Teresa Budworth: Height! How high is that then?

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Sometimes health and safety can seem a little vague. Let’s take “work at height” for example.

We know work at height is dangerous. It leads to over 4,000 serious injuries in the workplace every year. We know there are regulations governing work at height – they’re called the Work at Height Regulations. But what we don’t know is how high is “height”. Is it 5 metres, 10 metres, 1 metre?

This apparent vagueness with “height” can lead to some interesting interpretations. A primary school Head Teacher friend of mine was recently asked to carry out a work at height risk assessment. Her instructions – “to assess the risks of falling from anything the height of a kerb or more.”

Now I reckon such a risk assessment could take a very long time. There are quite a lot of things in a school that are the height of a kerb, or higher. Taking her instructions literally, she’d need to list them all and tick each one off when assessed? “Simmons from Year 6 (tick). Higher than the height of a kerb (tick). Risk of falling from him (negligible).”

And what about the 10 foot ditch at the far end of the playing field? Strictly speaking it isn’t higher than a kerb, unless you’re actually in it. Would that need to be assessed?

Let’s look at what the school got right, and what it got wrong.

The Work at Height Regulations make it clear that risk assessments must be carried out for work at height. So they got that right.

What they got wrong was what the Regulations say about height. They say a place is ‘at height’ if “a person could be injured falling from it, even if it is at or below ground level.” So this idea of a “kerb or higher” is nonsense.

And the other thing they got wrong was to think of risk assessments as tick box exercises where “anything” must be looked into. They’re not. All that needs to be considered are the things that “could reasonably be expected to cause harm.”

If you ever hear of a school cordoning off a kerb “for health and safety reasons” please don’t blame health and safety. Blame the person who didn’t bother finding out what they were talking about in the first place!

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About Teresa Budworth

Teresa Budworth, Chief Executive of the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health

During a 30 year career in health and safety, she has specialised in safety consultancy; working with a number of Boards of Directors on implementing safety governance within large and diverse organisations. Her work on competence, education and training culminated in her appointment as Chief Executive of NEBOSH; the National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health, in 2006.

Prior to joining NEBOSH, Teresa combined management of Norwich Union Risk Service’s (now Aviva) Consultancy operation with her post as a non-executive Director and Trustee of NEBOSH and was Senior Examiner for Diploma Part One from its inception in 1997. She is a Visiting Senior Teaching Fellow and member of the Examination Board for post graduate courses in Occupational Health at the University of Warwick’s Medical School. She is a member of RoSPA’s National Occupational Safety and Health Committee and also serves on the judging panel for RoSPA’s annual occupational safety and health awards. She is a member of IOSH Council.

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