Gravity can be a hard master, whether you’re up a ladder, on the roof of a building or anywhere else off the ground.

In fact, 4000 serious injuries are caused by falls each year in British industry, more than any other type of accident.

Falls are also among the biggest workplace killers, accounting for about 60 deaths each year.

Agricultural work carries an above-average risk of falling accidents.

Farming, forestry and horticulture employ about 1% of the national workforce but last year they accounted for approximately 13% of the fatal falls, which is why the Falls from Height safety campaign has a strong emphasis on farming risks.

Although the campaign is called “Falls from Height”, you don’t have to be very high to suffer a serious fall.

Recent case histories include at least one fatality and numerous injuries due to falls from 2m or less, and the long list of potential risk situations includes climbing on machines to carry out repairs and standing on a step ladder to check the fuel level in the diesel storage tank.

Falling from ground level into a hole can also cause serious injury and is covered in the campaign.

Why agriculture has a poor falls record

Farming often involves people working on their own, and this is one of the reasons for the relatively high risk of accidental falls in agriculture.

Not only does working alone increase the risk of an accident but it also means that if someone is seriously injured there is nobody to call for help.

If neighbouring farmers agreed to help each other with jobs that carry a particular risk of accidents, some injuries could be avoided and it would probably get jobs done more quickly.

Another problem is the financial pressure many farmers are facing.

This increases the likelihood of choosing the do-it-yourself approach instead of paying a specialist contractor to do the work.

A further factor in the equation is that repair jobs often follow an emergency such as damage caused by a storm, increasing the likelihood that the job is done hastily and with insufficient planning.

Making the job safer

Planning, including a risk assessment, should be an essential part of the preparation for jobs that involve working at height, and this has high priority in the new Work at Height regulations.

The regulations, introduced last year and a legal requirement, are supported by the Falls from Height campaign.

They apply to employees, employers and the self-employed and specify that anyone doing jobs involving the risk of a fall must be competent to do that kind of work and must use suitable equipment that is properly maintained and inspected.

Measures are also needed to avoid injuries by objects falling from where someone is working.

Areas where this may be a risk must be clearly identified and have restricted access.

Priorities during the planning stages for jobs with a risk of falling are clearly defined, and at the top of the list is considering if the job can be avoided.

If it is essential, ensure that appropriate equipment and measures are used to minimise the risk of a fall.

Ladders

Jobs that involve climbing a ladder or working on a roof are at the top of the danger list – in fact ladders have such a poor safety record that a rumour last year suggested their use might be banned under the new regulations.

The ban did not materialise because in many situations a ladder is the only practical option, but their use is covered by strict guidelines.

Having decided that the job is essential, the next step before using a ladder is to check that other, safer access equipment could not be used instead.

If climbing a ladder is the best option the risk assessment should include checking that it is in good condition and that there is a firm, level base to support it.

In some situations it is possible to secure the ladder by roping it to a suitable support.

Ladders are acceptable for jobs that can be done quickly and with a low level of risk, but the risks increase significantly when using a ladder for long periods, moving it frequently or climbing repeatedly to carry tools or work materials.

The alternatives to using a ladder for more hazardous projects include a work platform or basket on a telehandler boom.

The platform has protective rails all round and should have controls enabling the occupant to operate the boom hydraulics.

Merlo’s 200kg capacity two-man work platform, equipped to operate on some of their loader models with 7-10m lift height, is in the price list at 3360.

Another option is to hire a self-propelled scissor-lift platform providing enough lift height for most on-farm building maintenance jobs.

Operator training is required for using both a telehandler work platform and the scissor-lift type.

Roofs

Working on roofs involves several different falling risks.

They include a fall climbing to or from the roof, falling through a roof light, treading on a weak part of the roof and falling off the edge.

Other roofing hazards include strong winds and other adverse weather conditions, which should always be avoided.

The risk of serious injury is increased because there is usually a solid floor below, and there are also special problems on buildings with sloping or curved roofs.

The initial assessment should include investigating whether the work could be done from the underside of the roof instead of the top, but if working on the roof is unavoidable, choose the safest option for gaining access and for lifting the work materials.

Evidence from case histories shows that some roof falls result from inadequate support platforms.

Each platform section should be at least 60cm wide and long enough to span at least three purlins, and there should be enough platform sections to provide a continuous walkway – gaps between sections are dangerous.

Bales stacked almost to roof height under the work area reduce the risk of injuries if there is a fall, while a sturdy barrier at least 910mm high will reduce the risk of falling over the edge.

Contractors

Even when a specialist contractor is called in to do risky jobs such as roof repairs, the farmer still has safety obligations.

These include drawing the contractor’s attention to any factors that could affect safety, such as tractor and other vehicle movements near the work area and the location of overhead wires.

Complying with the new regulations will mean more time needed for planning and preparing many jobs on the farm, and special access equipment costs more to buy or hire than using a ladder.

This could make ignoring the regulations seem a tempting option – at least until things go wrong.

Unfortunately serious accidents caused by falls happen on hundreds of farms each year and even the non-fatal falls can be disastrous – a broken leg may cause chaos if it stops someone doing the milking or driving a tractor for a few weeks.

While the risk of death or injury is likely to be the main deterrent, it is also worth remembering that the Work at Height regulations are a legal requirement with penalties for those who fail to comply.

Test your knowledge

How the HSE cab help

In 2004/5 47 people were killed as a result of farming and other agricultural related activities. Many more received serious injuries preventing them from working, sometimes for long periods. All these individual tragedies are avoidable.

It’s your life, your family your livehood – farm safely

For free help and advice contact the Health and Safety Executive at: www.hse.gov.uk or call 0845 345 0055