The construction industry often relies on scaffolding and elevating platforms to perform important work above the ground. In particular, Australia's capital cities have seen apartment buildings and tower blocks being constructed taller than ever before in recent years.

High-rise construction work is expected to experience a continued rise in activity, according to the latest report from BIS Shrapnel. The Building in Australia 2014-2029 study, released on July 21, forecast a growing demand for apartments in order to meet the housing needs of an increasing population.

Currently, Australia is facing an estimated dwelling shortfall of approximately 100,000 homes. Due to the 1.7 per cent annual population growth rate, BIS Shrapnel Associate Director Dr Kim Hawtrey expects it will be some time before this demand is met.

"Home building has been punching below its weight for about a decade, and has not kept pace with population growth for some time now," said Dr Hawtrey.

"We estimate that it will take the next five years to eliminate the unmet demand for housing. We therefore do not see this housing shortfall closing until 2018."

In particular, the report identifies apartments and tower blocks as a key driver to rising construction activity. As the population grows, major cities are combating urban sprawl by building up instead of out. This means that construction businesses in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne are likely to participate in projects that require the use of major scaffolding.

"In the next two years we'll also see the recent emphasis on high-rise units continue. Currently two high-rise apartments are being built for every five detached houses, which is double the historical rate of one apartment for every five houses built," Dr Hawtrey explained.

When working above ground, there are many considerations that need to be made in order to protect the health and safety of workers and the public. This includes engaging qualified scaffolding installers and accessing working at heights training for all relevant employees.

Work health and safety on scaffolding

Undertaking any tasks above the ground can put workers at risk due to the fall hazards. Once an individual is more than two metres off the ground, their chances of serious injury or even death are significantly increased.

Fortunately, properly installed and maintained scaffolding can help minimise the risk of falling, due to industry regulations that these structures must comply with. Additionally, any worker who may be required to climb on and perform tasks involving scaffolding should be offered working at heights training as well as comply with dangerous work permits.

To help employers understand their requirements regarding scaffolding and working above the ground, Safe Work Australia has recently released a series of guides designed to raise awareness of the hazards and controls related to this work.

In particular, workers and employers can now access a series of five documents outlining specific scaffolding requirements and work health and safety standards.

– General scaffolding guide

The first document is a general guide providing information on the overall use of scaffolding. This publication outlines what scaffolding is, how it relates to construction work and the hazards involved in its use.

According to Safe Work Australia, a scaffold is a temporary structure constructed to provide working platforms above the ground. In this guide, scaffolding work refers to the erecting, altering and dismantling of the individual components that make up a scaffold.

The important elements contained in the general scaffolding guide include hazard controls related to anchoring, installing and taking down these temporary structures. Common risks to employee health and safety outlined within this document include scaffold collapse, electric lines, uneven ground, falls and dropped objects.

While following the recommended safety standards should help worker avoid these hazards, accidents can still occur. Because of this, Safe Work Australia recommends that an emergency plan is prepared and in place before any work begins.

– Scaffold inspection and maintenance

As with any equipment in the construction industry, regular maintenance and safety inspections are crucial for scaffolding safety.

Safe Work Australia's inspection guide requires that any scaffold that poses a fall risk of more than four metres should not be used unless signed off by a qualified and competent person. Inspections are recommended prior to work being started, as well as during construction projects.

Scaffolds higher than four metres must be assessed at least every 30 days while in use. If an inspection identifies an issue with the structure, work must be halted while any necessary repairs and alterations are carried out. Once this process has been completed, a follow-up inspection is required before normal work can resume.

– Scaffolds and scaffolding

The practical guide to scaffolds outlines the different kinds of structures that can be included under this umbrella. For instance, a birdcage scaffold is an independent platform generally used for work on a single level.

This particular scaffold type requires different working at heights safety equipment, as fall-arrest systems are usually not suitable for controlling risks within birdcage structures.

Comparatively, a hung, single pole or trestle scaffold could require the use of fall-arrest equipment, such as harnesses, anchors and suspension. It is important for workers using scaffolding to know what kind of structure is being utilised, and the specific hazards present in each situation. Once this is understood, the proper standards and controls can be put in place.

– Swing stage (suspended) scaffolds

Perhaps one of the most dangerous forms of scaffold is the suspended platform. Installing these scaffolds requires a person holding an advanced scaffolding or rigging licence.

Workers operating a suspended platform do not need to hold a high-risk licence but should be provided with the necessary fall-arrest equipment and working at heights training to avoid potentially fatal falls.

This type of scaffolding presents a number of unique risks, particularly as the platform is often used on the sides of high-rise buildings, where wind and weather elements can significantly increase risk to workers.

Fortunately, with the right controls and policies in place, these hazards can easily be mitigated. In particular, inspections, training and personal protective equipment are crucial for protecting the health and safety of suspended scaffolding operators.

– Tower and mobile scaffolds

While most types of scaffolds are fixed in place, tower and mobile standards can usually be moved across sites in order to access multiple points above the ground.

Because of this, it is important for workers using these structures to remain aware of environmental hazards, such as uneven ground and interactions with machinery. If a mobile scaffold was to be placed on a minutely sloped surface, the resulting work on the platform could be enough to create movement and cause the structure to move.

It is therefore crucial that scaffold safety features are in place, such as brakes on the wheels and anchors to fixed points.

Furthermore, individuals undertaking tasks on these structures will benefit from working at heights training, as this competency will ensure they are aware of their hazards and the controls that are required.

For more information on working at heights training and scaffold safety, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.

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