Working at Heights
Legislation defines working at heights to be when working above 2m (3m in South Australia), or where there is a possibility of falling from one level to another. Note that statistically most fatalities involve falls of less than 3m.
The term falling from one level to another also brings in some less obvious situations such as open stairwell voids when working on two story houses, working in proximity to pits and excavations, natural or constructed retaining walls and even manually unloading tabletop trucks and equipment.
Working at heights is defined as a High-Risk Construction Activity under legislation for each state in Australia. As a result of this if you or any of your workers are working from height the risk of fall must be managed. This classification also requires a safe work method statement be prepared and readily available at the site while the work is being carried out.
The safe work method statement must identify the hazards associated with the work and provide adequate controls to manage those hazards. Remember that a safe work method statement is an administrative control calling into action higher-order controls within the hierarchy. Workers must understand the control methods identified in the SWMS.
Under the hierarchy of controls elimination of the hazard where possible is always first and foremost. Fall prevention is always the first control method and should be utilised wherever it is reasonably practicable. In determining what is reasonably practicable we should consider the nature and duration of the work, the risk involved and its consequence to the worker.
Examples of fall prevention methods include temporary work platforms, guardrails and scaffolding. Although the cost of implementing controls is not an acceptable reason for not having controls in place, it can in some circumstances be considered in determining what type of control is reasonably practicable.
To illustrate an example an antenna installation costing a consumer $400 would not make it reasonably practicable to install $8000 scaffolding to the entire house. Alternative suitable less expensive controls may be implemented in these circumstances. Other effective measures, however, must still be employed to ensure the risk to the worker is as low as reasonably practicable and must be stated clearly in your safe work method statement.
Work health and safety lawyer and specialist Greg McCann from Colin Biggers & Paisley Lawyers says “that in determining what we would consider being reasonably practicable, we should consider what our response would be after an incident. If a control is likely to be implemented to prevent further harm after an incident, then it could be considered reasonably practicable that it should have been there in the first instance and would have prevented the initial occurrence”.
When it’s not possible to use a fall-prevention device, a work-positioning system or a fall-arrest system are your next best options.
A work-positioning system enables a person to work supported in a harness in tension in a way that prevents the person from falling such as industrial rope access. In newer buildings systems are often pre-installed by the building owner but must be inspected by the building owner at regular intervals. They should still be inspected and deemed suitable for use by an appropriately qualified person prior to use which would include accessing the owner’s inspection records.
A fall-arrest system stops a person who has fallen and reduces the impact of the fall such as industrial safety nets or fall arrest harnesses used with lifelines or individual anchors.
If you use a work-positioning or fall arrest system, emergency and rescue procedures should be in place and should be tested to ensure they are able to be used in the situation. This is particularly the case where a fall arrest system is used due to the occurrence of suspension trauma and the danger it presents to a suspended worker. Consideration should be given to the necessity to rescue and unconscious worker. Self-rescue systems available after fall arrest should only be used in circumstances where the risk of the work of being knocked unconscious or rendered unconscious through contact with electricity is negligible.
Many incidents and fatalities have occurred through falling from ladders. As such ladders should primarily be used as access to and from the work area. Some jurisdictions do permit working from a ladder where the work is short duration and doesn’t involve handling heavy or awkward objects as part of the work. The SafeWork Australia code of practice allows working from ladders in these limited circumstances. The preference, however, is still to consider the use of platform ladders wherever possible. Wherever practicable platform ladders are an excellent alternative to a standard ladder. They provide a stable platform for the worker with a rail that significantly reduces the risk of overbalancing or stepping off the ladder while repositioning. This is particularly important for work of significant duration or repetitive work such as lighting refits where a worker may tire or let their mind wander after extended periods of ladder use.
In summary whenever we are working at heights we are engaged in one of the more common and high risk categories of construction work. The statistics would indicate that older workers are in a higher risk category. As such we need to ensure that our workers are given sufficient information training and instruction in order to determine how they can carry out tasks safely. Where workers are using equipment as part of this strategy competency will need to be assessed, and employers must take steps to ensure that workers are carrying out heights work in accordance with company strategies to minimise risk. This will involve a level of supervision and ongoing consultation training and instruction, as well as regular review of the effectiveness of the systems and procedures that are in place.