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18 July 2019
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With the Health and Safety Executive applying larger fines linked to prosecutions for workplace injuries, FMs have a duty to ensure individuals carrying out work at height are suitably competent. John Hynes explains.

Credit: Superstock

6 June 2017 John Hynes


When overseeing work at height, FMs have to ensure that the person doing the job is competent, both for the task at hand, and also for their means of access and protection.


A person may be competent to perform a specific task, such as gutter cleaning, but this does not mean they are competent to access the roof on a particular building. Competence for the task must not be confused with competence to work safely at height.

Similarly, competence to work at height should not be treated as a binary decision. While it is true that an employee or contractor will either be competent to do a job or not, this blunt approach does FMs no favours because it doesn’t take into account the degrees of competence required depending on the roof type and the means of access. Using cherry pickers or rope systems requires specific skills and qualifications, whereas caged ladders and staircases can be used by a broader range of personnel.

A more nuanced view of work at height competence – understanding how different means of roof access determine what makes a worker competent – can pay dividends. To begin with, by mapping different competence levels against means of access, FMs can make more informed choices about the access provision they make on site (by installing fixed access such as caged ladders, for example). 

In addition, it can lead to a reduction in expensive over-competence, whereby the most qualified (and most expensive) contractors are set tasks that could be done by other staff or less specialist contractors. It also protects FMs from the risk of under-competence – where workers with qualifications and experience to work at height in certain scenarios are inadvertently assigned jobs for which they are not competent. 

Each employer should decide how to assess workers, based on the job at hand and the access to and on the roof. Based on extensive experience of roof work at Fixfast, we have developed a three-tier system to categorise a worker’s competence to work at height. 

A person with Basic competence will have only limited experience at height. They have had some training in working at height safely relevant to their typical means of access in the past two years, for which they should have evidence. They occasionally work at height, but irregularly, and are experienced in a narrow set of scenarios. They should be able to prove recent experience of using the type of access system on site. Workers who would typically meet the Basic competence level are HVAC maintenance contractors and facilities technicians.

A contractor or employee with Advanced competence meets the same standards as above, but has a far greater breadth and depth of experience, regularly working at height in many scenarios. They will have had more training in different means of access and protection systems, with qualifications in a range of topics and can prove extensive experience of relevant work. Those likely to be at Advanced level are roofing contractors.

Expert competence is limited to the most experienced specialists – expertise unlikely to be held in-house. They will have extensive qualifications in managing work at height and will belong to a trade association that sets stringent standards – IRATA-certified rope access technicians are the most common example.  

More information:

Health and safety in roof work

Training and competency for working at height

Working at height - FAQs

Working at Height Safety Association (WAHSA) - Guidance note

Work at Height Awareness Syllabus (Prepared by the Advisory Committee on

Work at Height Training (ACWAHT))

John Hynes is head of safe access at Fixfast