Working at Height training
5 min read


Published on
January 16, 2024
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Four students on a rope rescue course. One afternoon left. Loads of kit. A desire to practice pick-off rescues, stretcher lowers, highlines or similar. And an important decision to make: Can we use a live exercise casualty or should we use a dummy? Or, as some might put it; “it’s time to get Ruth out” (with many a dummy, in the UK at least, being nicknamed Ruth due to a leading dummy and manikin manufacturer Ruth Lee being so popular!).

Whether you are a health and safety manager, training organisation, or professional or voluntary rescue team , this is a question you need to ask yourself if you are involved in planning or carrying out rope based rescue training. And the answer may not be as obvious as some might think!

Unfortunately in our experience there’s many a company or training organisation who haven’t thought through this question thoroughly. Some have, in some cases possibly by way of knee jerk reaction to this kind of thing, decided to ban the use of live exercise casualties’ altogether. Others simply use a live casualty unthinkingly, oblivious to some of the objective hazards this can introduce.

When it comes to this decision we have two main priorities: Safety and facilitating the learning process. In that order! There are a number of other factors to be taken into account too. This article is not attempting to be comprehensive in covering every single relevant factor. It is designed to stimulate discussion and provoke thinking on this often overlooked area.

The Law

Firstly the relevant national legislation needs to be considered. This article is written only from a UK perspective. While we work with both professional and voluntary bodies, the general absence of specific rules within voluntary contexts means that we’ll consider here workplace specific legislation.

There is a general need to prevent injury to persons, expressed in the UK primarily through the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. So dropping people from a height is frowned upon if we simply look at that Act of parliament!

More specifically, The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that proper planning takes place and that there is an assessment of the risk. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 also contain similar requirements, as well as specifying particular ways of supporting people at height (work positioning systems etc.). So whatever happens, rescue exercises need to be planned properly and risk assessed!

There’s then a range of standards to consider, for example BS 8454 2006 which is the Code of practice for the delivery of training and education for work at height and rescue, and BS 8437, the Code of practice for selection, use and maintenance of personal fall protection systems and equipment for use in the workplace. Discipline specific standards, for example the Global Wind Organisation Basic Safety Training standard and others may also give guidance on this matter (upon last checking, the author notes that GWO appear to have minimised guidance on this particular matter in recent revisions, ironically?!)

At this point it is worth saying, if you aren’t familiar with these sources of legislation or guidance, there is the possibility you may not be competent to be making this decision; get in touch with us and we’ll help!

There is no “One size fits all” approach

Below is a list of pros and cons for each approach. Hopefully as you look through these it will become clear that a blanket policy which prohibits one or the other is unwise and not able to effectively manage all the hazards.

Use of dummies


Minimises the number of people exposed to risk of a fall from height

Less possibility of injury from falling objects (Dummies don’t have pockets generally, and if you drop something on to one it doesn’t hurt them…)

Where group members might otherwise act as a casualty, the use of a dummy allows people to concentrate on learning, rather than staring at the sky strapped in to a stretcher!

No possibility of Suspension Intolerance


Lack of realism in movement- Dummies bend in lots of directions and don’t feel pain. Dummies are also unable to give feedback when they’re hanging at strange angles, being crowded by rescuers or have parts of a rescuers anatomy shoved in their face…

Lack of weight- In addressing manual handling concerns (see below) dummies of 30-50kg are often used. This is less than half the weight of many people.

Handling a dummy presents a number of manual handling concerns, starting in the area the dummy is stored in, right through to transporting it up to a height when necessary, then returning it to where it came from. This is a big issue!

Students are not given the opportunity to use equipment in what is effectively a work positioning exercise when a live casualty is used.

Additional lifting systems are needed to position a dummy. These increase the time taken working at height while setting up a rescue scenario as well as increasing the chance of falling objects.

Use of live exercise casualties


Gives experience of exposure to height and generally being rescued/ handled by other people. Hanging in a stretcher and relying on others to manage your safety can be a valuable, eye opening experience for many!

Realistic range of movement and flexibility. When a live casualty is correctly briefed they can offer a sometimes scarily realistic scenario in terms of responsiveness!

Realistic weight: The full weight of one or two exercise casualties can serve to remind people that they really do need that extra friction karabiner on their rescue device, or that a pulley would have been more suitable than a carabiner for that deviation…

Minimises the need for manual handling: Live casualties can climb into position, rather than needing to be hauled. This minimises the risk caused by manual handling.


Live casualties are put in a position of increased risk of falling which needs to be managed appropriately. Add to this the fact that often training courses are attended by people with a relatively low level of training, and this can become a major issue.

Rescuer could drop items on the casualty.

Rescuer could fall onto the casualty. Even a short slip by a rescuer (for example one protected by fall arrest lanyards) could cause significant injury to a live exercise casualty.

Possibility of onset of Suspension Intolerance during lengthy rescue training exercises.

Psychological stress to some individuals. In particular this can be exacerbated when the live exercise casualty is in a stretcher. There is the school of thought which would question whether it is wise for someone like this to carry out a rescue themselves anyway though…

So then, to revisit the question: “Can we use a live exercise casualty or should we use a dummy?”. There are a wide range of factors which need to be considered before this question is answered. And for each different training situation there will probably be different answers. Variables such as manual handling issues, student competence, group size, instructor competency, time to complete the rescue and many others need to be recognised. And everything needs to be weighed up against the highest priority which is to keep people safe, followed by the purpose of the training exercise, which is to teach them something!

What approach have you adopted? Have you thought about this important aspect of rope rescue, working at height or rope access training?

These articles are designed only to provide an overview of various aspects of rescue. They should not be used as a substitute for proper training, in person, by professionals. Very conveniently, that is exactly what we do!

Reax provide training in work at height, confined space, rope rescue and many other disciplines. Please contact us at for more information or call us on 01253 767775.

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