Why the Work at Height Regulations must be saved

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In September last year, the former Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Jacob Rees-Mogg, introduced the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill to the House of Commons.

Dubbed the ‘Brexit Freedom Bill’ by sympathetic elements in the press, it will ‘sunset’ all retained European Union (EU) laws on 31 December 2023 – in principle allowing the UK to create new regulations tailored to the country’s needs. It will also give the UK government the power to amend, repeal or replace any retained EU law.

Although on the surface repealing unnecessary ‘bureaucracy’ in a bid to make the UK more competitive might seem attractive or even sensible, the complexity of the regulatory landscape governing UK industry means this process requires a great deal more thought and attention than is currently being given. Any attempt to create a bonfire of regulations could set workplace health and safety back by decades.

Peter Bennett OBE: "The Working at Height Regulations have been effective at reducing fatalities."

Major step change in 2005

Regulations aimed at ensuring safe working at height have been around in the UK for a considerable period of time (though historically only covering the construction industry), but the major step change came in 2005 with the implementation of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 (WAHR). For the first time, the law acknowledged that working at height is a daily occurrence in all sectors and indeed in homes across the UK.

Crucially, the WAHR also extended legal protection to workers in all industries by requiring employers to take a variety of measures to ensure all work at height is carried out safely and to prevent falls at work that could result in death or injury. It is estimated that one million companies and 10 million workers carry out work involving some form of working at height every year, highlighting the vast number of people at daily risk of falling from height.

At the AIF, we recognise the compelling need to retain the Work at Height Regulations and we believe these regulations must be exempted from sunset clauses within the EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and must be assimilated into UK legislation. If the Bill passes without a specific reassurance from the government to retain the WAHR, the regulations will automatically be axed on 31 December 2023.

If the Bill passes without specific reassurances on health and safety legislation, the fight will begin to persuade ministers to replace the Work at Height Regulations with a new domestic law offering equal protection for workers, before the automatic expiry date kicks in on 31 December 2023 – or at the very least to allow a ‘stay of execution’, permitted until June 2026, to allow further consultation.

The UK is a world-leader in prevention of falls from height and consistently shows one of the lowest rates of fatal injury in Europe. Photograph: iStock

The big risk is this process could result in a ‘watered down’ version of the regulations, since the Bill allows replacement regulations to be made less burdensome but not more burdensome for employers and any changes can be pushed through without any stakeholder consultation or parliamentary debate.

Falls from height have historically been and remain one of the biggest causes of workplace fatalities and major injury. It is our view that any abolition, amendment or watering down of these regulations could have a profoundly negative effect for those working at height across the UK. A point we have made very strongly to the government.

Working at height has become safer

Since their introduction in 2005, the WAHR have been effective at reducing fatalities. In 2003–04, the last full year of statistics available prior to the introduction of the regulations, there were 67 fatal accidents and 1,107 major injuries as a result of falling from a height, accounting for 28 per cent of all major workplace injuries in Britain. This has reduced to less than half that amount in 2021–22, with 29 fatalities reported.

Falls have life-changing consequences. Survivors are unlikely to return to their previous occupation if they can return to work at all. There are emotional costs for the family, colleagues and anyone who witnessed the fall. Compared with some other reportable injuries, falls from height are more likely to result in life-changing injuries.

Fall survivors will continue to place demands on our health service and a significant burden on our welfare system for decades to come. In the past 10 years, falls have amounted to over 54,000 non-fatal injuries in Britain. To repeal the WAHR would be to remove essential safeguards, leading not only to a probable surge in fatalities but to a rise in life-changing and other injuries, in turn placing further pressure on the health service and welfare systems.

The UK is a world-leader in prevention of falls from height and consistently shows one of the lowest rates of fatal injury in Europe. Our technological expertise in improving the safety and efficiency of working at height in the construction and building sectors are internationally recognised. This in itself presents an opportunity for the UK to export this experience and know-how internationally.

We appreciate there is much more still to be done to ensure work at height is carried out in a safer fashion in the UK. The AIF will continue to champion easier reporting of fall from height injuries by employers under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR) regulations and reporting regime to help drive down avoidable incidents and allow for improved monitoring of employers’ performance around safe work at height.

Retrograde step

We will also pioneer and promote technology which improves safety and reduces the need to work from height where possible. However, it must be noted the WAHR have been hard-earned, often with the UK at the forefront pushing for their adoption when they were drawn up by the EU in the early 2000s, championing safety, and it would be a significantly retrograde step if the regulations were not assimilated into UK legislation. This is an argument the AIF will continue to present to MPs, local authorities and government officials to ensure those working at height are given the maximum protection to do their job safely.

Ultimately, these regulations are there for a simple purpose – to save lives and prevent serious accidents – and legislators must recognise their importance before it is too late.

The AIF is the forum for the 10 principal trade associations and industry bodies involved in the provision of equipment and methods to allow individuals to work safely at height. Each AIF member organisation represents a different sector of the work at height industry and are recognised leaders in their respective fields. Support the AIF campaign to retain the WAHR at: accessindustryforum.org.uk

Follow the Bill's passage here

Peter Bennett OBE is Chair of Access Industry Forum (AIF)


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