New figures from the Queensland Work Health and Safety (WHS) authority show that the number of construction-related complaints has climbed significant over the past year.

This is according to an August 3 article published in The Sunday Mail, which revealed reports concerning safety breaches on local sites climbed to 2,765 for the 2013-14 financial year. In comparison, complaints reached just 2,092 in 2012-13 and 1,764 in 2011-12.

One of the key influencers driving the increased complaints is the growing public awareness of WHS standards. While in the past, the majority of complaints were issued from internal sources, recent years have seen nearby residents and passersby become more widely represented in the figures. According to The Sunday Mail, this could be because the popularity of shows such as The Block and House Rules, which commonly feature segments outlining safety procedures and awareness.

In addition to the rise in complaints issued, a WHS Queensland (WHSQ) representative has reveals that there were 10 workplace fatalities throughout the entire 2013-14 financial year. However, the current statistics show two people have died in work related incidents within a week.

One of the individuals was killed when the trench they were working in collapsed and engulfed them, while the second died after falling six metres on a construction site.

These incidents, and the WHS breaches that result in complaints, are demonstrations of the importance of correct safety procedures in workplaces. When policies are not present or not followed correctly, businesses can be hit with substantial fines or even experience serious accidents.

Making a WHS complaint in Queensland

For any individual who discovers a serious WHS breach, informing the proper authorities is vital for protecting the health and safety of employees and the public.

WHSQ supports this important process by offering an online complaint form as well as a direct phone line for those wishing to make a report. If an individual does not wish to reveal their identity, complaints can be made anonymously. This is important for any contractor or employee who may not feel comfortable reporting on their boss or colleagues.

Once a complaint has been received, WHSQ will review the details and take action depending on the nature of the breach. In many cases, this involves sending a Department of Justice representative to the site in question and ensuring those working in the area are aware of their obligations and best practice policies.

The Department of Justice inspectors issued more than 1,300 improvement notices in Queensland in the 2013-14 financial year. Around 750 projects were forced to halt their work due to non-compliant and high-risk activity.

Although the number of fines was down on previous years, 32 employers still received penalties of between $200 and $3,600 last year. The drop in overall fines issued is largely attributed to the change in philosophy by the Department of Justice. Now, the focus has been placed on working with builders and contractors to boost compliance prior to incidents being reported – rather than responding to accidents.

Addressing the rising complaints

With the number of complaints continuing to climb across Queensland's construction sites, the Office of Fair and Safe Work Queensland has revealed plans for a 2014-17 action plan.

This initiative will target "critical risks/issues related to fatalities" within the construction industry, with a focus on traffic management, falls prevention, site supervising and mentoring of young workers.

Another important factor for employers and workers to consider is asbestos exposure, with issues related to the dangerous fibres making up more than a quarter (28 per cent) of total complaints.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to address these concerns in workplaces and construction sites across Australia. In fact, there are a few simple measures that can be put in place to mitigate the risk of serious WHS breaches and non-compliance.

What can employers do?

When responding to the high number of workplace complaints, employers working in high-risk industries – such as construction – probably already have policies in place to boost safety.

However, in some cases, a basic knowledge of the WHS standards may not be enough to avoid accidents and injuries. In particular, when employees are not continually supervised and reviewed, they could make changes to their work behaviours which fail to meet safety requirements.

This is why it is vital that employers regularly check up on their workers and keep them informed and aware of their changing WHS needs. Additionally, employers, supervisors and site managers should undertake the following standards to ensure that best practices are being followed at all times.

– Know the regulations and requirements

When you want your workers to follow correct WHS policies, it helps to hold a thorough understanding of these practices yourself.

It is therefore important that all leaders and stakeholders access the relevant education that can help boost WHS compliance. This could include contacting your local Work Safe Authority, or undertaking comprehensive WHS training.

– Educate your workers

As well as increasing your own understanding and knowledge, it is vital that you provide all relevant workers with the necessary training to protect themselves and others. By giving employees access to these qualifications, they are more likely to work within industry standards.

While some competencies may be more relevant than others, the construction industry is an area that requires a large number of skills to operate safely. For instance, most workers within the building sector will need some level of working at heights training throughout their career.

This is reflected in the high number of workplace fatalities that are related to falls and working at heights. Once an individual is working two metres off the ground, their risk of serious injury or death increases dramatically. With much in construction work involving roofs and tall structures, this is an important consideration for all industry employers.

– Have all necessary equipment available

In addition to accessing the necessary training and education for you and your workers, it is crucial that the worksite offers all necessary safety equipment and set-ups.

Many WHS complaints involve environmental and situational issues, such as ladders being set on uneven ground or scaffolding placed under live power lines. Additionally, a lack of personal protective equipment is also a common reason for complaint.

For instance, a worker climbing over a roof without a fall-arrest system in place may be grounds for an official WHS complaint. Alternatively, unstable or unsecured scaffolding may also be cause for alarm. 

Addressing these issues is easy, when employers invest in the right equipment and environmental reviews. However, knowing which systems would be most beneficial and being able to identify and address potential risks is vital.

With WHS training and reviews, employers can ensure that they and their workers understand these factors – significantly reducing their risk of accidents and injuries.

If you need more information on your WHS training requirements, or how to improve safety on your construction site, get in touch with the AlertForce team today.