Falling down: supporting survivors of falls from height


The construction industry lacks robust data on falls from height – an issue causing trauma beyond the physical. CN talks to a charity that is looking to fill the gap

Last year construction workers were more likely to die falling from work at height than doing any other activity. And the year before. And the one before that. “I’ve been involved in working at height for over 40 years and all the way through, falls from height have been the number-one cause of fatalities. There is not one year when they haven’t,” says Peter Bennett, chair of specialist charity the No Falls Foundation.

More people die working in construction than in any other sector, with 45 people losing their lives in 2022/23, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Of those, 25 were caused by a fall from height. “We can’t just keep sitting back and saying ‘well that’s it, that’s how it is and that’s how it will always be’,” says Bennett. “Surely there must be something we can do.”

Deaths are only a part of the picture, however. Non-fatal falls can have disastrous, life-changing, consequences.

“It’s 31 years since my accident and there’s a ripple still affecting people’s lives today,” says Jason Anker, who fell from a ladder while working as a roofer in 1993 and was paralysed from the waist down (see box, below). “My daughter talks about how her life was affected by it growing up and now her children can’t do things with their grandad because of what I did. These things don’t go away.”

No vested interest

While overall workplace fatalities have steadily reduced since the 1970s, the stubborn prevalence of falls from height prompted the access industry to try something new.

In 2017, Bennett, who is also managing director of mobile access tower industry group PASMA and chair of the Access Industry Forum, helped found the No Falls Foundation.

The Access Industry Forum brings together 11 different trade bodies representing industries related to working at height, including the National Access & Scaffolding Confederation and the Ladder Association, but Bennett felt a different approach was needed. “All those organisations are working from the point of view of being the specialists in their sector. If you want to know about nets or scaffolding, they’ll tell you everything you need to know,” he says.

“Not one of them is encouraging people to try and avoid working at height – which is the number-one choice to avoid falls – because it’s counterintuitive to what they do.

“[We thought that] there should be an organisation that does not have a vested interest to protect its sector but is concerned with how we improve the situation in its entirety, including the consideration of, and encouragement of, avoiding working at height.” The No Falls Foundation duly came into being and was incorporated as a charity in 2018.

“Within six months I went from having a normal life with work and a family to losing everything. I didn’t cope at all. I didn’t talk about what I was going through”

Jason Anker, No Falls Foundation Ambassador

With events such as No Falls Week (13-17 May), the foundation exists to educate and inform about working at height, research the causes of falling from height, raise safety awareness, and support those who need help after surviving an incident. Its work is not confined to construction, or even just workplaces, but what it is doing could be valuable to the sector.

Anker, 56, is an ambassador  for the foundation, as well as a speaker and consultant (see box, below). He tells Construction News that he thinks most people don’t realise the impact a fall can have. “The damage from the choice I made that day to work unsafe at height has affected so many lives – even today.

“People may understand that you might suffer, but what’s not really spoken about is the impact on families. They’re the ones who came to the hospital, they’re the ones who dealt with my bad behaviour.

“My mum and dad especially were really traumatised. It was really hard.”

He warns that there is no completely safe way to work at height. “The only way you can mitigate your risk is doing it the safest way every time. The moment you take a short cut is the moment you risk your life, your family’s life, the business,” he says, adding that the company he was working for at the time, which was owned by his then father-in-law, ceased trading shortly after his accident. His supervisor on the job also suffered, blaming himself for not stopping the hungover Anker from working that day.

RIDDOR gaps

The number of falls from height that actually take place each year is not clear. While the data on fatal falls is relatively straightforward, it is far less so for non-fatal instances.

Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), “responsible persons” need to tell the HSE about serious workplace accidents and near misses.

HSE figures show there were 4,038 reported non-fatal injuries in the construction sector in 2022/23 out of an all-sector total of 60,645 reports (8 per cent of which related to falls from height). On the other hand, the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey recorded that 561,000 workers in all sectors suffered non-fatal injuries in the same period. The HSE estimates that around half of all actual incidents are recorded under RIDDOR.

“It’s the smaller organisations who haven’t got health and safety personnel planning what their work at height should look like”

Hannah Williams, No Falls Foundation

While it is a legal requirement to follow the regulations, it is up to companies or self-employed individuals to report RIDDOR incidents themselves while following guidance that runs to several pages.

In addition, the way in which the RIDDOR data is recorded means it cannot be interrogated for specifics, such as whether a fall was from something that was designed to be worked on like a ladder or platform, or something that was not, such as the top of a filing cabinet or wardrobe.

For these reasons the No Falls Foundation is about to commission its biggest piece of research so far, and the charity hopes as many people as possible will take part. “The study is going to ask: have you been involved from a fall from height? If so, tell us the story. We’re hoping to get a better feel for it and a better understanding of the human stories,” Bennett says.

Wellbeing

In the meantime, those involved with the charity are using their experience and knowledge to determine where to focus, including within the construction industry.

Smaller companies often work more riskily, says No Falls Foundation manager Hannah Williams. “Large organisations have got their safe work at height plans, they’ve mostly got their training in place and know what they’re doing. It’s the smaller organisations who haven’t got health and safety personnel planning what their work at height should look like, checking the training, checking equipment, those sorts of things.”

Anker credits his Anker & Marsh business partner Professor Tim Marsh, a behavioural safety expert, for a phrase he believes highlights one of the building sector’s biggest issues. “A lot of the time managers say, ‘get the job done safely but by Friday’ – no one knows what that means. When something goes wrong, they say ‘we explicitly said get the job done safely’. My question to people in construction is, do you really mean it when you say safety is the number-one priority? It’s such a hard thing, especially at the moment with the price squeeze. However, when something goes wrong, like a fatality, the big companies might be able to ride the storm out but if you’re a tier two or three or a small subbie you might not survive [as a business]. Is it really worth the risk?”

Anker believes his low morale before his accident led to him taking risks at work. For him, the ultimate change to safety will come when companies focus more strongly on their employees’ wellbeing and happiness.

“Having a good place to work, with a really welcoming, non-bullying good culture where management get this and buy into it, is a win-win,” he says. “You look after peoples’ mental health, and you will reap the rewards as a business, and, on the back of that have fewer accidents.”

The No Falls Foundation survey can be found here 

Jason’s story

In 1992, Jason Anker, 24, was made redundant. So he started working at his father-in-law’s roofing company. It was not long before calamity struck. “I was very inexperienced. I’d been on the job about a month. January 3, the first day back after the Christmas holidays, was a horrible, freezing-cold, icy day,” he recalls.

Anker, who at the time had two children, one aged three and the other seven months, was not in a good place mentally, with very low morale, and turned up to work that day hungover.

Towards the end of the shift, his team was called to another job to fix a leak. They estimated it would take two hours to fix properly, but the client said they only had 90 minutes because it was getting dark.

Under pressure, they completed the work on time. Anker was the first person to get down from the roof, on a ladder that was being footed by a colleague. “I got to the bottom rung and was called back up the ladder. By this time the guy footing the ladder had turned his back and walked away. In that moment, the ladder was untied in icy conditions. I thought, ‘I’ll be alright, I’ll just nip up and get some tools’.

“I can remember slipping and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I only fell about 10 feet so it wasn’t a huge fall, and probably one where nine times out of ten you just brush yourself down with a few aches and pains.

“I didn’t know straight away [how hurt I was], I just thought I was really winded, trying to catch my breath. It was only when I tried to sit up that I realised I couldn’t actually feel my legs.”

Spinal damage meant Anker would never walk again.

His marriage broke down soon after he got out of hospital. “Within six months I went from having a normal life with work and a family to losing everything. I didn’t cope at all. I didn’t talk about my feelings or what I was going through. I found solace in alcohol, and unfortunately in drugs as well.”

At a rave in 1995, he unintentionally overdosed on ecstasy, putting him in a coma, with doctors at one point discussing the possibility of turning off his life support.

Years later, after a slow recovery, Anker became a speaker and consultant through his companies Proud2bSafe and Anker & Marsh. He continues to perform this role, educating workers and businesses about safety and workplace wellbeing.

He was awarded an MBE for services to health and safety in the construction industry. However, he tells CN, it was not until recently that his mental health improved. “I can say I’m in a good place now, but it’s taken me nearly three decades to get here.”

If you or someone you know is struggling and needs help

If you or a loved one has been injured in a fall from height, the No Falls Foundation has produced a support pack to help understand what to do next. Find it here.

The Lighthouse construction industry helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on 0345 605 1956 in the UK and 1800 939 122 in the Republic of Ireland. Or visit its website.

The Samaritans can be called on 166 123.



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