Protecting vulnerable tenants from window falls

  • Local authorities and registered providers of social housing need to be aware of the risk of falls from height involving vulnerable tenants
  • Risk assessments should establish whether or not accommodation is suitable to meet their particular needs
  • We discuss how to reduce the risk of falls from height involving vulnerable persons

The risk of vulnerable individuals falling from windows has long been a challenge for housing associations and registered providers (RPs) of social housing.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), while a minority of falls in such settings are accidental, most are either the result of a person’s confused mental state, or a deliberate act of self-harm or suicide. RPs and local authorities with residential care homes and sheltered schemes should be aware of the need to assess the risk of vulnerable persons falling from height.

The following case studies involving falls from windows demonstrate some of the challenges local authorities and RPs can face.

Case study 1

A woman fell from the second floor of her boyfriend’s apartment onto the pavement below. Although the cause of the fall was unclear, it was alleged the absence of a limiter on the window and a failure to install guarding bars contributed to it. Enquiries revealed there were no relevant defects with the window.

Case study 2

This incident involved a man with a history of risky behaviour at night, including drug abuse, suicide attempts, hallucinations and night terrors. He had been sectioned and released, but had limited contact with his key worker and was not taking his medication.

Enquiries into this fall found there had been no assessment of the suitability of his room, and the windows had not been secured.

Case study 3

The setting in this case was a block of flats belonging to a housing association, which provided 24-hour supported accommodation for mental health patients. The victim was a woman with schizophrenia and a history of self-harm and suicide attempts. The housing association had been unable to find a ground floor flat, so had agreed to accommodate her in a second floor flat. Although the window had been locked and the key confiscated, the woman’s boyfriend managed to locate another key.

The housing association was found liable, because although there were no defects with the window, it did not meet the design brief as it was capable of being opened fully. In addition, the support team had failed to ensure it remained locked and had not fitted window restrictors.

The importance of risk assessments for vulnerable tenants

In Zurich’s analysis of large losses in the last five years involving falls from windows, 80% were attributable to missing or defective window restrictors. In the remaining cases, the tenants had tampered or overcome the restriction in some way.

Housing associations providing supported accommodation on behalf of local authorities should not rely too heavily on mental health or NHS trust risk assessments. Where a referral is made, the housing provider should carry out its own risk assessment, focusing on the suitability of the type of accommodation for the tenant.

Practical measures to reduce the risk of falls from windows

Where risk assessments identify that people using services are at risk from falling from windows or balconies at a height likely to cause harm (i.e. above ground floor level), suitable precautions must be taken.

Where windows are large enough to allow people to fall out, openings should be restricted to 10cms or less, and it should only be possible to disengage restrictors using a special tool or key. Access may need to be restricted to balconies that are not designed to prevent people who are at risk from climbing over.

The HSE suggests the following control measures:

  • Fitting adequate window restrictors
  • Ensuring balconies have edge protection that is sufficiently robust, and of suitable design to prevent accidental falls
  • Fitting an adequate screen or barrier to prevent access to windows or balcony edges
  • Restricting access to upper floors

The Department of Health has published detailed window design guidance for healthcare providers.

Maintenance, inspections and training

HSE guidance states that “maintenance must ensure all safety fixtures and fittings are functioning effectively and their performance has not deteriorated as a result of use, wear or tampering.”

Staff must be given adequate training and supervision to ensure they understand the risks, the precautions required, and the need to report any defects or concerns to a responsible person.

It is also important to keep detailed records of all maintenance, inspections and training regimes.

Further information about risk assessment and control measures can be found in the HSE guidance document, Falls from windows or balconies in health and social care.