Work at Height what is it? And what different forms can it take?

Work at Height, what is it? And what different forms can it take?

What is Work at Height?

This very much used to be down to personal opinion, because prior to the publication of the HSE’s 2005 Work at Height Regulations, Working at Height could be defined by the individual or company undertaking the task. So whilst one person may of defined Working at Height as being stood on the bottom rung of a ladder, another person may of been of the opinion that they weren’t Working at Height until they were 3 metres off the ground!!

As there was no specific definition, for at what height, Working at Height began, it created confusion and dangers and in 2003/4 the most common cause of all major accidents within the construction industry was Falling from Height, with 1107 major injuries being reported.

Then (and not before time) the UK’s Health and Safety Executive released The Work at Height Regulations 2005 which included the requirement for all work at height activities to be:

  1. Properly planned;
  2. Appropriately supervised
  3. Carried out in a manner which is so far as is reasonably practicable safe.

It also stated that Work at Height is defined as any work activity that takes place above ground level (such as the bottom rung of a ladder) and includes excavations and roof tops where there is a potential for a fall from height.

A full copy of the regulations can be found here:


In the UK the 3 most common forms of Work at Height used to access larger structures, restricted areas, groundworks and general heights above 3 meters are:



Extremely commonplace and something that most people are familiar with, scaffolding structures are individual and adaptable by design and can be constructed to form stable stairways, walkways or multi-level platforms that can be used to provide access, protection, work areas or additional storage space. Once built the scaffolding has a low man power requirement (needs to be inspected by a competent person every 7 days) and can be easily dismantled by trained operatives.

There are downsides to using scaffolding and these include:

  • The man hours and installation costs to build significant scaffolding structures are often extremely large.
  • Additional contractors still need to be found to carry out the repairs, maintenance or installation that the scaffold was erected to provide access for.
  • Scaffolding is usually obtrusive and due to the large footprint required it can restrict access requirements to walkways, plant or machinery.

There are also more serious downsides to using scaffolding and probably the most significant is the poor health and safety statistics associated with the industry, for the period 2010 – 2016 a total of 69 UK deaths were reported to the HSE, that’s almost 10 deaths per year without bringing the number of serious and minor injuries into the equation! Though it’s a commonplace accepted access method, by its very nature the task of erecting scaffolding exposes scaffolders to significant hazards.

Mobile Elevated Work Platforms (MWEPS)

With the requirement of only 1 days training to achieve the relevant IPAF operator’s licence, these machines are now commonplace across construction sites and are utilised by most onshore sectors of industry, they come in a wide range of sizes and can be small enough to fit into lifts or large enough to access heights of over 180ft! They come in fixed boom or articulated configurations with some being able to go ‘down and under’ as well as ‘up and over’ making those models well suited tasks such as roadside bridge inspections.

As with any mechanical device or vehicle there are operational restrictions, hazards and costs associated with using MWEPs, these include but are not limited to:

  • Overturning of the MWEP due to the topography or ground subsidence.
  • Costs, these machines are expensive to buy and the hire costs can be very expensive once larger sized machines start to be required.
  • Entrapment of the operative between the basket and a fixed structure such as a bridge or roof beam.

Though the use of MWEPs is one of the safer forms of Working at Height, in 2016 there were 66 deaths reported worldwide with most of these being caused by operator error. The biggest drawback with using MWEPs for access, is the requirement for level ground that is free from excessive mud, obstacles or the possibility of subsidence. Aerial hazards such as power lines, overhanging structures etc can also make the use of MWEPs an impracticable or non-cost-effective solution.

Industrial Rope Access

Industrial Rope Access became established as a method of Work at Height in the late 1980’s and quickly became recognised and approved by the UK’s HSE. It takes the principles of caving and abseiling, increases the factors of safety and then applies them to industrial sectors such as Nuclear, Construction and Offshore Oil and Gas. Rope Access Technicians are highly trained and the most widely recognised training and certification body is the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) which has in excess 120,000 technicians on their database.

Some of the benefits of industrial rope access include:

  • Its quick set up time and low physical and visual impact on buildings and structures.
  • It is extremely cost effective for short term workscopes such as inspection, cleaning or installation of banners etc.
  • All IRATA technicians are trained, assessed and qualified in rescue techniques meaning that safety is at the forefront of each workscope undertaken.
  • Rope access technicians are multi-skilled, they are not just abseilers or cavers; they can be electricians, welders or inspectors who don’t need a scaffold tower built or a MWEP to be hired so they can reach their place of work.

The use of Rope Access has been proven to be one of the safest Work at Height methods currently used in the UK, as with all access methods there are restrictions to its use such as during extreme weather conditions etc, but it is certainly the most flexible and adaptable form of accessing workscopes that require a Work at Height solution.


For more information on how Rope Access might be able to provide a solution to your Work at Height contact Richie Milton at so that we can discuss your needs or arrange a site visit.