Fall prevention in Australia needs a major overhaul 16


Below is a guest post from long time SafetyAtWorkBlog reader, Marian Macdonald.

“If you need to use that, you’ll almost certainly die,” says fall prevention expert Carl Sachs, pointing to a guardrail on the rooftop of a multi-storey Melbourne office block.

Fixed to flimsy aluminium flashing, the guardrail flies in the face of several mandatory and voluntary standards but Sachs says non-compliances are more the norm than the exception on Australia’s rooftops. The problem, he says, is that height safety equipment installers need no training or qualifications and nobody is checking that their work really is capable of saving lives.

“Australians wouldn’t accept unqualified electricians wiring our houses but, as it stands, all you need is a ute, a credit card and a cordless drill to install the safety gear that stops us falling off skyscrapers,” he says.

It’s a concern echoed by, plumbers, building surveyors, facility managers and builders.

Paul Naylor of the Master Plumbers Association of NSW, says plumbers risk deadly falls daily.

“Whilst due diligence principles can be applied and all care taken to ensure that height safety systems are adequate, without some form of regulation or certification, workers are placed at risk of serious injury everyday due to a lack of knowledge and regulation specific to fall prevention,” Mr Naylor says.

Compliance confusion

“The current Code of Practice for Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces refers to over nine separate Australian Codes and Australian/New Zealand Standards, as well as gives consideration to individual manufacturer’s requirements,” says Mr Naylor.

“Surely it makes sense to have the installation of engineered structures such as guardrails, anchor points and even access ladders, carried out by a licenced specialist who has in-depth knowledge of the standards required and also experience in the practical application of installation.”

BadUnuseableAnchorsThe maze of codes, regulations and standards dealing with fall prevention is all too familiar to Carl Sachs. The managing director of Workplace Access & Safety, Mr Sachs also represents the Master Builder’s Association and Facility Managers Association (FMA) on Australian Standards review committees.

“It’s a very technical field with serious legal ramifications and workplaces rightly rely on specialist contractors to do their jobs properly,” Mr Sachs says.

“In many cases, they don’t, risking the safety of workers exposing everyone else to hefty penalties and jail terms.”

Competence difficult to measure

Prominent OHS lawyer and author Michael Tooma says workplaces have every reason to be concerned. [A video interview with Michael Tooma on this issue is available HERE]

We asked Mr Tooma to advise whether those responsible for a site could rely on roof anchors, guardrails, ladders and so on that were designed by engineers, specified by architects, installed by builders and certified by independent certifiers. The answer was “no”.

“You cannot simply always rely on contractor assurances,” Mr Tooma says, “but the extent of your obligations and the inquiries you need to make will depend on the circumstances.”

The WHS Act requires obligation holders to do what is “reasonably practicable” to ensure safety and health, he says, and how that is defined varies with each case.

On the other hand, Mr Tooma says there is plenty workplaces can do to ensure obligations are met. Chief among them is to, “after undertaking appropriate investigations, select a designer with appropriate skills and competence to undertake the task.”

General manager of WorkCover NSW‘s Work Health and Safety Division, John Watson, says ‘competence’ is key, although self-regulated.

“Installers of these systems would need to be competent,” Mr Watson says.

“This requires installers to have, through training, qualification or experience, the knowledge and skill to carry out the task. The basis of safe installation relates to designer/manufacturer instructions that must be followed when installing these systems. This provision is required as per the Work Health and Safety Regulation at Clause 201 duties of persons conducting businesses or undertakings that install, construct or commission plant.

“So the controller of the workplace can confirm with the installer if they are following manufacturers’ instructions and for them to demonstrate this. This may be in the form of safe operating procedures. It can also be confirmed that those individuals installing the system have received training in these procedures.

“Finally, questions that can be asked directly to the installers is whether they have installed this specific system, where they did this and how long ago.”

Since there is no industry-recognised training or qualification for fall prevention equipment installation, such as a licence, verifying installers’ assurances of competence can be tricky. Builder, Ken Carter of Flexem Constructions, says the complexity of the codes and standards make formal qualifications essential.

“It is essential to understand that no one person is capable of knowing the content and details across all the Australian Standards or BCA requirements for even a basic building. That is why we need licensed experts like electricians, plumbers and A/C techs and why we need to be able to trust them,” Mr Carter says.

Facilities managers are equally troubled, says Facilities Management Association CEO, Nicholas Burt.

“Assessing the competency of fall prevention installers can be a real challenge for the facility manager,” Mr Burt says.

“It is vital that they not only work with companies that demonstrate compliance but they also develop a good understanding of the current standards themselves. Lack of knowledge can be one of the major hurdles to securing the safety of a site and ensuring it is compliant for work at heights.”

Call for mandatory accreditation

BadStaticLineOnBrittleSkylightTo help facility managers deal with safe work at heights compliance, Workplace Access & Safety runs regular seminars and Carl Sachs says attendees are desperate for the reassurance that formal qualifications would bring when engaging contractors.

His own firm has attained a variety of accreditations, including Registered Training Organisation (RTO) status, a specialist builder’s licence, and, most recently, ISO9001 accreditation, while staff members sit on Australian Standards review committees to stay ahead of industry developments. While Mr Sachs agrees all of this is also very marketable, he says it is critical that workplaces demand more information from contractors.

“Ask your contractors for a copy of their accreditations and check the details,” he recommends.

“You need to be sure the accreditation applies to the job you’re doing and that they were independently verified. Any shonky contractor can spend $500, fill in the blanks of an electronic ISO9001 system or generic off the shelf safety plan template, falsify their training records, issue a certificate themselves, sign it and claim compliance.

“Independent accreditation and certification by a reputable organisation like SAI Global and Bureau Veritas, which has been around for 180 years, means your contractor is actually doing what the system says it must be doing, and that the scope of the accreditation relates to the work. It’s not much use having a contractor whose ISO9001 scope is for general construction or fabrication installing equipment on site.”

Checks and balances inadequate

Enforcement of Victorian law seems to be falling through the cracks. Both the Victorian Building Commission and WorkSafe have jurisdiction but neither undertakes inspections – until after a serious injury or death.

A spokesperson for the Victorian Building Commission instead said the building surveyor’s fit for occupancy inspection should pick up non-compliant installations.

Ken Carter said that was unrealistic.

“In some cases where we have built buildings with roof access systems, a certificate has not been part of the private certifier’s requirements for the granting of an occupancy certificate so it isn’t even considered as an essential part of the construction,” Mr Carter says.

“Each certifier has differing requirements but all require the basics – structural, fire, emergency signage, electrical, hydraulic and mechanical.

“In my opinion both a system for roof access safety (even if it is just an anchor point) and a certificate from a licensed installer should be mandatory on all new buildings.”

The Building Commission’s stance is also flatly rejected by Victorian state president of the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors (AIBS), Con Giazi, who says his organisation is lobbying for urgent change.

“To those who say that a building surveyor should be able to pick up all non-compliances, I’d point out that building surveyors are only there on limited occasions and there are provisions for them to rely on certificates issued by qualified or competent installers.”

Given that no qualifications are required and certificates of installation could be issued by anyone, Mr Giazi says building surveyors cannot assess the competency of installers.

“The building surveyor’s not there as a site supervisor,” Mr Giazi says. “At the end of the day, the principal contractor wears the responsibility.”

“When self-regulation fails, it falls on those with deep pockets and, ultimately, the architect, engineer, builder and building surveyor.

“The AIBS is lobbying the Victorian government to have every practitioner – and their subcontractors – on site registered with the building practitioner’s board to add more rigour. While that may create extra work, it does provide credibility and makes each trade more accountable.”

The FMA also calls for a powerful regulator.

“The FMA has a strong advocacy and representative role in the development of standards, and any regulatory agency should be properly resourced to undertake their role in ensuring compliance,” Mr Burt says.

Ken Carter, who deals with fall prevention installers daily, says he “could write an essay on this question,” when asked what would make Australia’s rooftop workplaces safer.

“I think a real shake up in the regulations and standards plus some sort of enforcement – somewhat similar to the introduction of the fire regulations some years ago.”

“Licensing of installers and professionals in the field should be introduced with a short course and test to ensure they know what they are doing. Then we could (as builders) rely on any certificates provided for installations with a degree of trust.”

As those whose lives literally hang in the balance, plumbers are also keen to see increased regulation.

“Having the structures installed, tested and certified by a licenced installer would give peace of mind to our plumbing members by knowing they could confidently work from, or, attach to, engineered structures,” says Paul Naylor.

New push for safer fall prevention installations

Calls for improved installation safety are not new. Australian Rope Access Association founder, Peter Ferguson, says lax regulation has been a “bugbear” of his for many years but dangerous installations are becoming more common.

“There is no oversight and the installation sector is driven by speed, a quick buck and minimal control,” he says. “We have a crisis here.”

“As more and more roof anchors are installed, we will begin to see more and more fatalities in line with the frightening US statistics, where harness-based systems dominate.”

Mr Ferguson says the installation crisis is well-known but industry attempts to deal with it had failed to date.

“WorkSafe and the equipment manufacturers know there’s a problem but we have not been able to improve the competency of people designing and installing fall prevention systems.”

According to the Victorian Building Commission, neither the Building Commission nor the Building Regulations Advisory Committee has considered a specialised category of registration for practitioners who install safety platforms.

“Stakeholders and lobby groups who believe the building legislation should be amended are encouraged to submit a Regulation Amendment Proposal to the Commission,” a Building Commission spokesperson said.

A group is currently being formed to build a proposal for the licensing of fall prevention installers and for mandatory training. Carl Sachs says it is keen to attract more members to ensure all stakeholders are involved. For more information, contact Mr Sachs at Workplace Access & Safety.

[The original article is available HERE]

16 comments

  1. Strikes me as crazy that we need certified scaffolders to certify temporary scaffolding – how come we don’t yet need certification for fall prevent/arrest installers?
    It seems a logical step.

  2. There is no obvious need to be more worried about the general prospect of railings failing than the entire roof collapsing. Building a rail has been a normal part of buildings for centuries and the normal building rules should suffice.

  3. Hmm, that was the most though-provoking and disturbing piece about safety I’ve read in some time.

    I’ll just add re this:

    “His own firm has attained a variety of accreditations, including Registered Training Organisation (RTO) status, a specialist builder’s licence, and, most recently, ISO9001 accreditation, while staff members sit on Australian Standards review committees to stay ahead of industry developments. While Mr Sachs agrees all of this is also very marketable, he says it is critical that workplaces demand more information from contractors…”

    … while attaining those accreditations is to the credit of the organisation, none of them, on their own or taken together, guarantee that a service provider is competent to certify a fall protection system.

  4. In such area falling hazard is obviously very high to occur. We need more tight legal to prevent falling hazard.

  5. Accreditations give some level of comfort that you’re dealing with the right company, but I’m agreeing with Ross that it’s not a guarantee. That’s becasue there is no way for the PCBU to assess whether these accreditations relate directly to specific fall prevention equipment installation and design. You’l need to dig deep to establish that, and even then, none is mandatory.

    There are accepted practices for designing, instalingl and administering these safety systems and equipment, but none of these require specific/prescribed training,or any sort of licensing. They are not well understood by the parties involved in the certification of a building, so what I’m seeing is that it’s often overlooked by those parties.

    My point is that relying simply on the general WHS legal framework and the BCA requirements is failing horribly. I have no issue with the legislation, but it’s not contributing to less fall hazards in a practical sense. PCBU’s are spending more than ever on the systems, but they are not getting their expected reduction in risk for their investment, because of the lack of regulation of the installers and designers.

    When it comes to fall prevention equipment, the WHS laws only become an issue when there is an incident, and the BCA requirements only in the event of a complaint (and for residential construction only).

    This system of law, policing and governance that society normally relies on to protect it is failing when it come to fall prevention, and it needs to be fixed.

  6. It isn’t just the installers responsibility as to the quality of the install, but also to the person designing the system.
    It is up to the designer to make sure anchor points chosen for the task exceed the Aust Stds for fall arrest/restraint, and also down to things as small as the types of bolts used to mount guard rails, be it Hilti style chemically fixed bolts or dyna bolt style.
    But even if the installers had to have mandatory training tickets to be an installer, that does not guarantee the job will be done correctly. Just look at scaffholding for instance, the scaff that fell loose and speared into the footpath outside the Soul building, or the 2 poor workers who fell 26 stories when their scaffholding collapsed. It’s human nature to cut corners, especially in Australia.

  7. Hi
    Can anyone tell me what the regulation is in Western Australia for accessing a roof via a scissor lift. I have been told it is legal but some HSE officers say it is not. Surely it is safer than getting a 3 storey extension which is legal to access the roof

  8. Responding to Rufus.

    The training and accreditation of designers is as much of a problem as
    that of installers. You can have the best equipment installed in the wrong positions, and it’s useless.

    The legislation recognizes human failings, and that’s why there is a hierarchy of control for working at heights. When designers specify equipment and designs that meet the hierarchy of control, then the likelihood of misuse drops significantly.

    In my experience, designers are turning to harness based solutions, since they are the best marketed systems. They need to consider higher order and more permanent controls which take into account human behaviour.

    PCBU’s are spending more than they ever have on fall protection, and they’re being led into a false sense of security. Often, they are just wasting their money. There aren’t training qualifications or licensing requirements for the PCBU’s to differentiate between competent or ignorant providers. They’re wasting their money.

    A system of licensing and training qualification is required to help will intentioned PCBU’s and protect workers at these sites.

  9. Insightful as always Carl…. Do you think we can consider the level of training required for persons accessing buildings with differing levels of protection? ie. the a-typical (eg) aerial installer with “credit card, ute, screw-driver, etc” and zero training should require a fully protected roofline vs. the ‘competant provider’ with many years proven experience and training to say level of Height Safety Manager AS1891.4 Industrial fall arrest systems…. being able to access a generally unprotected roofline via temporary protection measures?
    Would this then help urge asset owners to install greater protection to allow them to use less highly trained (ie. cheaper) labour?

  10. Pingback: Fall Prevention In Australia Needs A Major Overhaul

  11. Re my earlier comment and Carl’s reply: it wasn’t my intention for that comment to be a criticism and as I noted at the time, it is to the organisation’s credit that they have those accreditations. My point was to support the general point of this story and Carl’s later comment – there *is* no universally accepted test of competence in this area, and that’s the problem, You can be an ISO 9001 quality certified licenses builder and an RTO, and still not know anything about designing, installing or cerifying a fall protection system.

    So once again it will be up to the the PCBU to exercise due diligence when engage a designer / installer / engineer. And once again they may well think that by engaging someone with all those accreditations they have met the reasonably practicable test. And most of the time they will probably be right, but we will only find out which times they weren’t when the courts make a determination after some poor sucker has been scraped off the pavement.

  12. Responding to Ross.

    Due to the lack of training requirements and licensing, all that is left to for us to do is spruik our ISO9001, AS/NZS4801, ISO14001, OHSAS18000 accreditation, independent certification, Australian standards development and involvement, RTO accreditation, building practitioner registrations etc etc etc.

    There is no other simple way for a PCBU to determine if a designer or installer of fall prevention equipment is legitimate or not, and they’re wasting their money at an unprecedented rate.

    We need a mandatory qualification and license that tells the PCBU whether their height safety “expert” has the minimum qualification to design or install. It’s going to be a very good starting point.

  13. Ben (21 April post). I’m assuming the WA regs will incorporate AS/NZS 2550, or a Code will refer to it. Have a squizz at clause 5.9 and there is stuff there about conditions for using a EWP as access. From what I read it looks like you have to make sure there is no more than a 100mm gap between the scissor lift and the surface you’re egressing to, plus a double lanyard with harness system is required. (Tricky thing managing to be within 100mm with a scissor lift.) If there is some reason it’s safer to use an EWP for this stuff it seems that a “cherry picker” is more straightforward. But that’s relative; lots of potential scariness with someone in the cage and getting the cage positioned properly.

  14. One of me gigs is general OHS awareness stuff for TAFE building design students – with a focus on safety and workplace design. A very common (euphemistic) clip over the ear I have to hand out is a student’s design flippantly including use of harnesses for cleaning and maintenance. Almost every time it’s possible to do a few design tweaks, and harnesses are not needed to get the job done (by virtue of incorporating passive protection).

    Yep, expertise needed to understand materials suitability, potential shock loading and all that stuff to get anchoring systems right, but I’d suggest we get more to the heart of the issue by having the National Construction Code (NCC – formerly BCA) say specific things about “designing out” the need for anchoring. And no “deemed to comply” stuff that leaves a massive loophole for building designers to go for the no-brainer of recommending a bunch of anchors in areas where there is a fall risk.

    I haven’t seen the numbers about falls through use of harnesses in the USA yet; but if we have a clear trend then it seems to me that it’s best nipped in the bud with a NCC amendment.

    That’s not to say that I think it’s practicable to completely rule out anchor and harness use. Any experience with that gear makes it patently clear that set up and done properly and it can be safe, but it’s also patently clear that it needs gobs more skills to do properly than the average punter (or building owner or designer) thinks.

    And for pig-headed types – tell ‘em to watch the 5 minutes of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W0KSzB_n38. Then ask ‘em whether they reckon they will have the gear, skills and capacity to do that stuff. Last ditch solution is to suggest they get in a skilled rescue team and the pig-head should be the rescued “victim”. My tip is the recalcitrant will immediately change his or her mind about how practical ropes and harnesses are after hangin’ in that harness for long enough.

  15. I’m reading this article just now but just a few days ago I remember reading about an accident where a worker fell 30m and died. Union later said that the man was not supervised properly. Whether that remains true or not, we don’t know yet but it puts the issue of fall prevention back in everyone’s minds.

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