Let’s face it, like it or not, accidental falls on the job happen. Even workers with extensive experience trained in working at heights can lose their balance, trip or misstep. In saying that, specific attention must be paid to occupational groups known to be at risk, including the untrained, inexperienced and vulnerable younger workers, as well as those from non-English speaking backgrounds. The danger of falling at height is real, and can bring devastating consequences. Its critical that all workers are correctly trained and equipped when they are required to work at height. The most important element of occupational health and safety is prevention.
According to Safe Work Australia, between 1 January 2003 and 31 December 2015, 359 workers were killed following a fall from height, which represents 11% of all fatalities recorded in the period. The leading cause of worker fatalities on construction sites is falls, accounting for 37% of all deaths. Falls are strongly represented in other industries as well – specifically agriculture, (including forestry & fishing), transport (postal & warehousing) and manufacturing. Regardless of industry, the impact on the health of workers sustaining falls is significant. In 2014-15, 6,740 claims for serious injury were lodged due to a fall from height, meaning 18 employees per day lodged a claim for an injury that required more than one week off work. Additionally, a typical fall related claim in 2013-2014 involved 7 weeks off work, which is longer than the 5.6 weeks for all other serious injury claims in the same period.
As you awaken in a cold sweat from yet another nightmare that sends shivers up your spine, you wipe the sweat from your face and let out a sigh of relief as you realise you are safe. Every night for months you’ve been woken from your slumber with a sudden jolt, a jolt that breaks your fall as you hurtle through the air and land with a thump that keeps playing over and over in your mind. After much counselling you are still riddled with guilt as you relive the accident over and over again. It was in fact your colleague that hit the ground and lost his life, you were lucky, you survived...however, it could easily have been you. With bills to pay and a young family to be fed your employment as a casual labourer for a small construction business had you doing a variety of tasks to make ends meet, but you’ve never worked at height, until that fateful day. Now, with the accident behind you, you try to get on with life and erase the painful memory...until the day you are called to an inquest and asked to recount the incident, where it all comes flooding back.
On the morning of the incident my colleague Bob, a more senior and experienced worker and myself arrived on site. The boss met us, threw us a couple of harnesses and said, “Put these on and get up on the roof, there’s a leak, we need to find the cause.” I recall him shouting above the ruckus of the busy site. I had never used a harness before, I had seen other workers occasionally wearing these but had no idea how to use one. “Boss,” I called out, “I’ve never worked at height or used one of these before.” “You’ll be right,” he replied, “Bob will guide you.” Bob helped me put on the harness and we both jumped into the bucket of the cherry picker to head up to the roof of the old warehouse. As we head up to the roof Bob handed me a piece of equipment he called a lanyard, “Just attach this to the D-ring on the back of your harness, then when we get up on the roof we’ll attach it to an anchor point,” he said. As the rickety bucket reached our destination and came to a stop, we surveyed the roof, that’s when I heard Bob sigh and shout out “Damn it! There are no anchor points up here.” I had no idea what Bob was talking about. Bob took out his phone and called the boss down below to explain the situation.
I could hear the boss’s muffled response through the phone in a somewhat angered and frustrated tone, “Look Bob, we don’t have time for this, its safe up there, just keep away from the edge. It won’t take you long, take a look around, find the problem and get back down. You’ll be in and out before you know it.” I remember asking Bob if he had ever been trained for this type of work, he shrugged, shook his head and said, “She’ll be right mate.” We both scramble onto the roof on our hands and knees, when we are far away enough from the edge we get up and start walking around, Bob on one side and me on the other, searching for the possible cause of the leak. “Bob” I called out, “the flashing around this skylight looks cracked, not sure though, too many leaves and other debris to be able to tell.” “Hang on.” called Bob, as he walked towards me.
On the verge of tears as your eyes well up, you pause, struggling to keep your composure as you continue. The recollection of what happened next is just too much. The memories of the countless days you spent working with Bob and hearing the stories about his family, his joy at recently becoming a grandfather and his plans for his retirement cause you to choke up. You take a sip of water to help clear the massive lump growing in your throat as you prepare to continue. “That’s when it happened,” you stammer, turning your head to glare at the boss, tears flowing down your cheeks. “Unknowingly, he stepped onto a fibreglass skylight panel and in the blink of an eye disappeared from sight. All I could hear was his shrieks of fear ringing in my ears as he free fell 10 metres through the air onto the concrete floor below, followed by a loud thud, then silence. As I stood there, on top of the roof, frozen in fear and shock I recall peering through the dirty skylight where I could make out the sea of blood forming around the shape of a mangled and twisted torso.” You turn your head and lock eyes with the boss as you shout out. “This was no accident, we should not have been ordered to get up on that roof, you knew it wasn’t safe, you knew we hadn’t been trained to do this type of work!”
Fatal falls are often the result of a failure to follow workplace safety procedures, a lack of proper safety gear to perform the job, or the misunderstanding or misuse of equipment. The reality is that the effectiveness of fall prevention and protection equipment, no matter how durable or reliable, is compromised when workers don’t use products correctly. This is where companies need to get serious about fall protection equipment and learn what systems and components are ideal for each job to ensure the safety of their teams. Safety gear is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it one-product fits-all-applications. Different scenarios require different job-specific equipment and knowledge. Where there is a risk to health and safety associated with a fall, a person conducting a business or undertaking at a workplace must meet the Work Health and Safety requirements set out in the acts and regulations in their state or territory.
The statutory obligation to provide a safe work environment for all workers and visitors to a site rests with the site owner. Given that many work sites, and in particular construction sites are typically littered with many hazards including falls, it is critical that all relevant state regulations, Codes of Practice for safe work at height and the Standard AS/NZS 1891.4 are closely observed. All these guidelines specify the involvement of a competent person to undertake tasks on a worksite. AS/NZS 1891.4 defines a competent person as someone with “the skills, education and experience to perform a specified task.” It is up to the employer to ensure that only those people performing working-at-height activities are competent to do so.
Regrettably there is currently no licensing or defined requirements by regulators to determine what a competent person actually is or ‘looks like’. It is therefore contingent on the employer to be able to assess a person’s competence to complete a set of tasks. One way they can achieve this is to obtain from the employee certificates of competence from a reputable training organisation specific to work-at-height activities, along with a resume of their various work activities. The employer may alternatively take the decision to provide competency based training regardless of prior skills, to ensure they have a standard level of skills across all employees undertaking work and are deemed competent. Regular retraining and/or assessment helps to ensure employees are current.
Formal training is crucial for any person who performs work at height - no exceptions. Without such training, workers may not fully comprehend that the severe consequences of a fall, including serious injury or death, can happen.
Until workers actually see that fall protection equipment can be comfortable and easy to use, they may avoid donning it altogether. Others might be embarrassed to ask about the proper way to use the equipment and use it incorrectly as a result, which will ultimately decrease the effectiveness, comfort level and usability of the equipment. Therefore, it’s important to instil the value of fall protection training within your workforce.
All employers should provide training programs tailored to their specific job tasks and environment. Training sessions can cover a variety of pertinent topics, such as:
A detailed overview of the recommended ‘levels’ of training required from a worker through to a site manager is detailed in AS/NZS 1891.4, section 2.2.11 and also Appendix E.
Fall protection training is best delivered by training organisations that specialise in vocational training and assessment. In Australia, Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) are independently assessed by the Australian Skills and Quality Authority (ASQA) for their ability to deliver competency based training against a strict criteria. TAFE colleges and private training organisations are examples of RTOs. They should be able to provide you with a registration number to validate their status as a current provider. Another method to validate their competence is to identify their details on the www.training.gov.au website, which will also allow you to verify the nationally recognised competencies they are registered to deliver.
The key with any training program is to provide learning that approximates actual work conditions so the workers can easily apply what they’ve learned to real world scenarios. Since workers typically learn the most by watching first then doing, it is best to conduct a competency based training program with an equal amount of classroom and hands-on training, followed by assessment.
When it comes to protecting your work site, no matter where it is, 3M Safety Training offers a variety of accredited training and consulting services to fit your needs. At our site or yours, you can trust us to provide world-class training with the industry’s best instructors. Our training competencies are not just limited to a comprehensive range of fall protection training and specialised working at height programs, including a wide range of rescue courses, we also provide a number of relevant industry training, including:
Our full range of fall protection, rescue and safety training courses are offered throughout the year at our custom built state-of-the-art training centre in Sydney, or at one of our partner facilities around the country. In addition, we offer on-site accredited safety training customised to the unique environment of your facility, you provide the students and location and we’ll provide the equipment and instructors.
Even if you conduct in house training or have an existing external provider, give us a call, we can validate your training and ensure they are practicing the best techniques and procedures to keep your workers safe and provide peace of mind.
Not sure where to start? We can help you with an audit, identify major risks, even provide coaching to develop risk assessments, safe work method statements up to evacuation and rescue plans...and anything in-between.
At 3M we can provide the complete solution - product, training and HSE compliance. We can work with you to identify the needs of your workforce and come up with a solution to meet your budget. Visit our 3M Safety Training site for more detailed information on each of our courses on offer, download our training brochure or call us on 1800 445 867.