Staying safe at height

worksafe-logo-low-resFive years ago you would have been hard pressed to find scaffolding on your average residential house build. You probably wouldn’t have seen safety nets or harnesses either. And fall arrest systems such as air bags were totally out of the question.

But you might well have seen a painter using a fully extended ladder leaning against a wall. You’d likely have seen roofing iron being removed with no edge protection in place to prevent falls. Or you might have seen a tradie carrying a load on his shoulder while balancing on a 3-inch wide beam.

Sure, it might all have looked a bit risky, but we’d always worked that way in New Zealand. She’d be right.

Well, no actually. It wasn’t alright. It was downright dangerous and people were getting seriously injured all too often.

In 2010 alone three workers in construction were killed in a fall from height. Many more suffered life changing injuries.

All the data showed that working at height was risky. And despite what people might have assumed more than half of the serious injuries caused by falls came when people were working at a height of three metres or less. It was single story work – small construction sites, residential jobs and working off ladders – that was the problem.

Given the weight of evidence the health and safety regulator (now WorkSafe New Zealand) had to act and in 2011 the Preventing Falls from Height programme was launched, with its slogan “Doing nothing is not an option.”

The programme’s approach is simple:

  • First try to eliminate the hazard altogether – try and do as much of the work as possible at ground level
  • If that’s not possible then isolate the hazard – for example by using edge protection, scaffolds and guardrails
  • Finally minimise the hazard – such as by using safety nets or harnesses

Falls from height resulted in 3,055 incidents of serious harm over between 2008 and 2014, and caused an average of 236 days off work. The cost of falls is estimated to be $24 million a year—to say nothing of the human cost.

Common factors contributing to injuries sustained from falls from height include:

  • lack of or inadequate planning and hazard assessment
  • inadequate supervision
  • insufficient training for the task being carried out
  • incorrect protection or equipment choices
  • incorrect use or set-up of equipment including personal protective equipment
  • unwillingness to change the way a task is carried out when a safer alternative is identified
  • suitable equipment being unavailable

Of course, there are a lot of myths out there. Everyone in the trade will have heard them – you can’t use stepladders or you have to use a scaffold or a harness if you’re working higher than 800 millimetres. These myths are always presented as fact or they’re described as ‘new regulations’ or WorkSafe New Zealand rules.

But the truth is that the Preventing Falls from Height programme did not usher in a new era of hard and fast rules and regulations. In fact, it was deliberately designed to be flexible.

WorkSafe’s guidance on working at height is built around the simple idea that safety precautions should reflect the level of risk of the job. The key is to help builders and tradies select the right equipment for the job.

So, there is no rule requiring you to use scaffolding if you are building a house. But why wouldn’t you?  Not only does a good scaffold improve worker safety – once it’s erected it can lift productivity on site, helping everyone from chippies to roofers and painters.

Of course not every project requires full-on scaffolding. Sometimes a job is short duration and low risk. That’s when it might be perfectly reasonable to use a ladder or a safety harness instead. There’s a big difference between one worker replacing a few weatherboards in a couple of hours and building a new dwelling from the foundations up.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) came into force in April – and just like the law it replaced it requires businesses to manage work-related risks. You need to do what is “reasonably practicable” to ensure the safety of workers. To be clear, the law does not require businesses to eliminate all risks in the workplace at any cost – that’s not realistic. But it does require that the business or person best placed to eliminate or manage a risk (such as falling from height) does so, and everyone that needs to know about it is fully informed.

Key concepts of HSWA include:

  • The primary duty of care is owed by the Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU): Most often a PCBU will be a business – from a large corporate, to a contractor or the self-employed. PCBUs need to look after their own workers and those workers influenced or directed by the PCBU. Businesses must also ensure other people’s health and safety is not put at risk as a result of their activities.
  • Working together: You can’t work in isolation from what’s going on around you. The new law makes it clear who has what responsibility for health and safety and how those parties need to work together. Where the work of two or more businesses overlaps (say a roofer and the lead builder on site) then they have a duty to work together to ensure risks are managed and everyone knows who is doing what.
  • Encouraging greater worker engagement and participation: All business need to have clear, well established ways to discuss with their staff matters that affect health and safety. Daily toolbox talks are a great place to start – especially where the risks can change regularly depending who is on site, and what they’re doing. But remember, it’s a two way street. This is not the business just talking at its people. You need to have ways for staff to raise their concerns and issues. It’s about talking and listening – and following up when appropriate.

Jobsite Ladder Safety

HSWA requires the PCBU to assess the risk and plan a safe system of work. This should take into account steps to eliminate or reduce, as low as is reasonably practicable, the risk of a person falling from height. This safety plan should be completed before you start work. Any control measures you select need to be proportionate to the risk.

In addition to the ‘Best Practice Guidelines for working at height in New Zealand’, on its construction website WorkSafe has also answered some of the more common questions from tradies and construction workers regarding safety at heights. Here’s a couple relating to ladder safety:

Is my three-step ladder still legal to use?

HSWA does not ban the use of three-step ladders, but you need to use them the way the manufacturer has designed them. Ladders are access tools – but occasionally, in the right circumstances and with the right care taken, they’re appropriate for short-duration work.

The evidence shows that in many accidents involving ladders they were being used as a work platform, not being used correctly, or were improperly maintained. Generally they are designed for internal use, close to a wall, and not designed for the user to be standing on the top rung/step. Focusing your attention on work above your head could lead to stepping off the ladder and falling. Individual businesses may choose to ban the use of these ladders on some sites as a way of managing the risk of the ladder being used incorrectly.

What is the maximum height I can use my ladder?

HSWA does not specify heights, but you are expected to select the most appropriate access equipment for the job. You also have a duty, where working at height cannot be avoided, to take all practicable steps to prevent any harm that would result from a fall.

Work platforms, scaffolding and platform ladders all offer protection from a fall occurring. Ladders and step ladders do not offer fall protection, so should be the last form of work access equipment to be considered.

If your assessment determines that a ladder is the right piece of equipment to be used, then the right ladder should be selected and used in the correct manner.

Ladders should be used for low-risk and short-duration tasks, and three points of contact should always be maintained to prevent a person slipping and falling.

The risk of falling onto something below a ladder (e.g. spiked railings or glass covering) is equally relevant as the height of the potential drop in terms of risk.

The Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1892.1. Portable Ladders sets the following limits for ladder heights:

For temporary non-fixed ladders the maximum length for:

a single ladder is nine metres

an extension ladder is 15 metres

a step ladder 6.1 metres.

where a ladder rises nine metres or more above its base, landing areas or rest platforms should be provided at suitable intervals.

WorkSafe New Zealand (WorkSafe) is the work health and safety regulator.  For more safety at heights or other workplace safety information visit construction.worksafe.govt.nz

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