Playing it Safe

The costly business of falls from height

 By Kathryn Heiler

Every year hundreds of New Zealand workers are seriously injured due to falls from height at work, some of them fatally. The cost of these falls from height is estimated to be $24 million a year in ACC claims – and that doesn’t even touch the human cost of losing a loved one, a valued worker and a member of the community.

As the construction work in the Canterbury rebuild quickly moves ahead, it is crucial we do not lose sight of the importance of keeping our workers safe and healthy – and protect them from the hazards of working at heights. Unless everyone commits to making the rebuild safe, we risk lost lives and injured workers.

Case in point

In the short period between January and the end of March this year, Canterbury saw five serious injuries caused by falls from height. In all cases, the falls were from ladders or scaffold at heights of less than three metres, and resulted in broken bones or loss of consciousness.

In cases where the employer has not fulfilled their responsibility by ensuring the worker’s safety while at work, they are liable to be prosecuted under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

What we’re doing

Falls from height continue to be responsible for an unacceptable number of serious injuries reported to WorkSafe. More than half of these come from falls of less than three metres – most commonly off ladders or from single storey roofs.

In the Canterbury rebuild alone there have been a number of serious harm incidents associated with falls from height reported to WorkSafe and continued vigilance is essential to ensure that the health and safety performance in the rebuild improves.

Based on the estimated number of workers involved in the rebuild effort through to 2018, and the Canterbury construction industry’s health and safety record to date, if we don’t continue to make health and safety a priority we could see one to two construction related fatalities in each year of the rebuild.

This is unacceptable. Rebuilding Canterbury safely is a top priority for WorkSafe and the Government. That’s why we are working closely with industry, government departments, employers and workers representatives.

WorkSafe’s Preventing Falls from Height campaign has three parts:

Awareness raising – engaging the sector about the hazards associated withworking at height

Education – providing safety information about what safe working at heights looks like

Targeted enforcement – visiting worksites where there is a risk of corners being cut.

WorkSafe NZ produced the Best Practice Guidelines for Working at Height in New Zealand in 2012. The guidelines are a critical element of the programme, as they give all involved with working at height clear direction on how to manage their work in a way that will bring down the death and injury toll.

The guidelines outline how people organising, planning and doing work at height can keep themselves and others safe. By achieving that, the guidelines also help those involved in the process meet their legal obligations under the Health and Safety in Employment Act and the Health and Safety in Employment Regulations, 1995.

Targeted visits and enforcement

WorkSafe’s health and safety capacity is growing, with an increasing number of inspectors actively visiting the industry and looking for workplaces that may be cutting corners or where improvements are needed.

With falls from height such a major contributor to the number of serious harm and fatalities reported in the construction sector, it is crucial that the industry fully understands the hazards involved and their responsibilities to help keep workers safe. We must work together to make sure all our workers return home healthy and safe every night.

Kathryn Heiler is the Canterbury Rebuild Health and Safety programme director

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