Avoiding falls from height

The need to work at height is growing on modern vehicles: Richard Simpson examines how falls can be avoided

Workshops across the bus and truck sectors are seeing a greater need to work at height on vehicles as double-deck trailers make inroads into the freight sector, and buses and coaches have increasing amounts of roof-mounted equipment ranging from air con units to gas tanks and traction batteries.

And height is, of course, relative. Installing an inspection pit means that the surrounding floor is ‘at height’ compared to the bottom of the pit, and similar precautions must be taken.

The advice from the Health and Safety Executive is well worth heeding, if for no other reason than this is the organisation that is likely to be at the forefront of any investigation into a serious incident in the workplace. Its advice is based on the Work at Height Regulations 2005. This says that work at height must be properly planned, supervised and carried out by competent people, and employers and those in control must first assess the risk. HSE suggests that working at height should be avoided if possible, but if it cannot be avoided, the proper equipment must be provided. Low-risk and straightforward tasks will require less in the way of planning, but basic precautions still need to be observed.

However, most of HSE’s specific advice is, unsurprisingly, directed at the building industry, and relates to temporary structures and devices such as ladders, scaffolding and lifting platforms.

Ladders are still used in vehicle workshops, and the inherent hazard posed by a slipping or falling ladder must be acknowledged. HSE reports that the main cause of injury in falling from height in the vehicle maintenance sector is falling from ladders.

The first step must be to tie off the top of the ladder to keep it in place, and workers using it should be given fall-arrest equipment where possible. Vehicles being driven away from the ladders that were being supported was the stuff of the Buster Keaton era of comedy film, and precautions must be taken to ensure there are no modern re-runs of this: HSE won’t find them funny!

The workshop environment provides scope for the use of permanent fixed or mobile structures including gantries and mobile steps, which are inherently safer than free-standing ladders but still not without their issues.

Mobile steps are a flexible and relatively low-cost means of providing access at height. Manufacturer Klim-eeze urges potential customers not to try to save money by buying a lower set of steps than is actually needed.

The first thing to establish is the working height required: this is not the height of the platform at the top of the steps, but rather the measurement between the user’s waist and shoulders when standing on the platform.

Next is the footprint of the steps on the ground: the larger the footprint, the more stable the steps will be. However, the steps will be more unwieldy in use.

Next, look at the fall-protection at the top of the platform. Solid rails are the strongest, but being permanently fixed will reduce the flexibility of the platform in use. Detachable chains on three sides afford the most flexibility in use, but you have to be sure that those using the steps will keep the chains in place on the sides that face away from the vehicle being worked on.

The next topic is the safe working load (SWL) of the steps. You need to account for the number of people that may need to be on the platform at any given time, plus the weight of any equipment or components they may have with them.

Step angle is also important. Shallow steps mean a bigger footprint, which in turn means more stability (assuming the ground is level as it should be), but less flexibility in use. An ascending angle of 45° or less means the steps can be descended like a staircase with the user facing forwards, and make it far easier and safer to carry tools and other items to and from the top.

Colour choice is also important. By their nature, wheeled steps will be moved around the workshop, and may not be seen when vehicles are backed into bays. Steps finished in grey or black are unlikely to be sufficiently prominent for a busy driver to pick out in the mirrors: a bright colour that will stand out against the often cluttered visual background in the workshop should be selected. Beware of choosing the ‘corporate colour’: those bright yellow steps might look as though they will stand out, and also match a yellow company livery, but may be missed by drivers simply because the workshop is full of bright yellow objects… vehicles!

Also ensure that the steps’ ‘undercarriage’ will not protrude to the extent that the steps cannot be placed safely against the vehicle, and the wheel brake can be safely applied and released with the vehicle present.

Many of the same criteria can be applied to gantries, whether fixed or mobile. Establishing the correct height, SWL capacity and position so they will actually be used, instead of quick and potentially dangerous workarounds such as freestanding ladders and A-frame step-ladders, is essential. Unlike mobile steps, this equipment will normally be installed by professional companies, and the installed equipment will only be as good as the company that installs it.

The very ubiquity of the inspection pit makes it one of the most significant sites for falls from height. A properly installed pit will have clear hazard markings around it, and the perimeter kept clean to avoid slips and clear of objects that can cause trips. Access steps into the pit should be clean and non-hazardous, with a handrail provided if necessary.

Whenever it is not in use, the pit should either be fenced off with barriers or covered: any covering should be strong enough to support the weight of a vehicle being driven over it. Access bridges can be placed over long pits that are not in current use.

Just as important as the equipment itself is the daily culture in the workplace. ‘Saving time’ by taking potentially hazardous shortcuts is to be discouraged, and workers need to be empowered to challenge dangerous practices. As EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou says: “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident!”


The Work At Height Regulations 2005 apply to all work at height where there is a risk of a fall liable to cause personal injury.

They place duties on employers, the self-employed, and any person that controls the work of others (for example facilities managers or building owners who may contract others to work at height).

Experience shows that such events usually arise due to poor management control rather than equipment failure. In motor vehicle repair, risk assessments should include:

  • work at height on vehicles
  • prevention of falls into vehicle inspection pits
  • working on raised storage areas
  • use of portable ladders such as for access to vehicles; building maintenance
  • safety of stairs, steps and fixed ladders.

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