Tread carefully around fragile roofing
In December a worker was fatally injured after falling from height at a Port Adelaide worksite. The 51-year-old died after falling 6.5 metres while working without fall prevention in place on a commercial business shed roof. More recently, SafeWork South Australia (SafeWork SA) inspectors attended an incident involving a contractor who sustained serious injuries following a fall of more than 4 metres through asbestos guttering. These incidents have prompted the regulator to issue a warning to South Australian businesses about fall risks for those working on fragile roofing, and a reminder to employers about work health and safety obligations when engaging contractors.
Fragile roofing materials are dangerous because they can fracture without warning, and such fractures can occur rapidly, which places those working around these surfaces at risk of falling through and sustaining serious, even fatal, injuries as a result. SafeWork SA therefore advised that “All roofs should be treated as fragile until a competent person has confirmed they are not.” Further, the regulator stated that “No sheeted roof should be relied on to bear a person’s weight. This includes the roof ridge and purlins.”
Roofs likely to be fragile include those composed of: polycarbonate or plastic commonly used in skylights, glass (including wired glass), chipboard (or similar material where rotted) and wood slabs, slates or tiles. The regulator also notes that asbestos roofing sheets, roof lights (especially those in a roof plane — that can be difficult to see in certain light conditions or when hidden by paint), fibre cement sheets, liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs and metal sheets and fasteners where corroded are likely to be fragile.
The regulator advises that before commencing work on any roof area or using a roof as a means of access — for example, in construction, repair, maintenance or demolition — a risk assessment must be conducted. This assessment should include reference to an asbestos register (where applicable) and visual inspections, including: of perimeter walls for warning notices and of the roof itself for the presence of fragile materials. From this risk assessment, the need for elevated work platforms, safety mesh or safety harnesses and fall arrest equipment can be determined.
In the event that fall arrest equipment is needed, the regulator advises that this needs to be installed by a licensed scaffolder or rigger, and also warns that wearing harnesses creates a trip hazard, meaning that workers need to take extra care. For safety mesh, it is advised that if used, this should conform to AS/NZS 4389: Roof safety mesh, and should be installed in a safe manner by a competent person in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Fragile roof signage needs to be fixed to walls of buildings where access can be made to fragile roofs, and should be at least 600 x 450 mm.
According to the regulator (citing ReturnToWork SA data), in the 2019 financial year 754 claims were made for injuries sustained from falls from height. This was across all industries. Of these claims, the construction industry accounted for close to 19%. In response, SafeWork SA has committed to having its inspectors undertake compliance audits in 2020 on Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) for high risk construction work (HRCW).
“The WHS Regulations prescribe 18 specific activities as HRCW, due to the significant potential for serious harm that is often associated with those activities,” SafeWork SA said in its guidance. “One of these prescribed activities is work that involves a risk of a person falling more than 3 metres, for example, working on a roof. SWMS are a key strategy relied upon to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities within the construction industry.”
More information is available here, in the ‘Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces: Code of Practice’.
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