In December 2019, a worker suffered serious injury after falling approximately 5m through a roof whilst doing maintenance on a shed.
In a similar incident in February 2020, a man died after falling through the roof of a building. Early investigations indicate he was repairing a skylight.
There was a third falls related incident in March. On this occasion, a worker suffered serious injury after falling approximately 5m. Early investigations indicate the man was doing repairs when he fell through a section of the roof to the ground below.
These findings are not yet confirmed and investigations are continuing into the exact cause.
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. The risk of serious injury from a fall depends mainly on the height and surface below.There may also be additional risk when working on or near fragile roof surfaces. Roofs are likely to be fragile if they are made with:
- asbestos roofing sheets
- poly carbonate or plastic commonly used in skylights
- fibre cement sheets
- liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs
- metal sheets and fasteners (especially when corroded)
Before commencing any work on a roof or at height, all surfaces must be inspected to identify any potentially fragile spots. All locations and tasks which could lead to fall injury should also be identified. This includes access to areas where the work is to be done. Close attention is required for tasks:
- on any structure or plant being constructed or installed, demolished or dismantled, inspected, tested, repaired or cleaned
- on a fragile surface (for example, cement sheeting roofs, rusty metal roofs, fibre glass sheeting roofs and skylights)
- on a sloping or slippery surface where it is difficult for people to maintain their balance (for example, on glazed tiles)
- near an unprotected open edge (for example, near incomplete stairwells)
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 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. PCBUs must work through this hierarchy to choose the controls that most effectively eliminate or, where that is not reasonably practicable, minimise risk.
In managing the risk of falls, the WHS Regulation requires specific control measures to be implemented, where it is reasonably practicable to do so. This can be achieved by doing one or more of the following:
- elimination of the hazard
- substituting the hazard causing the risk with something of lesser risk
- implementing engineering controls
- administrative controls
- personal protective equipment (PPE).
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 classed under only one of the five main categories listed above. Similarly, effective control measures are often made up of a combination of controls from these categories. Some common risk control measures that can be used to minimise the risk of injury from falls from roofs, listed in order of the hierarchy include:
- Constructing a roof with the roof structure on the ground and then lifting it into place – this can eliminate many falls from heights hazards but is only suitable for the construction of some roofs on new structures where the roof can be lifted into place. In addition, lifting the roof into place will create other hazards that need to be addressed.
- Using an Elevating Work Platform (EWP) to do work on a roof so workers can remain within the EWP and avoid standing on the roof. This is primarily an example of substituting the hazard for a lesser hazard. However, an EWP design may also be considered an engineering control measure and the EWP must be assessed to determine whether it is the most suitable one for the task/s. 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 particular EWP.
- Ensuring safety mesh, complying with AS/NZS 4389:2015, has been installed under the roofing and skylights and perimeter edge protection (complying with the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011) has been installed on the perimeter of the roof. Both safety mesh and edge protection are primarily engineering control measures that address the risk of falling through the roof or off the roof edge. However, safe systems of work need to be implemented for the workers installing the safety mesh and edge protection.
- Travel restraint systems intended to prevent a fall from a roof edge by physically restricting how close a worker can get to a roof edge. These systems are generally unsuitable where a fall through a roof can occur (i.e. because the roof is fragile or there is no safety mesh under the roof sheeting). They also largely rely on worker training and the worker following a safe system of work. 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).
- Fall arrest systems for work on roofs are the least preferred risk control measure because they do not prevent a fall occurring but arrest the fall once it has occurred. The worker can still be injured, even if the fall arrest system is set up correctly and the worker's fall is arrested before the worker hits the ground or another obstruction. After the fall, the worker must be rescued both promptly and safely. 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).
Between July 2014 and June 2019,an average of 160 workers' compensation claims relating to falls from or through a building or structure were accepted annually.
From July 2014 to January 2020, WHSQ was notified of 173 events involving a fall from a roof or through a ceiling. In the same period, WHSQ issued 1,247 statutory notices relating to either an incident or managing the risk of falling from a roof or through a ceiling.
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 in danger of falling. The apprentice struck a concrete wall before landing on the ground sustaining concussion, cuts and abrasions, and a scalp laceration. There was no edge protection or fall prevention control, no site induction, and the apprentice didn't receive any work at heights training.
In 2015, a business was fined $52,000 after an apprentice fell 9.2m though an unprotected skylight (made up of four smaller skylights) sustaining serious injuries, including a fractured eye socket, a fractured vertebra and a compressed spinal disc.The skylight had been identified as a hazard, but no measures were used to isolate or guard the work area around it.
- How to manage work health and safety risks Code of Practice 2011 (PDF, 1.02 MB)
- Managing the risk of falls at workplaces code of practice 2021 (PDF, 3.9 MB)
- Work at heights – Construction
- Safe work on roofs information sheet – Safe Work Australia