Does my Height Safety qualification make me a safe operator?

Article by Michael Biddle

I am often asked by asset owners how they can assure that the contractors they engage for working at height on their building and structures are up to the task. It’s not always an easy question to answer, as the reality is that there are many factors that determine a person’s competency. 

There is a natural deferral point to this question – if the person holds a ‘Work Safety at Heights’ qualification with a Nationally recognised competency from a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), then surely this is the simple answer? In truth, it is only part of the answer to the question, and in many respects it might be that whilst people naturally defer to this answer, they may be ignoring the deeper risk in making decisions like this without considering all the key issues.

I have detailed below a summary of a number of key questions to consider when making a full assessment on whether to engage a contractor for working at height tasks or not and assess whether you’re placing yourself or your company at risk by using that person to perform tasks whilst working at height.

  1. Understand the tasks to be completed for the specific site / location – one of the first things to understand are the core tasks to actually be completed at height. Is there a possibility that these tasks can be done without having to work at height? Are there equipment or access methodologies to use that prevent the person from placing themselves at the risk of a fall in the first place? Ask your contractor to offer solutions or prescribe these methods before commencing work. That way you can assess if their proposed methods are valid / lowest risk.
  2. Are suitable documentation and procedures in existence to support the work to be carried out? – Can the contractor provide you with a suitable risk assessment of the individual site conditions that might be encountered during their work? What methods of access are they proposing and control measures will they implement to mitigate the risks? Typically the provision of well-documented Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS) incorporating methods of risk mitigation including rescue will be important to see. They should also detail the types of equipment to be used to perform the tasks and how and why these methods are used to mitigate the risks identified during the risk assessment process.
  3. Are they both theory and practicality qualified to perform the work at height? – A qualification is one thing, however with the current vocational training system in place, an RTO can deliver a ‘Safe Work at Heights’ qualification in alignment with the requirements of a Nationally recognised competency, however they do not need to prove their course is delivering safety of students

The RTO system does provide adequate and relevant frameworks for the delivery of consistent training, however it does not participate in the quality control of the training itself. Once issued, a qualification does not expire. Technically therefore you could have successfully completed a course 10 years ago, however not be obliged to re-train or refresh your skills to gain a re-certification of your qualifications. 

Additionally, quality training providers will also be able to demonstrate that their students have undertaken a practical assessment of a person’s ability to use height safety equipment and work safely. The qualifications for competent operators will also likely reflect training in rescue techniques, the deployment of temporary access systems and using ladder climbing techniques such as using twin lanyards, rope adjustment and diversion anchors. Vendors issuing these qualifications that do not provide practical training are not fully executing on their duty of care to their students. If you can imagine a person undertaking an online course or half day course on working at heights might be issued the same qualification as someone with the same competency issued for a 1-2 day course. There is therefore going to be a major inconsistency between the standard of both courses.

One of the best examples to illustrate why this is important is someone achieving their drivers license. You are obliged to study content and then sit a theory exam before you can then undertake a practical test of your skills to follow the road rules and perform the safe operation of a vehicle. These conditions are mandatory for all drivers, and yet are not mandatory for people working at height. So therefore the need to assess the merits of a qualification are the responsibility of the asset owner/their representative, in the absence of a formal / mandatory assessment process.

This issue is one of the greatest faults of height safety training in the VET system, as in my view as it gives both holders of the qualifications and the customers/companies they serve a false sense of security. To mitigate this risk, review the list of WAHA endorsed training providers and request other leading providers of training to provide evidence that they conduct/recommend refresher training at least every 2 years to overcome this area of concern.

  1. Does the person have previous experience in performing the specific work required to a high standard? – Experience is always a useful indicator of competency, but again, it’s only a part of the equation. Just because you have been doing a task for 5 years – perhaps you have been taking unnecessary risks in the way you’re performing those tasks and you’ve just been lucky that something serious hasn’t happened. Therefore do not rely solely on experience to make your decision.
  2. Does the company /operator promote the use of two-person teams when working remotely and at height or are they relying on someone using their mobile phone to call for help? – There are a significant number of companies that do not engage teams of two people to perform inspections at locations. Their belief and explanation is always – ‘if there is an incident, the operator can simply make a call for help from their mobile phone’. 

What happens if the person has a heart attack and cannot move? What happens if the person falls over an edge and is injured in the process or drops their phone? How will a rescue be performed on that person if they are seriously injured and no-one knows of their injury for several hours? The use of single operators for inspection work may well be deemed appropriate if the inspection task can be done without other risks however you should be encouraged to contemplate this seriously in your decision making process before relying on a single-person operator or inspector to perform such tasks.

This list of areas for review is of course not exhaustive however it should provide adequate guidance for most decision making to assess a person / company’s ability to complete work at height. So I can only encourage you to look ‘beyond the ticket’ as a sign of capability to reduce your risk when choosing a company/person to perform work at height.

Michael Biddle has been the Chairman of the Working at Height Association (WAHA) for over 10 years, and has over 17 years experience in the height safety industry as a manufacturer, RTO Manager and Director of a height safety installation and distribution business.

At height: risk assessments, dos & don’ts and fall protection systems

By Richard Millar, Chief Executive Officer, Working at Height Association 

At height: risk assessments, dos & don'ts and fall protection systems

Working at height remains one of the greatest causes of fatalities and major injuries on Australian work sites, with many workers finding themselves in positions where they are expected to work at height with little or no knowledge of the risks involved. A height safety authority sets out these risks with a focus on the construction industry, explaining the importance of risk assessments and fall protection systems, and offering some key dos and don’ts.

The Australian workforce has many trades that require workers to utilise their skills in the occupation of their choosing, all of whom have been trained in the skills needed to carry out the work required. These workers often find themselves in positions where they are expected to work at height either above or below ground, often with little or no knowledge of the risks they face as there is no legislated requirement other than a recommendation for training in work practice documents for these people to have had at least minimal training in the recognition of risk and the means to minimise those risks and dangers they face when working at height.

Working at height remains one of the largest causes of fatalities and major injuries, and the need to train those who work at height should be paramount among managers, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) and others working in these areas of risk. When working at height there are a number of risks and fatality and injury causes that include falls from ladders, through fragile surfaces over edges, and off structures and other assets; in fact, ‘work at height’ means work in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall over, fall through or even trip and possibly fall a distance that may cause personal injury or death.


In their document ‘Construction industry profile’, Safe Work Australia has shown that the number of workers in the industry has grown by 33% over the last 11 years and draws together various occupations, which include but are not limited to:

  • Scaffolders
  • Painters
  • Bricklayers
  • Roofers
  • Plumbers
  • Engineers
  • Builders
  • Maintenance workers
New South Wales

In a similar document, SafeWork NSW indicated that in 2010–11, a fall from height accounted for 7730 claims for serious injury. This means that 21 employees each day lodged a claim for a falls-related injury that required one or more weeks off work, and males accounted for three-quarters of the falls-related claims. Within the construction industry, 76% of workers were classed as employees and were covered by workers compensation schemes, and there have been significant reductions in the numbers and rates of injuries and fatalities in this industry over the last 10 years or more. Yet in 2013–14, the construction industry again accounted for 9% of the workforce, but 12% of work-related fatalities. Around 12,600 workers compensation claims are accepted from the construction industry each year for injuries and diseases involving one or more weeks off work. This equates to 35 serious claims each day. In 2012–13, the construction industry had the fourth-highest incidence rate of serious claims per 1000 employees, and had the fifth-highest fatality rate per 100,000 workers in 2013–14.

In NSW, falls from height account for some 35% of injuries and death in construction and mining, though it is interesting to note that this industry is not the most deadly — the transport, postal and warehousing industry heads the list with 38% of the deaths, with SafeWork NSW listing falls from trucks/vehicles as a high risk. Although the regulator has advised that there have been significant reductions in the numbers and rates of injuries and fatalities in the construction industry over the last 10 years or more, height work and falls are still a major cause of death and serious injury (in construction and beyond). This is due to the type of work carried out across a range of industries, including: stacking shelves, working on a roof, unloading a large truck or accessing silos. Falls can also occur at ground level into holes, for example, trenches or service pits.


Working at height is high risk and remains one of the biggest causes of fatalities, and we should not lose sight of the seriousness of injuries that can occur and which are ongoing and often life changing. There is an awesome amount of information available on the internet related to working at height, including its risks, injuries, the death rate and responsibilities of the PCBU. We can often find the $ penalties when workers or employers and companies are fined; what we cannot find in the documents are the feelings of devastation and mental cost that workers and companies who have been involved in a fall incur. There are many articles available through the regulators in each of the states and territories on the investigation and resulting outcomes of a fall from height. I have chosen one from WorkSafe Victoria. As a news article it is less complex than others, which helps to show the outcome of an accident and the analysis of the accident by the magistrates’ court.


Case study: WorkSafe Victoria 2018 news article

In the article, titled ‘Construction company fined following fall fatality’ (and accessible at, it is reported that a Melbourne construction company had been convicted and fined $275,000 following the death of a painter who fell 3.46 metres through a stair void at a Mornington Peninsula building site.

The company pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to contravening section 26 of the OHS Act when it failed to ensure that the workplace was safe and without risks to health. The company was ordered to pay $7500 in costs. The news item notes: “A WorkSafe investigation found a wooden handrail at the edge of the first-floor void near where the painter was working had been partially dislodged from one of its clamps.”

When we look at the fall incident in this case we can see that falls are not always about fall arrest equipment that are designed to keep workers safe. Rather, it is really about understanding the risk itself, which can often be easily seen if we take the time to carry out a risk assessment of the work and the workplace.


Work at height risk assessment

A risk assessment is a careful examination and recognition of what in your workplace could cause harm to those who are to carry out work. It enables you to weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions, or should do more to prevent harm. Employers and employees are required to assess the risks in their workplace so that they can put in place a plan to control those risks. It’s crucial for you to know how to carry out a risk assessment to ensure people can work safely. When creating a work at height risk assessment there are at least 5 key steps:

  1. Identifying the hazards.
  2. Deciding who might be harmed and how.
  3. Evaluating the risks and deciding on precautions.
  4. Recording your findings and implementing them.
  5. Reviewing your assessment and updating if necessary.

There is a range of resources available online. The Queensland Government’s Department of Education has a working at heights risk assessment template that can be used, for example (accessible at Such resources are designed to assist workplaces in managing fall hazards in the workplace. This includes situations that those working in construction are routinely exposed to, such as:

  • off the ground (eg, up ladders, on work platforms, or on roofs);
  • on the ground close to deep holes (eg, excavations) edges or ledges (eg, retaining walls);
  • openings through which people could fall (eg, skylight); or
  • in areas where objects may fall from higher levels and cause injury.

While having a template to work with is helpful, it is also highly recommended that persons carrying out a risk assessment have training to enable them to understand and recognise the risks that they or workers they are responsible for are faced with, which will better enable relevant persons to put in place appropriate safeguards.

Dos and don’ts

Working at height is considered a high-risk occupation, which normally means that an individual is working in a place that requires necessary precautions to prevent them from falling a distance, resulting in serious injury or death. We know that injuries resultant from working at height remain among the most prominent causes of serious injuries and fatalities. In particular, falls from ladders, scaffolding, and vehicles and structures of any type can cause serious injury, even when the height is perceived to not be dangerous.

Employers and employees need to ensure that they take all measures necessary to lower the risk of falling from a height, and should do so by using pre-emptive hazard recognition and constant site assessment. To restrict the potential for a fall — including but not limited to when preparing work that may require the worker to work at height — there are a number of suggested dos and don’ts. (The dos and don’ts list is a general guide. While useful as a guide on what to look for, it cannot replace the need for training to provide the competence that workers and employers require.)



DO as much work as you can while you are on the ground.

DO make sure that you and others can safely move to and from the area where working at height takes place.

DO ensure that the equipment that you’re using for the job is strong, stable and suitable enough to get the job done. Inspect and maintain this equipment regularly.

DO be careful when you are working near a fragile surface.

DO ensure that you are protected from falling objects.

DO make preparations for emergency evacuations and rescues.

DO make sure that personal protective equipment (PPE) is in good order and fit for use.

DO make sure that you and other at-height workers understand the risk.

DO ensure that you and other at-height workers are properly trained.



DON’T overload the ladders that you are working on, with equipment or materials.

DON’T try to reach too far when you’re on a ladder or stepladder.

DON’T use ladders or stepladders to do work that entails heavy or strenuous tasks. Only use them to do work that’s quick and light.

DON’T allow incompetent workers to do any work at height.

DON’T lean or place the ladder on fragile upper surfaces.

DON’T stay quiet when you feel someone is compromising their own safety or the safety of others.

DON’T use PPE when you cannot confirm its suitability for use.


Fall protection systems

It is said that a tool is most effective when the user knows how to operate it properly, so it can achieve its intended purpose. This point is especially true when that tool is an element of a fall protection system (which may be used in conjunction with the risk assessment of the work to be carried out), since misuse of that equipment can lead to a serious injury or fatality, and costly damage to the equipment itself. Fall protection has historically been a great concern requiring the state and territory regulators to provide a plethora of information, such as: work practice documents, compliance notices, and warning and advice notes. Yet falls continue to be a leading cause of fatalities in Australian industrial workplaces.

Employers can, however, take steps to reduce fall injuries and fatalities by understanding how to properly design, implement and use fall protection systems through quality training of workers and managers. The key to addressing the risks of working at height is to ensure that users have the training and supervision to identify the risks, and that correct equipment and processes are used and understood, so that workers can do their jobs safely. Organisations should strive to avoid putting workers in situations where they need fall protection systems; however, when those cases do arise, they should see that the systems in place are designed, implemented and used correctly. You can find further guidance on proper use of fall protection equipment and developing a fall protection program in Australian Standard AS/NZS1891.4 Care and Use of Industrial Fall Arrest Systems.

Image credit: ©

Article originally posted for Safety Solutions eMagazine