There is a significant risk of injury in any industry that requires employees to work from heights, according to Safe Work Australia.
In an October 2013 report – 'Work-related injuries and fatalities involving a fall from height' – Safe Work Australia revealed that more than 200 workers had been killed as a result of falls from heights between 2003 and 2011.
This figure represents 11 per cent of all workplace fatalities during the eight-year period – the largest proportion of deaths related to any one cause. Additionally, the report found more than one-third (37 per cent) of these falls occurred during work in the construction industry.
Other occupations that record the highest numbers of fall from height injuries and deaths include painting and decorating (32 per cent), plumbing (23 per cent) and electrical work (18 per cent).
In a surprising development, at least half of these fatal falls involved a height of less than three metres, proving it's not just labourers on roofs and elevated platforms that need to be aware of the dangers of working at heights.
During the same period, 7,730 claims for serious injuries due to falls from heights were lodged by injured workers. This means that 21 employees sustain a fall-related injury every day.
The typical fall-related injury results in an employee needing more than six weeks off work, which proves that reducing the risk of falls from heights can have significant economic benefits to employers due to a decrease in absenteeism.
Furthermore, nearly 6,900 injured workers required hospitalisation following a fall from height during the three year period between 2006 and 2009. This accounts for 9 per cent of all injured employees who required treatment in a hospital in that time.
These results show that workplace injuries and fatalities caused by falls from heights are a significant issue in Australian industries. Addressing this hazard and working to minimise the risk is an important step in decreasing workers' compensation claims and potentially decreasing employee death and injury across all occupations.
In order to correctly identify and rectify the danger of falling, employers should consider offering their employees construction safety training and occupational health and safety courses related to working at heights training.
Leading causes of falls from heights
Falls from height commonly occur when safety best practices have not been followed or inadequate training leads to errors in work procedures.
This includes using ladders on uneven ground, walking on unfinished or unstable scaffolding, failing to wear safety harnesses and inappropriately climbing on unsecured shelving or platforms.
Incorrect use of ladders can involve working from an upper-level rung without a partner to spot or steady the bottom rungs, or failing to secure the ladder using multiple points on a building or the ground.
A number of falls also occur due to scaffolding and roofs not being kept clear of tools and clutter. This can lead to a worker who has their vision obscured tripping and tumbling off the elevated platform.
Working during wet or windy weather can also increase the chances of falling from height, as a damp and slick surface may cause a worker to slip and fall, or a strong gust of wind could unbalance an employee exposed to the elements.
To prevent these hazards from affecting your workplace, it is crucial to ensure your employees are sufficiently trained in safety best practices. It is also important for workers to identify the risks to themselves and to others in order to enact appropriate measures to prevent accidents and injuries.
Removing the risks
In order to reduce the risks of falling from height, employers have the option to consult an occupational health and safety representative to assess their worksite.
Beyond this, employers should also speak with their workers to identify the risks – as the employees often have more in-depth, first-hand knowledge of what hazards they are facing.
Any task that requires an employee to work above two metres presents a risk of falling, which means safety measures must be considered for all of these duties. Once these risks have been identified, there is a five point process workers must follow to establish the most efficient way to remove this hazard from the workplace.
1. Working from the ground
The first step to removing these risks is to decide whether the work could be performed closer to the ground.
This could include removing moving parts from a large piece of machinery in order to repair it on the ground, constructing tilt-up framing rather than performing construction on scaffolding or fitting vehicle covers from the ground rather than climbing over the load.
2. Passive fall prevention devices
Passive fall prevention devices – such as guard rails, scaffolding and netting – reduce the risk of falls from heights by creating a barrier between the employee and the ground.
This method can be very effective when guard rails are correctly installed. This includes ensuring rails are raised above waist height, to stop a worker's centre of gravity tipping them over the device. Additionally, rails and scaffolding should not contain large gaps below the upper guard as falls can still occur when an employee slips or rolls underneath an official guard rail.
3. Work positioning systems
If a passive fall prevention device is unsuitable, you may want to consider work positioning systems. These typically include rope access systems and travel restraints.
This would involve workers wearing a harness attached by a lanyard to roof anchors or static lines. However, these devices often rely on the skills of the user and an effective system of maintenance. Any untrained use of such devices could still lead to a fall-related injury or death.
4. Fall injury prevention systems
A fall injury prevention system is fundamentally different to a work positioning device. This level of protection involves installing safety nets, catch platforms and individual fall arrest systems.
These devices will ensure any employee who trips, slips or falls is caught before injury is sustained. Installation of a fall injury prevention device should always be undertaken by a trained professional.
5. Fixed and portable ladders or administrative controls
When all other points have been tried and exhausted, a last resort should be relying on simple safety procedures and ladders.
These options are unlikely to significantly reduce the risk of injuries if falls occur, but correct controls and ladder use can minimise the occurrence of serious falls in some cases.
This step should be taken to comply with Fair Work regulations, which require an employer to provide their workers with a safe and healthy working environment.
Working safely at heights is an important step towards improving Australia's troubling workplace fatality and injury rates. This requires an industry-wide compliance, with all occupations and businesses taking steps to reduce the risk of falls from heights.
The Working at Heights Association (WAHA) recently released a report that shows the use of fall-prevention measures is an area where many sectors require improvement.
Their February 12 statement revealed that of those businesses already using these systems, more than 60 per cent failed to comply with industry standard regulations.
This suggests a need for further working from heights training and better access to professional services to install and maintain fall prevention systems.