Fall from height prompts safety alert
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland is investigating a May 2022 incident in which a worker was seriously injured when he fell through a ceiling panel, approximately 3.5 metres onto the concrete floor. Early investigations revealed that the worker was removing a ceiling panel that had broken away from the remaining fixtures possibly due to rust and corrosion. It appears the worker fell with the panel, which broke most of his fall.
Falls, particularly through roofing, are a major cause of death and serious injury at workplaces. The risk of serious injury from a fall depends mainly whether any fall control measures are implemented, the height at which the work is being done and the surface directly below the work at height area. There may also be additional risk when working on or near fragile surfaces. Surfaces are likely to be fragile if they are made with asbestos roofing sheets, polycarbonate sheets (alsynite) or plastic commonly used in skylights, fibre cement sheets, liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs, and metal sheets and fasteners.
Before commencing work on any surface at height, all surfaces must be inspected to identify potentially fragile spots as well as corroded or damaged fixings. These issues may not be easily identifiable if the lighting is poor. All locations and tasks which could lead to a fall injury should also be identified. Close attention is required for tasks carried out on any structure or plant being constructed or installed, demolished or dismantled, inspected, tested, repaired or cleaned. WHSQ also advises employers to carry out inspections before commencing work on a fragile surface, near an unprotected open edge of internal void area or on a sloping or slippery surface where it is difficult for people to maintain their balance. Employers should also pay close attention before commencing work where the demolition or dismantling sequence is important in ensuring the surface can continue to support the worker.
Where non-trafficable, employers are advised to provide appropriate fall prevention/protection measures and develop work methods to prevent people from stepping or falling onto these surfaces. Employers should also conduct ongoing reviews to ensure the necessary control measures are being applied as the work progresses. Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. If an incident occurs, employers and business owners will need to show the regulator that they’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by the primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Employers can use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in their place of work.
The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest, providing a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. Employers must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control. In managing the risk of falls, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 requires specific control measures to be implemented, where it is reasonably practicable to do so.
Effective controls for the risk of falls from height are often made up of a combination of controls. These can include constructing a roof with the roof structure on the ground and then lifting it into place — this can eliminate many fall from height hazards but is only suitable for the construction of some roofs on new structures where the roof can be lifted into place. In addition, lifting the roof into place will create other hazards that need to be addressed. Using an elevating work platform (EWP) can also reduce the risk of falls from height by allowing workers to remain within the EWP. However, using an EWP may also be considered an engineering control measure and the EWP must be assessed to determine whether it is the most suitable one for the task/s. The safe operation of EWPs also relies on safe work procedures, which includes ensuring operators hold the relevant high risk work licence (where required) to operate the particular EWP.
Employers are advised to ensure that safety mesh, complying with AS/NZS 4389:2015, has been installed under the roofing and skylights and perimeter edge protection. The mesh must be overlapped and secured in accordance with the instructions of the mesh manufacturer. Travel restraint systems can also be used to prevent a fall from an edge by physically restricting how close a worker can get to the edge. These systems are generally unsuitable where a fall through a roof can occur (where the roof is fragile or there is no safety mesh under the roof sheeting). They also largely rely on worker training and the worker following a safe system of work. A travel restraint system is a combination of an engineering control (system design), administrative control and personal protective equipment (tethering lines and harness).
Fall arrest systems are the least preferred risk control measure because they do not prevent a fall occurring but arrest the fall once it has occurred. This relies on the worker being able to attach to the anchorage point prior to getting into a position where the worker could fall. The worker can still be injured, even if the fall arrest system is set up correctly (and is rated to go over an edge) and the worker’s fall is arrested before they hit the ground or another obstruction. Fall arrest systems are primarily a form of personal protective equipment but also rely on engineering controls (anchorage point strength, harness and lanyard design) and administrative controls (making sure the lanyard is connected and not too long. In addition to the hierarchy of controls, the manufacturer’s instructions should be followed for the safe operation and use of plant, machinery and/or systems engaged by the PCBU. Any control measures put in place should be reviewed regularly to ensure they work as planned.
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