will occur, but should never result in workers feeling rushed, particularly when working at heights. A risk of a fall is always pronounced when work is done hastily, as health and safety precautions are often the first things workers skip when expediting their work.
Supervisors should take into account pressures to perform in the workplace and, when they’re unavoidable, they should do their best to mitigate the risks they present by keeping safety front of mind. And when workers are speeding through their tasks faster than required, it may be worth intervening to slow things down, especially when the possibility of a fall is present. Sometimes, simply pulling them aside for a quick reminder about the risk of rushing can potentially avoid an incident.
Workers can experience anger, frustration, and other vexatious emotions while in the workplace. Being frustrated or angry while working at heights is extremely dangerous and increases the risk of a fall or incident. Similar to the effect of working while tired or in a rush, a frustrated worker at heights is more likely to make errors in judgment, lose focus, and make a mistake that can lead to a fall.
The best way to avoid letting frustration endanger employees is to deal with it as soon as it is detectable. Whenever a supervisor or fellow worker notices someone’s emotions getting the better of them while working at heights, they should be gently reminded of the risk of a fall and encouraged to take a break and cool off. This is a delicate situation because someone who is already frustrated may not be receptive to someone asking them to calm down even if it’s in their best interest. The entire workplace should be made aware during onboarding and reminded at regular intervals by supervisors of the risks a frustrated worker can create not only for himself but for his fellow workers to build a culture where delicate interventions like these can be more easily embraced at critical times.
Even better, you may want to consider implementing a human factors training program that can help workers learn to recognize when they’re becoming frustrated. This will allow them to trigger on their emotions and take steps to prevent them from putting themselves or others in danger. As an added benefit, this will help workers take charge of their own safety and potentially prevent issues when working alone, or when others are unable to intervene. And it helps supervisors and the organization prioritize fixing the ongoing sources of frustration like a piece of equipment that keeps breaking down or fluctuating priorities and deadlines.
Complacency, fatigue, rushing and frustration can all on their own lead to safety issues for those working at heights. When two or more of these states occur at the same time, they compound and raise the risk of an incident exponentially. An experienced worker, feeling safe and without risk while working at 15 feet high, becomes frustrated when a trainee makes an error and causes a delay in work. He rushes to compensate for lost time and works through his lunch break. At this point, the risk for a fall is much higher as the worker is now complacent, frustrated and tired while rushing through his work.
In order to avoid letting these human factors create the risk for a fall while working at heights, establishing a company-wide approach to dealing with human factors is important. Even if the extent of your workplace’s working at heights is sporadically climbing a ladder, dedicate extra care and training to ladder safety and the hidden issues that contribute to falls. By building good habits and a stronger awareness of human factors, you can help protect employees and foster a safer workplace climate when working at heights.