Fall Prevention crisis reaches new heights
By Katherine Crichton
When you want maintenance workers to scale tall buildings, how sure are you that the fixed fall equipment you expect them to use is secure?
Falls from heights continue to be a major cause of death and serious injury in Australian workplaces, third only to motor vehicle accidents and being hit by falling or moving objects.
Although not all falls from heights relate to fixed systems, a recent Working at Heights Association (WAHA) survey revealed alarming failure rates for unsafe equipment installations, with 31 per cent of anchor points and 94 per cent of fixed ladders shown to be potentially fatal.
“Based on the results of a survey of the WAHA Installer Group, fall-prevention equipment cannot be relied on,” says Carl Sachs, Installer Group committee member, WAHA, and managing director, Workplace Access & Safety.
He tells National Safety that much of this is a consequence of incorrect installation, which he believes is so prevalent due to the lack of mandatory training and relevant licensing of installers of fall-prevention equipment (such as anchors, guard railings and access ladders). “Anyone with a credit card and a cordless drill can install this equipment and work at heights,” Sachs explains, “and there are manufacturers who don’t impose any training requirements on their clients at all”.
WAHA chair and MD at Capital Safety Michael Biddle says WAHA’s survey findings infer “that the very system that is designed to protect you from a fall may, in fact, lead to the user’s injury or death”.
“Some of the incorrect installation issues include such things as unsafe design, design not to the prescribed standard or the manufacturer’s requirements, insufficient/inappropriate substrate [anchor points into concrete], [and] incorrect data plate and rating information,” says Biddle.
Concerned about the significant failure rates, industry stakeholders convened a falls crisis summit at the Sydney Safety Conference in September last year.
At the summit, WAHA and other industry stakeholders called for more regulation to ensure that such equipment is installed safely and doesn’t put users at risk. Several issues were put to a vote with unanimous support, including that compliance with the Australian Standards be compulsory, formal training for installers be mandatory and regulators inspect fall-prevention equipment.
“We don’t need more WHS laws,” Sachs stresses. “We need a framework which complements the layers of legislation and actually enforces it. Relying on people doing the right thing is not a suitable control for equipment that workers’ lives depend on.”
Sachs says commercial and civil litigation should not be relied on to save people’s lives.
“Government needs to resource the regulators so that they can support everyone who is trying to do the right thing and encourage others, particularly when people’s lives depend on it,” he says.
“It costs money to do the right thing, and there needs to be a series of carrots and sticks to make sure that happens.”
Sachs notes that since harmonisation, the states [operating under the model laws] have “removed reference to as many Australian standards as possible, and regulators can’t reference them or insist on them unless they are mandated. If this happened, workplaces could then reference them and the regulators would have a reference point from which to work.”
Shannon Johnstone, HSSE Q&R advisor, DTZ, attended the WAHA summit and believes that clear regulations need to be written around how and when to install height access solutions to a building.
“The governing bodies need to make an industry commitment to ‘tidy up’ the industry,” she says, “and also ensure that where there is a risk of fall by an employee or a contractor, buildings are retrofitted by a certain date—with the appropriate height access solution[s] to maintain that plant and equipment.
“The current legislation focuses on design [new builds], and companies should comply; however, there is nothing detailed and communicated to all parties as to how they are to ensure the safety of others in their workplace and the minimum measures to be put in place. They have a broad statement in the regulations; however, nothing will be done unless there is a date set by the regulators or Building Code of Australia (BCA) to comply by,” she tells National Safety.
Is accreditation the answer?
While securing compliance across industry for the safe design and installation of fixed fall-prevention equipment is clearly needed, OHS expert Michael Tooma, partner and head of occupational health, safety and security at Norton Rose Fulbright, isn’t sure that adding to prescriptions or red tape in relation to this issue is the answer.
“It is less about prescription and more about improving the quality of the providers. I think one should always be suspicious of over-regulation, and I think that, over time, [it] is not the appropriate approach,” says Tooma. “My view is that you can achieve a much better outcome with a licensing or accreditation approach.
“That means a higher-quality product [and] a high-quality service being provided, and that necessarily means greater regulation of providers—not through prescription but through quality control of providers.
“What you want is that the providers have a higher quality of product, a higher-quality service being provided, technical expertise and more robust quality assurance systems. These are more likely to guarantee better outcomes for industry.
“It doesn’t have to be a costly exercise from a public sector perspective; it can it would be an appropriate way to regulate an industry that is of such importance in terms of safety outcomes.”
Conflict of interest
Currently, no specific mandatory training or certification exists for installers of fixed fall-prevention equipment. And installers are allowed to install and certify their own work.
Biddle contends that the limited resources of regulators, preventing them from inspecting every installation, is the reason that self-regulation is the current method of quality control, and he notes that, clearly, this method is failing.
“Therefore, we need a new level of emphasis and funding to enable the regulators to do their job properly,” he says.
“Without the enforcement, the installations will continue to occur with limited scrutiny.
“The solution is better achieved through a combination of higher regulatory scrutiny, better training and reporting for poor practices. These things collectively will drive higher compliance without necessarily increasing the cost to the consumer.”
Tooma says a key issue is not necessarily regulating who inspects and checks work, but rather recognising the conflict of interest in having the person who installs the work certify it. “If you have that independence in terms of the certification … [it] gives you greater confidence that the person who is certifying the installation of fixed fall-prevention equipment is making the appropriate enquiry and tests that the platform has been appropriately installed.
“As long as they are a competent person, have the correct expertise and have the independence to be able to certify, this would be an appropriate step forward and improvement to the existing approach—and that in itself would improve the quality of fall-prevention equipment out here.”
Johnstone agrees that providers shouldn’t certify their own work, “due to the nature of the industry and the risks involved”.
She says an appropriate intent to install schedule should be developed and suggests that regulated certifiers then sign off and certify the works conducted.
“Installations should be registered with a provider, and regular auditing should be conducted to ensure appropriate installations occur. Annual inspections of the equipment installed should be conducted and verified,” Johnstone contends.
“To date, there are companies who don’t even know they are to annually inspect anchor points; they think once they are in, that’s all they have to do.
“There is no information or advertising forthcoming to businesses and landlords regarding their obligations, especially small companies [that] do not have [the] health and safety resources in their companies to know what the requirements are, and regional and rural area landlords [who] are unaware of their requirements.”
Some regulators remain unconvinced by these arguments, however.
“Victorian data does not support the suggestion that the poor installation of fall-prevention equipment is a significant cause of injuries associated with fall from heights,” says a WorkSafe Victoria spokesperson. “Our data shows that injuries are primarily due to a lack of appropriate safety equipment, such as harnesses, or a lack of proper information, instruction, training or supervision associated with working at heights.
“In Victorian workplaces, fall-prevention equipment must meet an Australian Standard or an equivalent recognised international standard.” Victoria is yet to sign up to the model laws.
WorkCover New South Wales general manager of Work Health and Safety Division John Watson told National Safety that under NSW work health and safety laws, installers of falls protection must be competent in installing the type of equipment they are using and need to identify if it is installed correctly; for example, scaffolders are required to have a current high-risk work licence.
“NSW Workplace safety laws require specific measures to control the risks associated with working at heights,” says Watson. “This includes ensuring workers receive necessary information, training, instruction and supervision. WorkCover and the national body, Safe Work Australia, provide a range of guidance material on working from heights.”
NSW has signed on to the model laws.
Safe Work Australia was contacted but declined to comment, saying that the relevant regulatory agencies would be better placed to respond. The Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities (HWSA) was also contacted but it declined to comment, saying
Safe Work Australia was in a better position to respond from a national perspective.
While the discussion about appropriate approaches to regulation and certification remains complicated, WAHA, Johnstone and Tooma agree that compulsory training and licensing of installers of fixed fall-prevention equipment is needed.
“Apart from other workers relying on their installations, the installers themselves are exposed to incredible risk of falls when they install the equipment,” explains Sachs. “Anyone can go and install equipment on the edge of a 30-metre skyscraper. With a framework of training and licensing, there is no reason why an installer shouldn’t certify their height safety installation the same way a licensed electrician certifies their own work.”
Biddle agrees, but stresses that this should be competency-based assessment and not just ‘attendance’-based training. “The equipment involved in this area is life-saving and therefore requires a high standard of installation that can only be achieved through a competency-based assessment that is then regularly reviewed/ updated—say, every two years—to ensure competency remains intact,” he says.
At present, WAHA is drafting an installer ‘code of conduct’ as a basis for setting minimum acceptable standards for operators performing installations, as well as suggesting ‘best practice’ for the same.
The new Code of Practice will be released for public comment in a few months; in the meantime, input from relevant stakeholders is encouraged.
WAHA has been meeting with regulators with regard to their call to action.
Published in National Safety magazine, March-April 2014.
This story was also reported on the during the ABC’s 7.30 Report. View the story here.