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Falls into ground level holes

In March 2022, a landscaping trainee suffered serious foot and spinal injuries when he fell approximately 7m into the opening of a sewer access pipe.

Initial enquiries indicate several trainees were doing a landscaping course that involved using hedgers, whipper snippers and mowers. The work area the trainees were preparing to clear was overgrown with grass. After a site inspection, the trainees commenced clearing the area when for reasons yet to be established one of them fell into the pipe.

In April 2022, a worker was left with bruises and abrasions after falling into a pile hole around 4m deep. Early enquires suggest several workers were inspecting the holes dug as part of the construction of a sound barrier when one of them removed a plywood cover to take a closer look. The worker then fell into the open hole.

Investigations are continuing.

Safety issues

Fall hazards are often found where work is carried out at height but also occur at ground level where holes are dug for trenches or service pits.

Hazards associated with the risk of falls at ground level can include but not limited to work tasks that are carried out near a hole or shaft (trenches, service pits or floor and column penetrations) into which a worker could fall.

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 that 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

PCBU’s must manage the risks to health and safety associated with a fall by a person from one level to another. Fall prevention devices (for example a secure fence, or cover) must be provided where people are working near and around holes, penetrations and openings through which they could fall.

Effective control measures are often made up of a combination of controls. Examples of common risk control measures can include, but are not limited to:

  • using a cover made of a material strong enough to prevent people or objects falling through the hole, penetration or opening
  • the cover being securely fixed to prevent dislodgement or accidental removal. Where a cover is used as a control measure to manage the risk of a fall during construction work, the cover and it’s use must comply with section 306F of the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011. Due to the difficulty in fixing covers into natural ground or imported fill, if a cover is determined to be the appropriate control to implement, it is preferable for it to also be of sufficient weight so it can’t be moved by a person (e.g. a large steel plate)
  • barricading around the perimeter to prevent a fall (using a secure fence).

Covers should be designed to safely withstand a point load of at least 2 kilonewtons—that is, approximately 200 kilograms. This is a minimum design load typically for a temporary application. Further information on design loads of covers is provided in Australian Standard AS 3996:2019 Access Covers and Grates. As an example, AS 3996 specifies a minimum serviceability design load of 6.7 kilonewtons for covers and grates for areas accessible strictly for humans (no vehicular traffic). Design loadings for areas accessible by vehicles increase significantly.

Plywood covers on their own are not preferred because:

  • the cover may be indistinguishable from other pieces of plywood
  • it may be difficult to determine if the plywood is properly secured
  • secured plywood covers can be unsecured to gain access and not be re-secured.

Develop a safe system of work for managing the risk of falling into a hole, pipe or pit. This could include, but is not limited to:

  • clear signs warning people not to access the opening (See figure 1)
    Cover danger sign - hole beneath

    Figure 1: Cover danger sign
    Source: Managing the risk of falls at workplaces Code of Practice 2021
  • providing information (including exact locations), training, instruction and supervision to people who work near holes, penetrations and openings
  • develop safe work procedures that describe the task, identify the hazards and document how the task is to be performed to minimise any risks associated with working near holes, penetrations and openings
  • where more than one business has responsibility for the same health and safety matters, duty holders should exchange information to find out who is doing what and work together in a cooperative and coordinated way so risks are eliminated or minimised (either because they are involved in the same activities or share the same workplace)
  • allocating specific time to perform inspections of the workplace, conducting pre-start meetings and toolbox talks while ensuring workers have sufficient time to perform any necessary safety checks prior to commencing work (such as pre-start checks of equipment).

The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.

More information

Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident

For advice and support: