Article by Richard Millar
The Australian workforce has many trades and occupations that require workers to use their skills in their chosen occupation.
Such workers are expected to be trained in the skills needed to carry out the work required. In some cases, penalties apply where work is carried out by unqualified parties.
Yet despite the risks involved, there is no requirement to be trained for working at height. Often, tradespeople and others need to work at height – either above or below ground. Many times, they have little or no knowledge of the risks involved.
This is the case as there is no legislated requirement for height safety training in Australia. Instead, there is simply a recommendation in work practice documents for those who need to work at height to have had at least minimal training in recognition of potential hazards and how these can be managed.
What is Working at Height?
There are many definitions of working at height. One of these refers to any work where a person may have a requirement to have two feet off the ground after which they could potentially fall from any height and injure themselves. This could be from a ladder, a roof’s edge, through an opening, even a loading dock or truck – all of which can be considered as working at height.
In their Construction Industry Profile, Safe Work Australia indicates that the number of workers in the construction industry has grown by 33 percent over the last 11 years. Within the sector, 76 percent of workers are classed as employees and are covered by workers compensation. Whilst safety has improved over time, the number of injuries and fatalities remains unacceptably high.
Despite being aware of the risks faced by those working at height, regulators do not require a minimum standard of training. Instead, they merely recommend that those working at height are trained and rely on the PCBU to ensure that those working at height are provided with enough information and skill to maintain a measure of safety. We need to decide if this is adequate or whether we need a better way to deliver a safer outcome.
Can Lack of Height Safety Training Increase the Risk of Workplace Accidents?
Poorly trained employees working at height are a danger to themselves, their colleagues, and those who will be tasked with rescuing them. This is not necessarily because they themselves have acted in a negligent manner.
There are many ways training can improve performance and reduce injury risk. On the flip side, there are just as many ways a lack of training can spell disaster.
Following are example scenarios where poor or inadequate practices can lead to greater risk of accidents:
- Employees are unqualified for their positions. While on the job training is invaluable, employers are often in a hurry to leave new employees to their own devices. This can be dangerous. Where workers have not been shown or do not understand the requirements of working at height and are unable to demonstrate the ability to work safely, the risk of accidents increases.
- Employees are not provided with adequate training about safety procedures or protocols. Just as using machinery is dangerous if workers are not clear about how it should be used or correct usage procedures, so too working at height can present hazards where workers are unsure about procedures or protocols. By contrast, danger levels are lower where workers understand safety procedures and how to respond in an emergency. This should extend beyond safety checklists and protocols and should include training about the procedures and how to follow them.
- New employees are not properly supervised. When a new worker is receiving training on the job, supervisors should remain with them and immediately stop to any action which jeopardises the safety and wellbeing of either the individual worker or those working around them.
- Employees are not provided detailed information concerning the risks that are specific to their occupations when working at height. An example is where apprentices on construction sites are not told how to avoid electrocution; how to prevent falls from scaffolding,ladders or other structures; or the type of personal protective gear which is needed.
Can Work at Height training decrease the risk?
It is reasonable to assume you are working at a height if you:
- Work above ground level
- Could fall off an edge, or through an opening
- Could fall from ground level into an opening or crack on the ground
There are various sectors to which this applies. These include but are not limited to window cleaners, firefighters, pilots, rock-climbing instructors, construction workers and crane operators.
These types of work are naturally hazardous. Every precaution must be taken when working at heights. This includes training.
Training is critical. Falls can result in serious injury, loss of work and lifestyle and fatalities.
Accidents happen, and employees need training to avoid falls. Organisations are liable if they hire someone without training certification or where they have not provided the training on the job. As stated previously, employers often require persons to be trained or have some qualification when working at height. Nevertheless, the Safe Work Australia data shows that the number of workers who are killed or injured from falls remains unacceptably high. This highlights the need for workers to be educated through training.
- All employers should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses their employees possess. This begins with tracking their training and progress. When making workplaces safer, it helps if employers use their resources effectively by providing training to those who need it the most.
- Employers need to keep accurate records of the training and qualifications their employees have received. Before solving any problem, you need to be able to evaluate where you stand. All employers should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their workers. This begins with tracking their training and qualifications. In addition to making the workplace safer, it helps employers use their resources effectively by providing training to those who need it the most.
- Employers need to determine whether an employee is suited to his or her tasks. Despite the best training, some workers may not be able to perform particular tasks and may be better utilised in areas where their skills, abilities and attributes are more suited. Ensuring that employees understand their duties and can demonstrate their proficiency will go a long way toward providing a safer work environment.
Safe Work Australia requires a PCBU, designers, manufacturers and installers of plant to manage work health and safety risks. “WHS Act section 19: Primary duty of care” states that these persons must eliminate risks in the workplace, or if not reasonably practicable minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practical.
Examples of where a PCBU will have a health and safety duty include when:
- Engaging workers to carry out work
- Directing or influencing workers in carrying out work
- Where people may be put at risk from work carried in their business or undertaking.
- Managing or control of a workplace or fixtures, fittings or plant at the workplace.
To provide an adequate level of assurance about the safety of the work to be carried out, a risk assessment involving careful examination of potential hazards enables you to evaluate whether you have taken sufficient precautions or need to do more.
Employers are required to assess workplace risk. So too, however, are any employees who have a part to play in the approval of the safety procedures. They cannot rely solely on the PCBU and must assume some responsibility for their own safety.
The purpose of the risk assessment is to minimise potential hazards and to facilitate creation of a plan to control any risks. It is important that workers understand how to carry out a risk assessment to ensure they understand any risks involved.
This further highlights the need for workers to have the training to provide the skills to work with PCBU in ensuring that potential hazards are recognised along with the procedures and equipment which are needed to help with carrying out work safely. How can anyone who is not trained understand the equipment, work practices and attachments that may be needed and provide knowledgeable input into managing the risks involved?
The working at heights risk assessment template is normally an assessment designed to assist workplaces in managing fall hazards in the workplace.
This includes activities where people are working:
- off the ground (e.g., up ladders, on work platforms, or on roofs)
- on the ground close to deep holes (e.g., excavations) edges or ledges (e.g., retaining walls)
- openings through which people could fall (e.g., skylight or other openings)
- in areas where objects may fall from higher levels and cause injury or dislodge a worker from their workspace.
Whilst having a template to work with is useful, it is still recommended that those who undertake risk assessments have training to enable them to identify any hazards which may be present and be able to put in place any necessary safeguards.
Training can provide expertise in height safety which can help to minimise the possibility of falls.
When preparing to work at height, some do’s and don’ts are listed here, but are limited to the greater range of knowledge required by persons working in areas of potential risk:
DO as much work as you can while you are on the ground.
DO make sure that the employees can safely move to and from the area where they are working at height.
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 them regularly.
DO be careful when you are working near to a fragile surface.
DO ensure that you are protected from falling objects.
DO make preparations for emergency evacuations and rescues.
Do make sure that the PPE is in good order and fit for use
Do make sure that the worker understands the risk
Do ensure that the worker is properly trained
DON’T overload the ladders that they 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 entail heavy or strenuous tasks. Only use them to do work that’s quick and light.
DON’T allow incompetent workers do any work at height.
DON’T lean or place the ladder on or fragile upper surfaces.
DON’T stay quiet when you feel someone is compromising their own safety or the safety of others
Do not use PPE that you cannot confirm its suitability or your ability to use it safely, another important reason to have had the training required to ensure that PPE is in serviceable condition and you know how to use it.
Despite all these approaches to injury prevention, ‘Working at Height’ activities have consistently been the second or third highest cause of fatality at all workplaces across Australia over the past 12 years**.
Working at Heights Association Australia continues to play a part in assisting in the reduction of these fatalities through the process of awareness, education, training and standards of work practices and installations for information and assistance in the area of height safety visit their web site www.waha.org.au.