Protecting workers at height on construction sites

By Amy Steed
Monday, 16 October, 2023

Protecting workers at height on construction sites

Falls from height are one of the biggest causes of injury and death on construction sites.

Working at a great height, such as the top of a multistorey building, is not the only situation that can put workers at risk. In fact, most serious and fatal falls occur when working at a height of four metres or less.

Figures from WorkSafe Victoria show that construction work poses the greatest risk of serious injury or death from falls. Almost half of the fatal falls it has recorded since the start of 2018 involved construction workers, including falls from or through roofs, through stairwell voids, from ladders and from scaffolding.

About one-third of the accepted claims for fall injuries in the same period came from construction workers, and almost half of those fell from ladders.

With such a wide range of potential fall hazards, it is therefore critical for employers to plan for height safety on construction sites by using the hierarchy of control.

What steps do employers need to take?

  • Eliminate the risk, where practicable, by doing all or some of the work on the ground or from a solid construction.
  • If work from heights must still occur, use a passive fall prevention device such as scaffolds, perimeter screens, guardrails, safety mesh or elevating work platforms.
  • If it is not possible to use a fall prevention device, then a work-positioning system is the next best option. For instance, a restraint system that ensures employees work within a safe area and cannot reach the fall hazard.
  • When it is not possible to use either a fall-prevention device or a work-positioning system, use a fall arrest system. These could include a harness, catch platform or safety nets, to limit the risk of injuries in the event of a fall. If a fall arrest system is used, it is important to have emergency and rescue procedures in place and undertake testing to ensure they are effective.

If a single control is not sufficient, then a combination of the above controls may be used.

A rise in height safety incidents

In June 2023, SafeWork NSW launched a 12-month campaign of surprise inspections across NSW building sites. This followed concerns raised by a district court judge over an alarming rise in falls from height incidents leading to serious injury and death.

On 8 February 2023, Judge David Russell published the judgement in the case of SafeWork NSW v Parrish Group NSW Pty Ltd, whereby the company was convicted and fined $300,000 as a result of breaches under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. In it, Russell made comment on the number of falls from height matters the court had observed in recent years and requested that SafeWork NSW send a copy of the judgement to the minister with responsibility for workplace safety.

The NSW Minister for Work Health and Safety, Sophie Cotsis, reported that she had received briefs and information on the issue, and had “read of horrific injuries and deaths in NSW workplaces”.

“There is zero tolerance for putting worker safety at risk. The government together with employers and unions have an important role to play to better protect workers,” Cotsis said at the launch of the height safety campaign.

“Falls from height are completely preventable with tried and tested measures such as using roof guard rails, harnesses and covering voids. There is no excuse.”

The ‘anytime, anywhere’ campaign has inspectors on the ground visiting construction sites across NSW. If needed, they will stop work onsite, issue fines and consider prosecution against businesses and individuals breaking the law and flouting critical safety regulations. SafeWork inspectors are also educating employers and workers on safe height practices during the campaign.

“Falls from height injuries account for more than 50% of all injuries in the construction sector and 44% of falls from height workers compensation claims are from the construction sector,” said Natasha Mann, Head of SafeWork NSW.

“The average cost of heights-related workers compensation claims is $167,000 — which is three times the cost of non-height-related claims — and 60% of falls from height in construction were major claims.

“Businesses and workers need to take the time to plan and manage risks before starting any work at height.”

Safer solar installations

WorkSafe Victoria has also recently ramped up its focus on safety at heights, conducting inspections at solar installation sites as part of the Solar Homes Program. Solar power has steadily grown in popularity across Australia, but rooftop solar installations can prove dangerous if the correct safety measures are not in place. Falls from height are the most serious risk associated with the task.

The Victorian Government’s $1.3 billion Solar Homes Program, delivered by Solar Victoria, has supported the installation of solar panels on more than 235,000 rooftops since 2018. In August 2023, WorkSafe Victoria reported that it had conducted more than 2100 inspections.

A one-day inspection blitz conducted in May 2023 revealed that some businesses were still risking workers’ safety, with the most frequent improvement notices issued in relation to unaddressed risks when working at height.

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said employers must do everything they reasonably can in order to reduce the risk of falls from height.

“When installing solar panels on roofs, there are many measures employers must take to reduce the risk of falls, such as using edge protection and a fall arrest system,” she said.

WorkSafe and Solar Victoria have also developed a series of safety solution sheets that are tailored to help solar installers maintain safe worksites. The seven technical solution sheets are designed to help installers assess risks, plan a safe approach to installation and comply with their occupational health and safety duties.

They cover safety at height, edge protection, manual handling of heavy and bulky items, ladder safety, working near asbestos-containing materials, safe work practices using elevating work platforms, and avoiding falls through skylights, fragile roofs and voids.

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