In August 2021, a worker was seriously injured after falling approximately 6m from a roof through a polycarbonate skylight. It appears he was removing and installing polycarbonate sheeting from the warehouse roof during ad-hoc maintenance.
These findings are not yet confirmed and investigations are continuing into the exact cause.
This incident alert highlights the risks associated with working on roofs, especially around skylights, plastic roof sheeting, metal roofs or other fragile roof surfaces. It also reminds us of what’s needed to eliminate or minimise those risks.
Falls, particularly those through roofing, are a major cause of death and serious injury at workplaces. The risk of serious injury from a fall depends mainly whether any fall control measures are implemented, the height at which the work is being done and the surface directly below the work at height area. 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 sheets (alsynite) 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 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, poly carbonate or cement sheeted 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 or a metal roof that is wet from morning dew or rain)
- near an unprotected open edge or internal void area (for example, removed roof sheeting).
Whether it’s an existing structure or one under construction, consider skylights and plastic roof sheeting as non-trafficable areas, unless otherwise certified. Even then, ensure the installation has been checked and complies with trafficable installation instructions.
Note: Cut down sheets may need additional fixings and even a missing screw can make a sheet non-trafficable.
Where non-trafficable, provide appropriate fall prevention/protection measures and develop work methods to prevent people from stepping or falling onto these surfaces.
To ensure the necessary control measures are being applied as the work progresses, an ongoing review of the work should also be carried out.
Ways to manage health and safety
Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you'll need to show the regulator you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.
Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents
In managing the risk of falls, the WHS Regulation requires specific control measures to be implemented, where it is reasonably practicable to do so. For example:
- if it’s construction work, then Chapter 6 of the WHS Regulation applies
- if the work meets the definition for high risk construction work (it’s over 2m and is a complete roof replacement of a large shed), then a safe work method statement must be prepared as per Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011. Further regulations would also then apply (for example Part 6.3 Sub-division 2 “Falls” which provides prescriptive control measures).
Effective controls for the risk of falling from a height are often made up of a combination of controls. Some common control measures can include but are not limited to the following examples:
- Constructing a roof with the roof structure on the ground and then lifting it into place – this can eliminate many fall 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). Mesh must be overlapped and secured in accordance with the instructions of the mesh manufacturer. 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 he/she 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).
In addition to the hierarchy of controls, the manufacturer’s instructions should be followed for the safe operation and use of plant, machinery and/or systems engaged by the PCBU.
Note: Any administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision, and used on their own, tend to be least effective in minimising risks.
The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.
- How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 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
Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident
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