Anatomy of an accident: a fatal fall from height

Peninsula Blog

October 13 2022

Falls from height are one of the most common and life-changing accidents that can happen at work. There are about 80 major injuries every year in the UK, and the height doesn’t have to be dramatic to be fatal.

Devereaux Developments Ltd had first-hand experience of this when Christopher Barnes, a lorry driver delivering doors in Gloucestershire, died because of his fall from height.

He had been releasing load-securing straps to unload the doors when they became tangled. In his effort to free them, he climbed up onto the trailer’s cargo bed. He stepped backward from the load and fell 2.3 metres onto the concrete yard below.

Christopher died in hospital the following day from his injuries.

HSE were notified, and an investigation uncovered a pattern of poor planning: no suitable or sufficient risk assessment for working at height, no safe systems of work for unloading, and insufficient training for employees on the risks of what they were doing.

Devereaux Developments didn’t have a management system in place to identify, assess or monitor foreseeable risks. In the absence of clear instructions, drivers made up their own systems of work. Some did consider the problem of tangled straps, and had a telescopic pole to manage them from the ground.

The lack of foresight and poor management saw Devereaux Developments prosecuted for their failings. They pleaded guilty and were handed a £480,000 fine for breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

So, how could they have avoided this tragic accident? Surprisingly, the steps are quite simple:

  • A clear and thorough working at height risk assessment would have identified necessary control measures
  • A safe system of work for unloading from trailers would have standardised a safe approach to tangled straps and other potential hazards
  • Regular, job-specific training for drivers would ensure good practice across the workforce and help to prevent bad habits from forming

It’s essential to make sure training is suitable, and it reflects your current safe systems of work and your current risk assessments.

A suitable and sufficient risk assessment is important to identify risks, and to form a solid foundation for recognising the right control measures. From there, you can devise a safe system of work which isn’t vague and can’t be open to interpretation.

Most accidents are preventable, even foreseeable in some cases. Open up dialogue with workers. Listen to their concerns, and learn to recognise the dangerous situations at work that could have life-changing consequences.

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