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Falls from height result in serious injuries

Two recent incidents where workers have suffered serious injuries have highlighted the dangers of falls from height.

In August 2020, a man sustained serious injury when he fell approximately 2m from a ladder while working at a residential property. Early enquiries indicate he was using a ladder to access the roof area.

In a separate incident a month later, a worker fell approximately 3.4m at a construction site. It appears he was helping unload building materials from an elevated position of a partially built structure.

Investigations into both incidents are continuing.

Preventing a similar incident

Fall hazards are found in many workplaces where work is carried out at height. The risk of falling is common in the construction industry but may also occur during many other work activities. In managing the risk of falls, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 requires specific control measures to be implemented, where it is reasonably practicable to do so.

Before commencing work, you must identify all locations and tasks that could cause injury due to a fall, including access to the areas where work is to be carried out.

Key things to look for include but are not limited to:

  • surfaces:
    • stability, fragility or brittleness
    • potential to slip, for example where surfaces are wet, polished or glazed
    • safe movement of workers where surfaces change
    • strength or capability to support loads
    • slope of work surfaces, for example, where they exceed seven degrees.
  • levels - where levels change and workers may be exposed to a fall from one level to another
  • structures - the stability of temporary or permanent structures
  • the ground - the evenness and stability of the ground for safe support of scaffolding or a work platform
  • the working area - whether it is crowded or cluttered
  • entry and exit from the working area
  • edges - protection for open edges of floors, working platforms, walkways, walls or roofs

The person conducting the business or undertaking (PCBU) must manage risks associated with falls at the workplace. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business.

Managing work health and safety risks associated with falls is an ongoing process and involves four steps:

  1. identify the hazards - find out what could cause harm
  2. assess the risks - understand the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazard, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening
  3. control the risks - implement the most effective control measure reasonably practicable in the circumstances
  4. reviewing risk controls - asses control measures to ensure they are working as planned.

Once risks have been assessed, the next step is to control risks associated with falls. These control measures are ranked from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest and are known as the hierarchy of control. PCBU’s must work through this hierarchy to choose the controls that most effectively eliminate or, where that is not reasonably practicable, minimise risk.

You must always aim to eliminate a hazard causing the risk with something of lesser risk - for example working from the ground. If these controls are not reasonably practicable, you must minimise the risk by one or a combination of the following:

Engineering controls

Fall prevention devices include any equipment that is designed to prevent a fall for temporary work at heights. Examples include but not limited to:

  • physical barriers (e.g. perimeter guard rails or edge protection systems) installed at the edges of roofs, mezzanine floors, walkways, stairways, ramps and landings. The WHS Regulation 2011 sets out requirements on the use of edge protection in construction work.
  • scaffolds - there are specific requirements for scaffolds under the WHS Regulation 2011
  • elevating work platforms (EWP) can be considered an engineering control measure and the EWP must be assessed to determine whether it is the most suitable for the task. The safe operation of EWPs also relies on safe work procedures (i.e. administrative controls), which includes ensuring operators hold the relevant High Risk Work Licence HRWL (where required) to operate the EWP.
  • a travel restraint system is a combination of an engineering control (system design), administrative control and personal protective equipment (i.e. the tethering lines and harness)
  • portable ladders. Portable ladders should only be used for light work of short duration where three points of contact with the ladder can be maintained. Portable ladders should only be used where the use of safer systems is not reasonably practicable.  Where single and extension ladders are used to gain access to a work area, the ladder should be adequately secured in place.

Equipment should be regularly inspected and maintained to ensure it remains effective. When a defect (e.g. damaged planks) is identified, the component or equipment should be taken out of service until it has been replaced or repaired.

Administrative controls

If risk remains, it must be further minimised by implementing administrative controls, for example:

  • implementing a safe system of work that includes but not limited to:
    • the condition and layout of elevated work areas, including the distance of a potential fall
    • the load rating and condition of the structure or equipment (e.g. ladders) correct setup, stability and security of ladders and temporary work platforms. (for example; ensuring a ladder extends at least one metre above the stepping-off point on the working platform).
  • organising and sequencing of work tasks
  • safe work procedures that describe the steps involved in safely undertaking a task. It may also include any particular training, instruction and a level of supervision
  • the adequacy of current knowledge and training of workers to perform the task safely (young, new or inexperienced workers may be unfamiliar with a task).

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Any remaining risk must be minimised with suitable PPE, for example:

  • fall arrest systems are primarily a form of personal protective equipment but also rely on engineering controls (i.e. anchorage point strength, harness and lanyard design) and administrative controls (e.g. making sure the lanyard is connected and not too long).

Note: Administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision, and used on their own, tend to be least effective in minimising risks.

Some risk control measures cannot be simply categorised under only one of the hierarchy of control categories above. Similarly, effective control measures are often made up of a combination of controls from these categories.

More Information

Have you been affected by a workplace fatality, illness or serious injury?

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