Safe system of work: Work at height

Control Measure Knowledge

To reduce the risk of injury or damage a safe system of work for work at height should include planning to ensure:

  • As much activity as possible should be carried out at ground level
  • Personnel can get safely to and from where they need to work at height
  • Equipment is suitable, stable and strong enough for the task, and is maintained and checked regularly
  • Personnel do not overload or overreach when working at height
  • Precautions are taken when working on or near fragile surfaces
  • There is protection from falling objects provided
  • Procedures for the emergency evacuation and rescue of responders are in place

For more information, refer to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance for working at height.

Specialist resources

Specialist fire and rescue resources and external specialist resources should be considered to provide support for incidents commanders. In circumstances where it is beyond the capability of the initial responders, specialist and technical rescue teams should be requested to attend the incident for further information refer to:

It may be necessary for incident commanders to take appropriate actions to secure the scene and prepare for the arrival of the requested resources. This may include:

  • Implementing cordons to restrict general access to the scene
  • Identifying best access routes and rendezvous points (RVPs) and communicating this to all control rooms
  • Liaising with on-site staff to:
    • Provide SSRI and rescue plans where available
    • Identify means of isolating non-essential equipment and utilities
    • Clear the area of non-essential site equipment
  • Isolating non-essential utilities and on-site machinery

Cordon controls

Aspects of the location and environment, such as the ground condition and weather, will need to be considered when establishing an effective cordon when working at height; these factors could affect the impact of items falling from height. The type and shape of structure can also influence the way items fall; for example the wind conditions found at some tall buildings may result in falling objects being carried in unpredictable paths.

The cordon for a work at height incident should consider factors, such as:

  • Objects falling from height may cause injury; personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn inside the cordon, but may not be enough to protect personnel from injury
  • Some objects will naturally plane away from a structure
  • If objects strike the structure on the way down, it may result in them bouncing outwards
  • Protecting equipment such as anchors that could be tampered with if left unattended

Methods for working at height

When essential, work at height can be achieved in various ways.

Method Description
Ladders Ladders mainly used for short duration tasks. Ladders vary in length and are usually made from aluminium using a riveted and trussed construction. Double or triple extensions are commonly used.
Aerial appliances Turntable ladder (TL): A self-supporting and power operated extension ladder mounted on a turntable. The ladder assembly is mounted on a self-propelled chassis above the rear axle. The ladder usually consists of a main ladder and three or four telescopic extensions.Hydraulic platform (HP): A platform attached to two or three booms, which are hinged together and assembled on a self-propelled chassis. The lower boom (or booms) pivots in a vertical plane, while the third takes the form of a hinged or telescopic extension arm at the upper end of the second boom.

Aerial ladder platform (ALP): These appliances combine the main features of turntable ladders (TL) and hydraulic platforms (HP) on a single appliance.

Working platforms A working platform is any platform that can be used as a place of work or as a means of access to or egress from a place of work at height (aerial appliances fitted with a cage are deemed a working platform). Working platforms can also include any place of work on a scaffold, cradle, mobile platform, trestle, gangway, gantry or stairway.All working platforms should be properly supported and provided with guard rails and barriers set at an appropriate height. Working platforms must be used in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions.
Rope access and rope rescue Rope access and rope rescue can be achieved using a variety of systems and with many types of equipment. Systems can be used in isolation or in conjunction with other work at height equipment, including working platforms and aerial appliances.
Specialist wire systems These systems are generally only used by nationally accredited urban search and rescue (USAR) teams or, in some cases, specialist rope rescue teams.The line access and casualty extrication equipment (LACE) used by USAR teams usually involves wire winches, rather than fabric rope systems, in circumstances where there is an increased risk of damage such as in a collapsed structure or confined space environment.
Collective fall protection systems Collective protection is equipment that does not require the person working at height to act for it to be effective. Practical examples of collective protection include safety nets and soft-landing systems, such as airbags installed close to the level of the work. These may be found in industry, such as at construction sites.
Personal fall protection systems Personal protection is equipment that requires the individual to act for it to be effective. An example is putting on a safety harness correctly and connecting it, with an energy-absorbing lanyard, to a suitable anchor point

Protecting personnel when working at height requires different equipment than protecting personnel during normal operations. Work at height personal fall protection systems need to be suitable for the task being carried out and the environment that is being worked in.

The risk of suspension intolerance, formerly known as suspension trauma, during response to an incident involving work at height, should be considered when selecting appropriate personal fall protection systems for responders.

When planning work, the safest practical option should be selected; the systems most commonly used by the fire and rescue service include:

  • Work restraint – this stops the user from falling in the first place, by preventing the user from getting into a position where they can fall
  • Work positioning – this allows a user to work with both hands free by using appropriate equipment and must include full fall arrest equipment
  • Fall arrest – this stops a user after they have fallen
  • Rescue system – enables a user to rescue themselves or others and prevents a free fall
  • Rope access – enables the user to get to and from the workplace in tension or suspension in such a way that a free fall is prevented or arrested; often used by specialist rescue teams that are trained to a higher level

Safe work at height or rope rescue team typing

A system of team typing has been developed for work at height and rope rescue teams. This system provides assurance of the capabilities of each element deployed, and that all agencies operate to a common standard and specification.

Level 1 – Safe work at height: Personnel will be able to identify and use a selection of appropriate work restraint and fall arrest equipment to work safely at height. This is the minimum standard recommended to provide a safe system of work for personnel working at height in order to perform their duties.

Level 2 – Twin rope access and stabilisation: Selected personnel will be able to identify and use suitable anchors to create rope access and egress systems, enabling individuals to be raised or lowered vertically, to traverse on structures primarily to access and stabilise casualties.

Level 3 – Technical rope rescue: Selected personnel will be able to identify, create and use suitable anchors, construct access and egress systems, which enable both the individual and the team to ascend, descend and traverse while accessing and transporting casualties.

USAR – Line access and casualty extrication (LACE): Selected USAR personnel will be able to identify, use and provide specific wire and rope access systems to meet a range of hazards found within the USAR environment and can support operations at levels 1, 2 and 3.

Note that the USAR LACE equipment and training has been provided nationally to meet the specific hazards found in a USAR environment. This should not be considered as technical rope rescue.

Rope tactical adviser: Individual fire and rescue services may, within the context of overall incident management, consider the use of rope tactical advisers (TacAds). Rope TacAds are competent personnel who can provide a valuable resource at primarily tactical and operational levels.


A body holding device or harness must be compatible with any other personal protective equipment (PPE) or respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

The choice of PPE should reflect the expected activities and environmental conditions. When selecting PPE potential hazards and emergency evacuation or rescue of responders should be considered.

It is essential that all load-bearing elements of work at height equipment are given a thorough inspection before each use, as per the manufacturer’s instructions, to ensure it is in a safe condition and operates correctly.

Details of equipment standards can be found in the BSI publication, Personal fall protection equipment – Personal fall protection systems (BS EN 363).

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations and The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (Northern Ireland) (PUWER) require that a thorough examination of equipment and safety-critical parts is carried out by a competent person who must then complete a written report.

Lifting equipment

The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations and Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (Northern Ireland) (LOLER) apply to lifting equipment and any associated accessories used to lift people. Examination of lifting equipment must be carried out; this should be done:

  • Before first use
  • After assembly and before use at each location
  • Regularly, while in service (at minimum 6 monthly intervals)
  • Following exceptional circumstances’ which may include:
  • Damage or failure
  • Being out of use for long periods
  • Major changes, which are likely to affect the equipment’s integrity such as modifications, replacement or repair of critical parts

For further information refer to Health and Safety Executive (HSE): Thorough examinations and inspections of lifting equipment.

Anchor points

Personnel should be mindful that, while the equipment they use is regularly inspected, tested and maintained, the areas they traverse and attach to are not.

Anchor points are the foundation for rope work operations and are a critical part of any system where ropes are used. The anchor system needs be suitable and of sufficient strength and stability for the purpose of supporting any foreseeable loading. To ensure the anchor system is secure, the following points should be considered:

  • All anchors should be assessed by a competent person as to their suitability for the intended load, prior to operations commencing and monitored during use
  • Main anchors should be backed up unless considered ‘unquestionably reliable’, and the load applied to them limited to an acceptable level
  • Anchors should be protected against mechanical damage and abrasion
  • The angles created by multiple anchors should be monitored and kept as narrow as practicable
  • Before committing load to a vertical environment, all slack should be removed from the ropes
  • Erratic movement on lines or systems should be avoided, as this can induce high stress loading on anchors
  • The area around anchors should be kept tidy, to allow easy monitoring of the system for any possible movement

False chimneys are not suitable as an anchor for working at height, as they may not be able to support any additional weight. They do not form part of the structural fabric of the building, can be a considerable weight and are only supported by roof timbers. If roofing timbers or lightweight trusses fail, they may collapse through the roof. Whichever system or technique is selected, incident commanders must always carry out a risk assessment, taking into account any additional weight being carried such as RPE and equipment The outcome of the risk assessment by the incident commander should be recorded, including any rational, following their service procedures.

Structural integrity

The suitability of any structure in supporting the use of work at height equipment must be considered. Structures that are not stable, or where there is doubt about structural integrity, should not be considered as platforms for working at height unless additional secondary systems are put in to place to add protection for personnel. For example, a combination of ladders and rope systems may be used to access fragile surfaces.

The suitability of a structure to support ladders and rope or line systems needs to be assessed, along with its ability to withstand forces created by loads and dynamic events.

Establish arrangements to deal with firefighter emergencies

The Work at Height Regulations requires the provisions for an emergencies and rescue.

It is essential that there is a rescue plan and adequate resources in place where work at height is carried out. These should be regularly assessed and updated where necessary. Resources should include not only equipment but also personnel who are competent in the use of that equipment.

When planning for rescue, consideration should be given to the type of situation from which the casualty may need to be recovered and the type of fall protection equipment which the casualty would be using.

A distinction may be made between the term’s “rescue” and “evacuation”. Rescue typically involves the recovery of a casualty by another person either remotely or directly. Evacuation is typically carried out by a stranded user to escape from a remote situation such as an aerial appliance.

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions