Qld issues safety alert after fatal fall through skylight

Monday, 28 August, 2023

Qld issues safety alert after fatal fall through skylight

In June 2023, a worker was fatally injured after he fell through a polycarbonate roof panel, approximately five metres onto a concrete floor. Early investigations revealed the worker was about to clean solar panels when he fell through the panel. Falls, particularly through roofing, are a major cause of workplace deaths and serious injuries. The risk from a fall depends on fall control measures, 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 sheet and fasteners. Before working on any surface at height, workers should inspect the surface to identify potentially fragile spots as well as corroded or damaged fixings.

All locations and tasks which could lead to a fall injury should also be identified. This includes access to areas where the work is to be done. Where surfaces are non-trafficable, employers must provide fall prevention/protection measures and develop work methods to prevent people from stepping or falling onto these surfaces. To ensure the necessary control measures are being applied as the work progresses, an ongoing review of the work should also be carried out.

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) are advised to use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in the workplace. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. PCBUs 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. The Managing the risk of falls at workplaces code of practice also provides guidelines to meet safety requirements. The most effective control measure is to eliminate the risk of a fall by working on the ground or from a solid construction. If the cleaning cannot be carried out from ground level or a solid construction, then PCBUs will need to minimise the risk of a fall. Effective controls for the risk of falls from height are often made up of a combination of controls. Common control measures can include using an elevating work platform (EWP) so workers can remain within the EWP and avoid standing on the surface.

Installing safety mesh is another viable control measure, as long as it is compliant with AS/NZS 4389:2015 under the roofing and skylights and erect perimeter edge protection guidelines. Mesh must be overlapped and secured in accordance with the instructions of the mesh manufacturer. Both safety mesh and edge protection are primarily engineered control measures that address the risk of falling through the roof or off the roof edge.

Travel restraint systems intended to prevent a fall from an edge by physically restricting how close a worker can get to the edge can also help lower the risk of a fall. 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.

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, is rated to go over an edge and the worker’s fall is arrested before they hit the ground or another obstruction. 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. The control measures put in place should be reviewed regularly to ensure they work as planned.

Image credit: iStock.com/July Alcantara

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