As gale-force winds blew across the country this week, various occupational health and safety (OHS) organisations issued warnings to construction workers.

Wind gusts can be extremely hazardous to workers due to their unpredictable nature. When high winds occur, structures under construction are in particular danger of collapsing, which presents immediate OHS risks to any employee working on or around the site.

WorkCover NSW and WorkSafe Victoria each released a statement urging employers to prepare for potentially wild weather. In particular, safety alerts have been circulated regarding structure collapse after a Victorian construction worker was killed during a wind storm.

"Tragically, a builder died [on June 23] when a brick wall fell on him at a construction site in Brighton East during strong winds," WorkSafe Victoria Executive Director of Health and Safety Len Neist said. "Every year, there are serious incidents in which strong winds lead to the collapse of walls on buildings under construction."

Mr Neist reminded employers that windy conditions can occur at any time of the year, so construction companies need to constantly vigilant regarding structure stability and working at heights.

WorkCover NSW Work Health and Safety Division Acting General Manager Peter Dunphy agreed with Mr Neist, adding that cranes should only be operated within manufacturer's guidelines and loose materials must also be inspected on a regular basis.

"Structural collapse on a site can have tragic consequences and everything should be done to ensure any risks to workers and members of the public are minimised," he said in a June 25 statement.

The danger of wind when working at heights

When wind gusts and gales occur, there are many potential risks to outdoor workers. In particular, those employed the construction industry who are required to work at heights and on partially completed structures face significant hazards in adverse weather conditions.

The dangers present when working at heights during high winds are not just limited to a potential collapse. Strong gusts can cause an employee to lose their footing and fall to the ground, resulting in serious injury or even death.

Obscured vision is another potential risk, as dust and debris are picked up by the wind and impact on workers' eyes. In gale-force winds, larger debris can also be moved, creating projectiles that can injure an individual on impact, or knock them off their feet.

When high winds are present, other adverse weather conditions are usually also in play. In particular, wind gusts that come as part of a cyclone or storm are typically coupled with rain, for example. This can lead to increased danger when working at heights due to wet and slippery surfaces.

Additionally, hail and lightning strikes can pose serious risks for employees working outdoors. Because of this, employers should consider halting all external duties when adverse weather conditions strike an area.

If wind warnings are in effect in your area, there are a range of OHS measures you can take to ensure the health and safety of your workers are protected. This includes policies that should in place, before, during and after outdoor work occurs.

Prior to commencement of work

If outdoor work is required on your site, be sure to monitor weather reports regularly. All employers operating within the construction industry or related sectors should be prepared to stop work or move the alternative duties during times of adverse weather.

When checking local weather forecasts, remember average wind speed warnings may not account for gusts. It is therefore important to prepare for sudden wind bursts at speeds and strengths much higher than predicted.

Before commencing any work on partially constructed buildings or sites, all walls and structures should be braced and inspected for integrity. When high winds are forecast, temporary supports can be installed and loose materials should be secured.

After assessing platforms and bracing structures, employers should also consider the installation of harnesses and fall-prevention anchors. Providing this critical personal protection equipment (PPE) is a vital factor in ensuring if collapse does occur, employees are able to recover and avoid a fall.

In addition to these measures, it is important to invest in adequate training and education. All employees required to perform duties above the ground need to have undertaken sufficient working at heights training to ensure they are able to correctly respond to OHS hazards, such as wind. Additionally, competencies in this field will include the ability to safely fasten, use and maintain fall-prevention devices and other PPE.

During the undertaking of work

If high winds are forecast, employees should, if reasonable, avoid heights and stay clear of partially constructed structures that may not be adequately braced. Workers are encouraged to seek shelter within structurally sound buildings if gusts reach gale-force strengths.

While work is being performed at heights, employees should be using fall-prevention systems at all times of adverse weather. This will ensure that if a gust causes a worker to lose their footing, they are able to recover and avoid a fall.

Additionally, employees should be encouraged to wear eye protection so dust, wind and debris do not obscure vision. These PPE solutions will stop debris from impacting on employees eyes, enabling workers to clearly see their path – minimising the risk of tripping, slipping or falling.

After wind gusts occur

Once adverse wind conditions have passed, thorough assessments should be performed on all structures and platforms that may have been affected. Employees should be checking for any debris and potential damage to platforms, structures and walls.

If wear and tear is discovered, work should be halted on these structures and repairs need to be undertaken before any duties are recommenced. In some cases, this may cause delays to construction projects but will often cause less disruption than if an injury or fatality was to occur.

When weather events such as tropical storms and cyclones affect an area, employers need to maintain high alertness as these weather systems can easily change direction and return to areas just passed. This means that once a storm has left a location, workers must remain vigilant and be prepared for high winds to pick up again.

Additionally, some tropical storms and cyclones may become calm during the eye, with extreme weather conditions following close behind. In these situations, it is crucial that work is not recommenced to a degree where it will difficult to stop and seek shelter once winds and rain resumes.

Preparing your employees for working at heights

Working at heights can pose many significant hazards to employee health and safety. Even when weather is calm and clear, the risk of tripping and falling are present.

Ensuring your employees can undertake work above the ground safely and effectively is crucial to maintaining high OHS standards and delivering projects to an efficient schedule.

To help protect the health and wellbeing on your employees, and boost productivity on above ground sites, contact the team at AlertForce for more information on working at heights training. This nationally recognised course provides individuals with the skills and knowledge needed to protect their own safety, and the wellbeing other others, when required to work above the ground in any industry.