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Falls from work platforms

In May 2020, two men were seriously injured after falling approximately 1.5m after a trestle and plank system failed while performing housing construction work.

In a separate incident, a contractor suffered serious injuries as a result of falling around 3m to the floor below when the makeshift work platform he was working on collapsed.

Preventing a similar incident

Falls are a major cause of death and serious injury at workplaces. Risk of falling is common for many work activities. Fall hazards are found in many workplaces where work is carried out at height, for example working on a roof.

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, strength or capability to support loads, potential to slip, safe movement of workers where surfaces change and the slope
  • 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
  • entry and exit from the working area
  • weather conditions - rain, wind, extreme heat or cold can cause slippery or unstable conditions

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; the identification of hazards, assessing risks, controlling risks, and reviewing control measures to ensure they are working.

Once the risks associated with each fall hazard 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. For low falls, you should assess the risk and provide reasonably practicable measures that reflect the risk.

Higher order risk controls include designing plant or structures to be without risks to the health and safety of any person. However, if it's not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, for example; by working on the ground using tools with extendable handles such as paint rollers, then the risk should be minimised using the hierarchy of control. This can be achieved by doing one or more 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:
    • 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.
    • physical barriers (e.g. perimeter guard rails or edge protection systems) installed at the edges of roofs mezzanine floors, walkways, stairways, ramps and landings.
    • 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).

    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. For example:
    • implementing a safe system of work that considers:
      • condition and layout of elevated work areas, including the distance of a potential fall
      • the load rating of the structure or equipment (e.g. ladders)
      • correct setup, stability and security of ladders and temporary work platforms
    • 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) - 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.

Prosecutions and compliance

In 2017, a business was fined $75,000 and a sub-contractor $30,000 after a young apprentice fell almost 4m from a roof while trying to retrieve a circular saw which was at risk of falling itself. The apprentice struck a concrete wall before landing on the ground sustaining concussion, cuts, abrasions and a laceration to his scalp. There was no edge protection or fall prevention control in place, no site induction, nor any work at heights training provided to the apprentice.

In 2014, a company was fined $60,000 and received a two year court ordered undertaking per s.239 with a recognisance of $60,000 after two workers fell approximately 2.7m from a trestle and plank temporary scaffolding platform onto a concrete floor. One worker sustained traumatic and permanent brain injuries and the other neck, elbow and lower back injuries.

The two workers were performing concrete core filling into a block wall. The trestle and plank temporary scaffolding they were working from was one plank wide. There was no edge protection in place to prevent a fall. The temporary scaffolding was inadequate for the task being performed. There was no risk assessment conducted prior to the work, nor any specific work method statement to ensure adequate and appropriate scaffolding was in place.

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