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Worker killed in fall from air-conditioning duct

In August 2018, a worker was killed after falling twelve metres onto a concrete floor. Early investigations indicate he was undertaking scheduled maintenance of air-conditioning ducts and was in the fresh air intake pre-conditioned outside air (PCOA) unit. A co-worker returned to the area and found a void where a floor grate had been. He looked through the void and saw his colleague on the concrete floor below. This particular PCOA is the only vent open to external, often hot and humid air, and as such is a high corrosion area. Investigations are continuing.

Preventing a similar incident

Falls are a major cause of death and serious injury in workplaces. There are fall hazards wherever work is carried out at height. This incident also highlights that there are risks working on or near fragile surfaces. The surface is likely to be fragile if it is made with:

  • any material that can be highly corroded
  • asbestos roofing sheets
  • polycarbonate or plastic commonly used in skylights
  • fibre cement sheets
  • metal sheets and fasteners where corroded
  • glass, including wired glass
  • chipboard or similar material if it has rotted
  • wood slabs, slates and tiles.

Processes must be in place to identify all fragile materials before any work at height commences. Protection must be provided if there is a risk of falling through any area where the work is being done at height – such as vents within air-conditioning ducts.

PCBUs should consider:

  • the design, condition and layout of elevated work areas, including the distance of a potential fall and the load rating of the structure
  • hidden penetrations such as grates, vents, or hatches which could be difficult to see in low light conditions or if hidden by paint, insulation batts or accumulated dirt
  • the number and movement of all people at the workplace
  • the suitability of footwear and clothing
  • the adequacy of current knowledge and training to perform the task safely (young, new or inexperienced workers may be unfamiliar with a task)
  • the adequacy of procedures for all emergency situations.

Control measures to prevent or minimise injury from any working at height where fragile material is, include:

  • an elevating work platform so workers can avoid standing on the fragile material
  • ensuring the surface is suitable for supporting workers
  • providing sufficient lighting to allow workers to identify the condition of the supporting surface and the presence of any penetrations
  • protecting penetrations, openings and holes with barriers such as guard rails or covers that are secured and labelled with a warning
  • safety mesh secured under fragile roofing or skylights. If safety mesh is used, ensure it:
    • conforms to AS/NZS 4389:2015 Roof safety mesh
    • is installed by a competent person in a safe manner and in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions
    • has its integrity inspected by a competent person prior to maintenance or removal
    • is covered by the cladding as soon as reasonably practicable after it has been installed
  • using a harness system with adequate anchorage points, along with appropriate training and supervision. Wearing harnesses creates a trip hazard, so workers must take extra care with them. Training should include how to rescue someone who falls while using a fall arrest system
  • displaying permanent signs at every likely access point to warn of the presence of fragile materials.


Every year there are more than 3200 accepted workers' compensation claims for injuries associated with a fall from height. On average, three of these are fatal, while about half are for a serious injury with five or more days off work.

Since 2013, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has issued 1725 prohibition, 1189 improvement and 45 infringement notices for issues involving a fall from height or the risk of a fall from height.

Prosecutions and compliance

Since 2013 there have been 36 prosecutions involving falls, six of these involved workers falling through fragile surfaces or voids.

In February 2018, a company was fined $40,000 plus a 12 month court ordered undertaking with recognisance $30,000 after an experienced rigger fell from a height. He was accessing the trailer of a delivery truck hooking up a load and guiding its transfer. He moved onto the second storey of the partially constructed residence to assist with unloading and directing the crane operator. He walked backwards, fell into the opening and landed on his head, sustaining serious injuries to his skull, brain, spine, face and arm.

More information

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