Don't take shortcuts when working at height

Working at Height Association
By Gordon Cadzow, Secretary, Working at Height Association
Thursday, 15 June, 2017

Don't take shortcuts when working at height

The Safe Work Australia report ‘Work Related Traumatic Injury Fatalities for 2015’ (published in October 2016) highlights that, in spite of the best efforts of the Working at Height Association, companies, industry and the regulators, there has been no reduction in the number of work-related fatalities resulting from workers falling from height.

The report covers the period of 2003 to 2015 and, while there has been an overall reduction in all work-related fatalities (from 259 in 2003 to 195 in 2015), fatalities from falls from height in the same period only moved from 27 to 26.

In that same period, the high point of 32 was reached in 2007 with a low of 22 in 2011 — returning to 26 in 2015. Over the 13-year period, 359 people died as a result of falls from height. The Safe Work report also covers fatalities from falling objects, which in 2003 were at 15 and have since climbed to 21 in 2015.

These numbers are a sad reflection of the fall protection industry and the level of attention given to safe working at height issues in the field.

The prime objective remains focusing on work methods that eliminate or minimise the need for persons to have to work at height. Where working at height cannot be eliminated, we then need to ensure that workers and their supervisors are properly trained and certified as competent with the skills required for working at height. At the same time, they should have available the best possible/most appropriate equipment that is certified as conforming to the appropriate Australian/New Zealand Standard.

The ‘professional end’ of businesses that are heavily involved in height safety activity — construction, mining, utilities, telecoms, etc — are constantly working to improve their operations — and are extremely proficient at so doing.

However, at the smaller end of the market where tradespeople are working from business owners’ height safety systems, or on sites where there are no systems of fall protection at all, significant problems remain.

It is primarily to this segment that this article is directed. This is the area where corners tend to be cut and short-term or lowest cost-perceived solutions can prevail. This is the area where we need to get the market to understand that there can be no shortcuts where lives are at stake.

Fixed height safety system installations

Consider the requirement to regularly service equipment on a rooftop of a commercial office or a factory building. This is where specialist, skilled tradesmen — say, electricians — are required to safely access the rooftop and then traverse the roof to the plant requiring to be serviced. The responsibility for the safety of access for this activity may lie with the building owner or a facility manager, but the processes to be followed are common to both.

The system designer

For permanent height safety system installations, a specialist height safety system designer is required to develop a safe system for undertaking the necessary work and for designing the equipment systems required to allow the tradesman safe access up to, and down from, the roof. Their obligation also extends to safe access to, from and at the equipment to be serviced. The system should be designed to minimise any risk to the person using the system and, in the vast majority of instances, a site visit by the system designer is required to ensure that the system design is also compatible with the building structure.

The safe work method statement (SWMS) must be documented and retained as the first component of the system file.

The designer must then select suitable equipment for operator access, egress and work positioning. The equipment may include ladder systems, walkways and hand rails, static line or rail systems, and single-point anchorages and platforms. All equipment selected must be designed, manufactured, tested and certified as compliant with the appropriate Australian Standard.

Details of the equipment selected must be added to the system file by the system designer.

In the event that no height systems are present on a building or structure, the responsibility is often placed upon the contractor to provide a safe means of temporary access. This is often the most overlooked issue, as the contractors are then obliged to provide their own SWMS detailing their means of access, as well as their rescue plan in the event of an emergency. In residential and light commercial projects, this is very often overlooked.

The system installation contractor

For permanent installations, the responsibility for selecting an appropriate contractor can be handled in many ways — but the requirements to qualify as an installation company are clearly defined. The installation company — and the individual employees to undertake the installation — must be trained and certified as competent by the equipment manufacturer to undertake the installation, testing, labelling and certification of their product.

The installation contractor must install the products exactly in accordance to the system design details and to the manufacturer’s product installation and testing instructions.

On completion of the installation work, details of product installation, appropriate test results, testing certificates and future recertification requirements must be added to the system file.

The system is then suitable for its intended purpose. But the competency of those selected to use the system must be verified. It is therefore recommended that training in system use be completed prior to any system access being undertaken.

The system users

While the building owner or facility manager may know suitable tradesmen to carry out the servicing work, they must ensure that those tradesmen also have the required Safe Working at Height certification from a registered training organisation (RTO).

It is recommended that the certification should be less than two years old and, if not, refresher training is required before conducting the work.

If the tradesmen are providing their own personal protective equipment (PPE) — full body harnesses, lanyards, etc — the owner or manager should ensure the equipment is within its marked service life and has passed its pre-use inspection.

A check should also be made that the connection of any specialist equipment provided for use on the system is compatible with the tradesman’s PPE.

The tradesmen should be allowed to view the system file prior to commencing work and should record the results from their system pre-use inspection. On completion of the work they should record the required information on the system usage records — including the results of the post-use system inspection. The usage records should be filed in the updated system file.

Training ‘in house’ system users

There may be occasions where the system owner wishes to use his own tradesmen for the service work to be conducted at height. This will require that those employees undertake —  and successfully pass — a Basic Safe Working at Height course.

Safe Working at Height training requires a more detailed explanation and will be covered in a separate article, but the following guidelines should be noted as principles recommended by the WAHA:

  • The training should be provided by a reputable RTO with Safe Working at Height competency accreditation (reference checking is advisable).
  • The basic training course duration should be no less than 8 h;
  • The trainee/instructor ratio should be no more than 12:1.
  • The course should cover both working at height theory and practical assessment on equipment.
  • Although a nationally recognised competency is enduring, the WAHA recommends recertification every 24 months to maintain skills currency.

Where subsequent employee recertification is required, this must not be done on a ‘tick and flick’ basis by an appropriate training RTO. Refresher training should be undertaken every two years in order to pass on advice on new techniques and equipment, as well as to eliminate any bad habits that may have developed since the last training course.

Recertification of system

The system file and system labelling will identify the timing of the required system recertification and this should be arranged in a timely fashion by the system owner/manager.

There are a number of system product manufacturer accredited recertifiers as well as a number of independent recertifiers. Regardless, the recertifier will require full access to the system file — including the SWMS, the system design details and the product manufacturer’s installation and testing instructions.

The recertifier will inspect and test system components — including strength tests — and the system overall. Should any problem be identified, the recertifier will tag the system out of service and the system owner will need to arrange for appropriate repairs and recertification.

Following recertification, there will be a requirement to update system and component labelling as appropriate. The recertifier’s findings — and subsequent recertification — should be fully documented in the system file along with the date of the next required recertification.


In this segment — where there are a number of people/functions involved in a single working at height activity — it is critical that each function is aware of its responsibility in maintaining a high standard of safety for those actually carrying on the work at height.

Ultimately, the worker has to rely on each part of the system installation, maintenance and recertification process being carried out absolutely precisely by skilled, dedicated professionals. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and system owners must ensure that every link is flawless.

Image caption: NSCA poster ca 1970, courtesy of NSCA Foundation.

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