The governing body of a high school was recently fined £10,000 after routine maintenance work went wrong.

The assistant site manager was removing footballs from the sixth form centre roof when he lost his footing, falling more than three metres to the ground, sustaining multiple fractures. The HSE’s investigation found that, despite it being a regular practice to go on to the roof to remove balls, the governing body had no protective measures in place to prevent a fall from the edges of the roof. No barriers, any type of edge protection or fall restraint system was in place.

A suitable and sufficient risk assessment and safe system of work would have identified the hazards posed to the assistant site manager during this activity and would have shown what control measures are required in order to make the activity a safe one.

The biggest risk posed to the employee was the fall from height, and the first thing the school should have done was to look at ways to eliminate that particular hazard. In this case that would have been to prevent the need for any school employee to work on the roof. For example, could the retrieval of the balls have been carried out from the ground using extendable equipment?

A large proportion of the time the hazards cannot be completely eliminated, and therefore additional control measures are required in order to protect employees from the hazard. If the roof work was necessary the school should have looked at ways to protect the employee from the possibility of falling. This should firstly have been to prioritise a collective fall prevention method. Safety systems such as handrails surrounding the unprotected edges could have been installed which would have offered a collective way of preventing falls from the roof, and although this may have appeared to have been an expensive control measure initially, it would have immediately have prevented the possibility of the employee from falling off the roof. Also, it’s worth considering how often the roof needs to be accessed when looking at the cost of this type of control measure – are there other maintenance activities that are carried out such as air conditioning maintenance, or window cleaning? If so, the cost of a collective fall protection system soon justifies itself when it’s a control measure not only for employees but potential contractors also carrying out work on the roof.

If collective means were not deemed reasonably practicable by the school they should have then considered a personal fall protection system. These systems use PPE to restrict the worker’s range of movement so they cannot physically travel to the fall hazard, ultimately preventing the possibility of a fall. Schools commonly use ManSafe type systems that have anchor points on specific areas of the roof that allow personnel to “clip on” when wearing a suitable harness.

Failing any of the above the school could have looked at utilising fall arrest systems. These systems are used in so that the initial fall can occur but the fall is arrested within acceptable force and clearance margins. In other words if you cannot prevent the fall then it minimises the consequences from it. Fall arrest systems have a higher risk associated with them in comparison to the other systems, and this may have not been appropriate to the activity that was occurring at the time of the accident.

All the above systems require certain levels of maintenance as recommended by the manufacturers and as stated by relevant legislation. Some systems will also require specific training in order to use them e.g. how to correct wear and maintain a harness.

There are of course going to be different hazards when carrying out an activity such as this, meaning that a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and safe system of work are critical in order for the activity to be carried out safely. If you plan on carrying out work of this nature in the future you must also consider how access and egress to and from the roof is going to be gained, and whether the roof itself is load bearing.

Of course, a lot of this advice is not just for schools – it could also apply to sports/community/recreational groups and clubs too.

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