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How to Reduce the Risk of Falls


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Preventing falls on construction sites has been in the spotlight recently, as workplace safety authorities respond to an alarming number of serious injuries and fatalities.  

For the past few months, SafeWork NSW has been undertaking an inspection and compliance blitz across Sydney work sites, and the ACT Government has recently announced a crackdown on scaffolding practices. In just one week in June, SafeWork NSW reported that three workers sustained injuries in falls from heights on construction sites across Sydney, including one fatality at Lidcombe. Between January and May 2017, at least 13 construction workers were killed or seriously injured in falls.

Every worker in the NSW construction industry has the right to a safe and healthy workplace. 

“Every worker in the NSW construction industry has the right to a safe and healthy workplace. Effective safety systems do not have to be expensive or complicated, and being busy is no excuse for risking workers’ safety,” Executive Director of SafeWork NSW, Peter Dunphy says. “A fall, even from a relatively low height, can result in serious injury or death. Most of the recent incidents could have been prevented if safe work systems, such as safety harnesses or work platforms, had been used.”

Safety expert Dave Randle, the founder of Prosafe International, tells Jobsite there are a number of ways the risk of falls can be reduced or prevented. He says harnesses should only be used as a last resort, as there are serious risks of injury, or even fatality, with their use if the lanyard allows a fall of any distance.

“Falling generates force,” he says. “A 75kg man, for example, can generate 1500kg of force when they fall.”

That force hits some of a worker’s most vulnerable parts. Also, if someone is hanging from the end of a lanyard in a harness for any period of time, the straps of the harness can prevent oxygenated blood reaching the heart and the head as the leg straps can constrict the femoral artery. Randle says if harnesses must be used, workers should never be working solo – a buddy system should be in place. Fall arrest systems are also preferable, as these have a static line from a fixed anchor point that will respond to any sudden acceleration of the lanyard immediately and prevent falling.

Randle says if harnesses must be used, workers should never be working solo – a buddy system should be in place. 

In terms of anchor points, Randle says it needs to be considered whether the greatest risk is in a horizontal or vertical direction when deciding where to affix them. The most effective fall prevention method happing in the industry is adopting higher control measures, he says.

“A lot of the major companies have people working on the ground instead of at height,” says Randle. Formwork, reinforcing, and other tasks that used to involve workers at height and on the leading edge of a building are now often prefabricated and then craned into position. “That is the highest order safety measure.”

The next order of best practice approaches is using passive fall prevention systems including elevated work platforms, scissor lifts, and mobile scaffolds. Randle claims ground stability is paramount in places where EVPs and scissor lifts are used.

However, it is important to be aware of any overhead risks, including power lines or structures. There has been at least one case where a young worker was crushed to death when a scissor lift pinned him against the underside of a concrete slab.

Training on fall prevention is also really crucial. As the management of working at heights training is now largely self-regulated, Randle says, sometimes, people working on sites have not been trained in managing the risk of falls. That can include subcontract trades – so it is good practice to make sure everyone that is inducted onto the site has the right knowledge.

As the management of working at heights training is now largely self-regulated, Randle says, sometimes, people working on sites have not been trained in managing the risk of falls. 

With scaffolding, one of the safest approaches is to fully encapsulate it with perimeter screens. Randle says this is now business as usual for most of the large commercial and multi-residential projects. However, building projects of three storeys or less rarely use the screens, even though the risk of a fatal fall exists at any height of three meters or above.

“Fifty per cent of people that fall from three metres in height will be killed.” That is why, according to Randle, scaffolding needs to be tied in when it is at four metres high or above.

In some jurisdictions, such as the ACT, scaffolding to that height does not need to be installed by a licensed scaffolder. Where a builder or trade is hiring scaffolding they plan to self-install, Randle says the scaffolding provider should be inducting the builder or trade into its use – and if they do not offer to, go find a different supplier. The ACT safety authority guidelines also provide some best-practice advice about quality, condition, and use of scaffolding that are applicable in any jurisdiction.

Because many sites are now some distance away from the nearest ambulance, fire department or other emergency service, it is now vital every work site has an emergency response retrieval plan, Randle says.

“It must be tested to check it is effective – it’s very important,” he says. “Having a plan that says ‘call 000’ is not good enough. Projects have to be self-sufficient to a certain extent.”

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