The consequences of breaching 'work at height' regulations

The sentencing this month of a civil engineering firm and one of its directors following the death of an employee is a stark reminder of the need for businesses to guarantee the safety of those working from height.

Peter Halligan died when he fell 15 metres through an open manhole into an empty water storage tank at Sutton Hall Farm in August 2008. Peter and a colleague had been constructing brick manhole chambers above the 7.5 metre wide circular tank which had been installed to collect flood water.

A HSE investigation found they had not been given sufficient information or a risk assessment for the job, and were not given any advice about working above the storage tank by their employer.

Liverpool Crown Court heard how Peter Stuart, a director of Galt Civil Engineering Ltd, Mr Halligan’s employer, had visited the site the day before the accident and witnessed employees working over the exposed openings in the tank, but took no action to put safety measures in place.

Galt Civil Engineering Ltd, which is in administration, and Peter Stuart pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 by failing to ensure the safety of workers. Galt Civil Engineering Ltd, of Manchester Road in Wilmslow, received a nominal fine of £50 and was ordered to pay prosecution costs of £24,974. Peter Stuart, of Delph Lane in Chorley, was fined £30,000 with no costs.

David Edwards of Harrison Drury, said: "Falls from height are the biggest cause of workplace deaths in the construction industry and, as the HSE pointed out in the above case, there were several ways the work could have been carried out safely, such as using a harness, installing a guardrail around the opening, or providing temporary covers. However, none of these were provided.

"This case shows how health and safety when working at height doesn’t just affect work being carried out at the top of buildings. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work at height where there is a risk of a fall to cause personal injury."

David added: "It is also worth noting the personal liability of up to £30,000 for breaches of the regulations and the threat of enforcement action against personal assets, such as residential property.

"The regulations place duties on employers, the self-employed, and any person who controls the work of others, such as facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height. Simply put, while there are responsibilities from employee to employer, Regulation 6(3) stipulates that an employer must do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent anyone falling." Employers should ensure that they have all relevant risk assessments in place, particularly if working at height is an obvious issue, and also seek prompt legal advice as soon as possible whenever an investigation is instigated by the HSE.