Source: WorkSafe Queensland
In June 2023, a worker was fatally injured when he fell through a polycarbonate roof panel, approximately five metres onto a concrete floor. Early enquiries indicate the worker was about to clean solar panels when he fell through the panel.
Falls, particularly through roofing, are a major cause of workplace deaths and serious injuries. The risk from a fall depends mainly on:
- fall control measures
- the height at which the work is being done
- the surface directly below the work at height area.
There may also be additional risk when working on or near fragile surfaces. Surfaces are likely to be fragile if they are made with:
- asbestos roofing sheets
- poly carbonate sheets (alsynite) or plastic commonly used in skylights
- fibre cement sheets
- liner panels on built-up sheeted roofs
- metal sheets and fasteners (especially when corroded).
Before working on any surface at height, inspect the surface to identify potentially fragile spots as well as corroded or damaged fixings. These issues may not be easily identifiable if the lighting is poor.
All locations and tasks which could lead to a fall injury should also be identified. This includes access to areas where the work is to be done. Close attention is required for tasks:
- on any structure or plant being constructed or installed, demolished or dismantled, inspected, tested, repaired or cleaned
- on a fragile surface (for example, poly carbonate or cement sheeted roofs, rusty metal roofs, fibre glass sheeting roofs and skylights)
- on a sloping or slippery surface where it is difficult for people to maintain their balance (for example, on glazed tiles or a metal roof that is wet from morning dew or rain)
- near an unprotected open edge or internal void area (for example, removed roof sheeting)
- where the demolition or dismantling sequence is important in ensuring the surface can continue to support the worker.
Where surfaces are non-trafficable, provide appropriate fall prevention/protection measures and develop work methods to prevent people from stepping or falling onto these surfaces.
To ensure the necessary control measures are being applied as the work progresses, an ongoing review of the work should also be carried out.
Safety issues both general and specific to the incident are included here.
Ways to manage health and safety
Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you’ll need to show the regulator that you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.
Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents
In managing the risk of falls, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011requires specific control measures to be implemented, where it is reasonably practicable to do so. For example:
- if it’s construction work, then Chapter 6 of the WHS Regulation applies
- if the work meets the definition for high-risk construction work (over 2m and a complete roof replacement of a large shed), then a safe work method statement must be prepared as per Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011. Further regulations would also then apply (for example Part 6.3 Sub-division 2 ‘Falls’ which provides prescriptive control measures).
The Managing the risk of falls at workplaces code of practice 2021 (PDF, 3.9 MB)provides practical guidelines to meet requirements.
The most effective control measure is to eliminate the risk of a fall by working on the ground or from a solid construction. If the cleaning cannot be carried out from ground-level or a solid construction, then you will need to, so far as is reasonably practicable, minimise the risk of a fall. Effective controls for the risk of falls from height are often made up of a combination of controls. Common control measures can include, but are not limited to:
- Using an Elevating Work Platform (EWP) so workers can remain within the EWP and avoid standing on the surface. This is primarily an example of substitutingthe hazard for a lesser hazard. However, an EWP design may also be considered an engineering control measure and the EWP must be assessed to determine whether it is the most suitable one for the task/s.
- The safe operation of EWPs also relies on safe work procedures (i.e. administrative controls), which includes ensuring operators hold the relevant High Risk Work Licence HRWL (where required) to operate the EWP.
- Installing safety mesh, complying with AS/NZS 4389:2015 under the roofing and skylights and erect perimeter edge protection (complying with the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 around the perimeter of the roof. Mesh must be overlapped and secured in accordance with the instructions of the mesh manufacturer. Both safety mesh and edge protection are primarily engineering control measures that address the risk of falling through the roof or off the roof edge. However, safe systems of work need to be implemented for workers installing the safety mesh and edge protection.
- Travel restraint systems intended to prevent a fall from an edge by physically restricting how close a worker can get to the edge. These systems are generally unsuitable where a fall through a roof can occur (where the roof is fragile or there is no safety mesh under the roof sheeting). They also largely rely on worker training and the worker following a safe system of work. A travel restraint system is a combination of an engineering control (system design), administrative control and personal protective equipment (PPE)(tethering lines and harness).
- Fall arrest systems are the least preferred risk control measure because they do not prevent a fall occurring but arrest the fall once it has occurred. This relies on the worker being able to attach to the anchorage point prior to getting into a position where the worker could fall. The worker can still be injured, even if the fall arrest system is set up correctly (and is rated to go over an edge) and the worker’s fall is arrested before they hit the ground or another obstruction. After the fall, the worker must be rescued both promptly and safely. Fall arrest systems are primarily PPE but also rely on engineering controls (anchorage point strength, harness and lanyard design) and administrative controls (making sure the lanyard is connected and not too long).
In addition to the hierarchy of controls, the manufacturer’s instructions should be followed for the safe operation and use of plant, machinery and/or systems engaged by the PCBU.
Note: Any administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision, and used on their own, tend to be least effective in minimising risks.
The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.