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Fatal fall from height incident

In September 2023, a young worker suffered fatal injuries as a result of falling from height at a construction site. Early investigations suggested he fell between three to four metres through a penetration.

Investigations are continuing.

Safety issues

Falls from height are a leading cause of workplace fatalities. Fall hazards occur where work is carried out at height but can also happen at ground level or on suspended slabs where penetrations, service pits, lift shafts, and trenches are present.

During the construction of multi-storey buildings, voids and penetrations in floor slabs are often required to allow for services and stairwells to be installed. Temporary penetrations may also be required for construction activity such as propping of precast elements or concrete pumping lines.

Injury can result from a person falling through a larger penetration, by stepping onto a smaller penetration, or if an object falls through the opening onto someone below.

Ways to manage health and safety

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

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must manage the risks to health and safety associated with a fall from one level to another. In managing the risk of falls, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (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.

Holes, penetrations and openings in floors and slabs must be made safe immediately after being formed.

Effective controls for the risk of falls from one level to another are often made up of a combination of controls. Some examples below.

Embedded mesh

  • Where practicable on a concrete floor slab, smaller penetrations should be provided with cast-in mesh when the concrete floor is poured. The mesh can be cut out at a later stage to allow services to pass through. The hole should be cut to the profile of the service so that mesh remains in the penetration.
  • The mesh should be 50 millimetres x 50 millimetres or smaller and made from material capable of withstanding the potentially imposed load. See Figure 1 below.
  • Mesh provided over larger penetrations may require engineering certification to ensure it can withstand potential loads, including those applied by people, equipment, and material.

Mesh embedded in a concrete floor
Figure 1: Mesh embedded in a concrete floor

Penetration covers

  • Alternatively, penetrations in floors should be provided with a penetration cover (or fall protection cover). If the penetration cover is used to control a fall risk associated with construction work, then it must comply with section 306F of the WHS Regulation.
  • Ensure that any penetrations in concrete slabs are covered prior to commencing formwork stripping and exposing the fall hazard.
  • Penetration covers must be mechanically fixed to the floor or otherwise effectively restrained so that it remains in position.
  • Fixings for the cover are to be structurally adequate and should require the use of a tool to be removed.
  • Fixings are to be an adequate distance from the edges of the cover and the supporting surface slab beneath to prevent failure of the cover, the fixing or supporting surface (information will be available from the fixing manufacturer). See Diagram 1 below.

Example of a horizontal penetration cover
Diagram 1: Example of a horizontal penetration cover

  • Small covers should be designed to safely withstand a point load of at least 2 kilonewtons - approximately 200 kilograms. This is a minimum design load typically for a temporary application and is the same point load as required for heavy duty scaffolding – see AS/NZS1576.1:2019 Scaffolding Part 1: General requirements for further details.
  • Covers provided over larger penetrations (where the cover could support two or more people at once), will require engineering certification to ensure it can withstand the potential loads, including those applied by people, equipment, and material.
  • Covers should be painted in a bright colour and be marked with the words 'Danger Hole Under' or 'Danger Penetration Below' or similar. See Figure 2 below.

Cover danger sign - hole beneath
Figure 2: Cover danger sign

  • 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.
  • Where plywood covers are used, they are to be a single piece of ply without multiple pieces; joins and the edge of the penetration should be bevelled to minimise any trip hazard.
  • The cover must never be left with fixings removed.
  • If the cover is removed, the penetration should be provided with appropriate edge protection (e.g., handrails) to prevent people falling through or into the penetration.

Edge protection

  • Where edge protection (guard railing) is used to control the risk of a fall associated with construction work, the edge protection must comply with section 306E of the WHS Regulation.
  • Edge protection must be erected in accordance with the instructions of the edge protection system manufacturer or supplier, or if these are not available, the instructions of an engineer or competent person.
  • The edge protection should be secured in place and designed to withstand the impact of a person falling against it.
  • Edge protection systems should be designed in accordance with AS 1657:2018 Fixed platforms, walkways, stairways and ladders - Design, construction and installation or AS/NZS 4994.1:2009 Temporary edge protection, Part 1: General requirements.

Safe Systems of Work

Develop a safe system of work for managing the risk of falling through a penetration. This could include, but is not limited to:

  • Providing information (including exact locations of penetrations), training, instruction and supervision to people who work near holes, penetrations, and openings.
  • Developing 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).
  • Scheduling regular inspections of the penetration covers or edge protection to ensure that the risk controls remain safely secured in place and in good condition.
  • 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.

Young workers

Business owners must also ensure the work environment, and the way young employees do their job is safe and healthy, regardless of the type and terms of their employment.

Employers of young workers should:

  • understand their risk profile
  • ensure a safe and healthy workplace
  • provide information, training, instruction, and supervision
  • develop a positive workplace culture.

Consider the tasks you give to new and young workers given their skills, abilities, and experience. Before a young person begins work, a PCBU should:

  • Identify the gaps in the worker's knowledge and assess their ability to work safely (competency should be tested).
  • Not accept a young worker's assurance that he or she is experienced and competent.

It's important for young workers to actively participate in the way work health and safety is managed. This means taking induction and training seriously, using the risk management process for work tasks, and asking for help before starting a task they're not familiar with or comfortable carrying out.

More information

Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident

For advice and support: