There are a vast range of considerations that need to be made when working at heights. The risk of injury or even death is present even when employees are required to undertake tasks only above two metres above the ground.

According to Safe Work Australia, more than one in 10 work-related fatalities are caused by a fall from height. This troubling statistic highlights the importance of following correct occupational health and safety (OHS) measures when working above ground.

In order to meet strict OHS standards, employers must ensure their workers have undertaken comprehensive working at heights training. Individuals can access nationally recognised courses from AlertForce, an expert and specialised OHS registered training provider.

Additionally, when the industry, business or occupation requires workers to conduct tasks above ground, employers should introduce the five step working at heights hazard hierarchy to ensure correct procedures are being followed.

The 5 steps of fall prevention

Designed to minimise the risk of accidents, injuries or death, the hierarchy includes steps to identify, address and avoid hazards as well as responding to any potential incidents. Understanding and following this process is crucial for meeting OHS standards and ensuring employees are protected when working at heights.

1. Identify the risks

There are many potential hazards present when working at heights, particularly pertaining to the risk of falling from an elevated surface. Each occupation can pose different risks for employees, as each individual conducts tasks that are unique to their industry.

Employers and workers must each ensure they understand the particular hazards that could affect their site. For instance, construction workers may be required to work on sloped roofs or use scaffolding to reach the sides of buildings.

Other situations that can pose unique working at heights hazards include linesmen being exposed to electrical dangers, painters using ladders while carrying heavy paint buckets or freight drivers clambering across loose loads on truck trailers.

Most situations that involve working at heights are conducted outside, which poses a number of additional risks. Australia's weather can be volatile and unpredictable. When an individual is working on a platform, ladder or roof that is exposed to the elements, there is always the risk that the wind, rain, heat or frost will influence a fall.

It is therefore important that employers and employees monitor the weather regularly. If conditions begin to turn, a decision needs to be made regarding the safety of working outside and above ground.

There are a huge amount of potential risks in many industries, so accessing comprehensive working at heights training is crucial to ensure individuals can accurately assess their own OHS requirements.

2. Avoid the risk

Once the hazards have been identified, the first step to mitigating the risk of accidents and injuries is to avoid working under the conditions at all.

This is the most simple and effective measure you can take to protect OHS on your worksite, however, it is not always possible to avoid working at heights. For instance, when conducting businesses in the construction industry, many tasks require work to be performed above ground – on scaffolding or roofs.

Whenever possible, work should be designed to ensure individuals are not required to work at heights. This policy is recommended to be followed from manufacturing right through to onsite work.

A good example of how manufacturers can help mitigate the need to work at heights is by designing equipment so it can be manoeuvred into a new position when repairs or maintenance is required. Various models of this policy include machinery that can tip onto its side to improve access to the top or long-handled paint rollers that allow painters to perform their work without climbing a ladder.

When working at heights is unavoidable for business undertakings, there are still choices and options available to completely remove the risks affecting employees.

For instance, construction workers and other outdoor employees should avoid working at heights through adverse weather conditions. When the wind or rain picks up, individuals working outside are exposed to increased risks, including slipping on wet roof tiles or being blown off-balance by a gust of wind.

3. Control the risk

During all times when individuals are working at heights, certain risk control measures should be put in place. This can range from simple warning signs to extensive fall-arrest systems.

Depending on the situation and environment, guard rails may be the most effective fall prevention measure. Specific Safe Work Australia recommendations are in place to ensure rails are working effectively. This includes the installation of a top rail 900 to 1100 mm above the work surface, a mid rail and a toe board.

Similar fall prevention initiatives could involve using elevated platforms – such as scissor lifts – instead of ladders, safety mesh strung within internal roofs and work boxes designed to be suspended by cranes and forklifts.

In addition to these possible safety measures, employees must be given access to all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). Individual rope systems and fall-arrest devices, such as harnesses, anchorage lines and lanyards, enable employees to work at heights with the peace of mind that if they slipped or fell, they would be caught before reaching the ground.

However, it is crucial that these systems are correctly installed and maintained, as an improper set-up may result in an individual reaching the ground before reaching the end of their rope. The ability to select, maintain and use these devices should be included in any working at heights training you or your employees access.

4. Respond to incidents

If an accident or emergency occurs when an individual is working above the ground, ensuring you can safely enact an emergency response plan is crucial.

For most employees, this would simply include the knowledge of who to contact when an incident occurs. In more urgent matters, however, some first aid and rescue training may be required.

When responding to an emergency, individuals need to hold competencies including the selection of rescue equipment, the ability to administer first aid at heights and the assessment of potentially faulty platforms or systems. If an employee has sustained an injury or been involved in an accident, it is likely that the environment is hazardous and could pose further risks to response teams.

5. Maintain risk prevention

If your industry or occupation requires work to be conducted at heights regularly, it is important to ensure your OHS practices are maintained throughout the entire course of the business undertaking.

This means working at height hazards should be frequently reviewed, to ensure changing conditions or equipment wear and tear does not increase risk and cause accidents. In particular, all equipment, platforms, machinery and environments should be assessed for hazards routinely. If potential dangers are identified, they need to be addressed as soon as possible.

Furthermore, employers should ensure their employees' training is refreshed and updated when necessary. This will improve OHS outcomes by providing workers with the latest skills and knowledge while boosting their existing qualifications.

If you or your employees require a working at heights training refresher or initiation, contact the team at AlertForce for access to industry-leading OHS courses.

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