It's no surprise that working at heights can represent a severe risk for work health and safety, yet this particular hazard continues to cause a significant number of work-related injuries and fatalities every year. 

Now, the issue has come under the spotlight with a recent report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation focusing on whether stricter regulation is needed. Presented by Sarah Ferguson and reported by Greg Hoy, the ABC report looked at several incidents where workers had become injured or worse as a result of the hazard.

One of these was the case of Bernard Wills, a 45-year-old builder from Western Australia who fell through a skylight in a high shed under construction and died as a result of the impact. This happened in 2011 during his first day on the job, and his employer was eventually fined for not following appropriate safety procedures. 

Another case highlighted by the ABC report is that of plumber Keith Dickman. He had been installing air conditioning ducting at a fit-out site in Melbourne when he fell from an A-frame commercial grade ladder. He was taken to a hospital but later died as a result of his injuries. 

In this incident, the coroner found the ladder had some missing fixtures which may have contributed to the fall, and it had not been properly inspected.

These are just two examples of the types of dangers that can arise from working at heights. It's a hazard that can affect anyone and should be an important part of construction site safety procedures or any other workplaces where heights are likely to be involved. 

The dangers of working at heights

Workers can be exposed to heights in different ways throughout thee course of their normal working day, and the consequences of a fall can be substantial. Accidents can happen when someone is in or on plant that is at an elevated level, near an opening or edge through which it is possible to fall or near/on an unstable, slippery or sloped surface.

This puts your staff at danger of sustaining potentially fatal injuries, either from striking another object during the fall or being exposed to another hazard as a result (such as drowning after falling into a body of water). It's not just plant or elevated structures that can pose a risk, as employees can also fall from a vehicle, an animal or from ground level into a deeper hole or trench.

According to Safe Work Australia, between July 1, 2003 and June 30, 2011, 232 workers were killed after falling from heights. This represented 11 per cent of all workers killed during that same period. 

During the 2010-11 period alone, falls from heights killed 29 workers, leading to a fatality rate of 0.25 deaths per 100,000 workers. The age group of affected workers tended to be skewed towards the older range of the spectrum, with workers aged 45 years or older making up 70 per cent of fatalities. 

Construction is one of the most at-risk industries for this hazard, accounting for 37 per cent of all fall-related fatalities during 2008-11. This is four times higher than the overall rate for other industries in Australia.

Managing the risks

One of the first steps you can take to reduce the impact of this risk is to ensure your workers have the appropriate training. Specialised courses run by recognised providers can give your workforce the knowledge and skills they need. OHS courses can help your staff understand the dangers involved and how to prevent or minimise the risks of working at heights.

Identifying specific areas of risk is another step towards better WHS policies. Once you know where the fall hazards are in your workplace, you can assess the likelihood of a fall actually occurring and act accordingly to control the risk.

Sometimes, it's possible to eliminate the risk altogether by removing the work to ground level or solid construction. If this isn't practicable, various strategies such as passive fall prevention devices, work positioning systems and fall-arrest systems can be implemented to mitigate the level of danger involved.

Any equipment, tools or devices used as part of this WHS strategy should be inspected thoroughly and frequently to ensure they are still in the best condition. 

For more detailed information about managing and preventing the risk of working at heights, talk to the AlertForce team today. 

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