Hundreds plead with government to save lives while those to blame beg for scrutiny 9


The article below has been written by Marian Macdonald and is about an event that I recently attended in Sydney about fall protection.

When a plumber perched on the rooftop of a skyscraper clips a safety harness onto the point that anchors him to the building, there’s a one-in-three chance the anchor itself is unsafe. Remarkably, the installers being held to blame are pleading for greater scrutiny of their work from the regulator.

SummitAudienceThe Working At Heights Association (WAHA), which represents fall prevention equipment installers, today sent a call to action submission (not available online)  to the Heads Of Workplace Safety Authorities (HWSA). It follows an industry crisis summit held last month where, with a sea of upstretched hands, hundreds packed into a stifling conference room demanded urgent action from governments.

Australians who maintain roof-top plant like air-conditioners routinely hook their safety harness systems onto roof anchors embedded in a building’s structure. The anchors are designed to prevent, or arrest, falls but of the 3245 roof safety anchors audited by WAHA members over the previous three months, one in three (31 per cent) was deemed unusable.

No formal qualifications are required of installers, who are able to certify and fit compliance plates to their own work. OHS commentator and author of the SafetyAtWorkBlog, Kevin Jones, said the system lulled those responsible for buildings into a false sense of security and told the WAHA summit:

“There is a major problem, I think, with client expectations, where they tick the box ‘got an anchor point, great, got a compliance plate, great, move on’. …. We’ve all seen dubious anchor points that have still got compliance plates and that’s absurd. The protection for people falling from heights is a house of cards.”

An expert panel was peppered with questions from the floor in a feisty and sometimes emotional public airing of the severity, causes and consequences of the safety crisis.

Audience member, Shannon Johnstone, who manages the maintenance of large commercial buildings asked WorkCover NSW representative Dimitri Barlas to pinpoint a timeframe for action from the regulator.

Mr Barlas began with: “Our suggestion would be not to put your workers in any unsafe area…”. His response was cut short by a clearly agitated roofing contractor, James Miller.

“It is not okay for the authorities to talk that way, it is belittling, really,” Mr Miller said. Explaining that large clients simply expect the job to be done, he said the regulator needed to take a more active role: “She cannot say, Oh, I’m sorry, you won’t be able to do that job because I’m putting your life at risk. Who is in the best position to make that call?”

Summit facilitator and OHS lawyer, Michael Tooma, asked for a show of hands and received overwhelming support for five statements that WAHA put to policy makers in its call to action:

  • The safety of Australia’s fall prevention equipment installations must be improved;
  • Compliance with Australian Standards for fall prevention equipment should be compulsory;
  • Formal training for fall prevention equipment installers should be mandatory;
  • Fall prevention equipment installers should be licensed; and
  • Regulators should inspect fall prevention equipment.

In its submission, WAHA describes a “crisis” not adequately captured by official injury statistics.   The call to action says.

“Users of fall prevention equipment stake their lives on the competency of the installer … WAHA is concerned that the unsafe installations will result in fatalities and serious compensation claims, if not already, and seeks immediate intervention by the regulator.”

9 comments

  1. Well now I am unsure what to make of this Kevin.

    Does this mean that you have changed your position on the role of the regulator and now concede that, perhaps the regulator does need to take some decisive action / responsibility in safe workplaces – or – is it only those regulators outside of South Australia?

  2. Kevin, in the putting of lives at risk, the unreliability of roof anchors is certainly a deplorable situation.

    As an interim measure, the industry could encourage the regulators to deem that roof anchors can only be used in the context of a travel restriction system (TRS). This would remove the potential for dynamic loads (under the conditions of fall arrest) to be imposed on these (unreliable and untested) anchorages.

    A safe work method statement would be required to detail how the travel restriction system would be designed and implemented.

  3. This appears to be yet another industry where training and accreditation are not seen as important enough to recognise for tasks that could potentially save lives. How can an installer of roof anchors not need to be accredited or specifically trained to recognise the hazards related to what they do?? Similar issues to those raised by insulation installers – does anyone else see a pattern here? Do we need a death – or several – before regulators take the necessary action?

  4. It’s always been my understanding that, to install anything in relation to work place safety, one must be, at least, qualified in some way to do a job. This may be by experience, or, by a formal qualifying processes of education, training and testing. Just like other elements of the industry.
    Some people are, legally, able to claim such qualification for working at heights because they are, with respect, certified as “abseilers”, or, similar activities, but, I’m not sure that this is actually accepted by Work Cover. If it is, then, that regulator, in my view, has an obligation to manage that situation. When an installer gets his / her compliance plates made, do they come from a regulator ? Maybe they should, after an inspection ?.
    However, we should consider this situation in light of the new Legislation, overall.
    Do users of roof anchors simply accept that, because there is a compliance plate attached to a roof anchor, it is safe, and it does comply.? Probably a fair assumption. Do they obtain independent certification prior to using existing anchors ?. Probably not !.
    If the users are serious about protecting their employees, should they not test the anchor in some way to satisfy themselves that it is safe, before depending on it ?. There is a lot at stake, and, compliance plates do not stop people falling from roofs. Do they require their building owner clients to provide current certification prior to starting a job.?
    Under the new WHS legislation, we are now more responsible for our own safety at work. Undertaking a job without satisfying themselves that an anchor is safe, may be deemed to be “reckless behavior”, under the act.
    To clarify, I am not suggesting that the anchor situation, as it stands today, should not be rectified. I support the notion that It should be regulated, and managed. It is very ambiguous.
    To add to this current situation, one must also consider the obligation of the PCBU, (the employer) who has to provide a safe workplace. Maybe, building owners should be required to ensure that anchors on their property are compliant, by having them certified by their choice of a third party, independent of, both, the installer and the client. Maybe a regulator, who would then install the compliance plates. That is, take the responsibility for their property being safe, because, that is the responsibility of the Building Owner. The responsibility, for providing a safe work place for the employees of the installer company, is that of the employer of those workers. So, if that employer is expecting his workers to use those anchors, is it not his/ her responsibility to ensure they comply with the code, irrespective of the annual re-certification process, under the act.?
    To clarify, again, this is not meant to attack building owners, or employers, because certification, by the installer of the anchor, has been accepted (?) as being adequate as compliance to the code, for some time.
    There is a requirement for an annual re-certification of roof anchors, but, is there a specific certifier’s certification for this process ?. I suspect not, as these certifiers should, maybe, be only certifiers, and not attached to suppliers of equipment, if the certification process is to be seen as credible.
    In summary, there is adequate legislation in place to determine liability, but, that doesn’t stop people falling and being injured, or, worse. It’s all too late at that stage. We are all responsible for workplace safety, but, there must be more regulatory control to reduce the risk to employees, and remove any suspect anchor installers from the industry.
    There are many elements to this issue, they all need to be kept in perspective in this discussion.

  5. What about edge protection made up of lengths of 4×2 held together by a single nail at floor level anchor points? Building sites everywhere provide such poor levels of safety rather than use proper scaffolding.

    The lessons of this and Cave Creek in NZ (1995) show that people can not be relied upon to self-regulate as far as protecting people from height related hazards. The coroner said (from Wikipedia)

    – The platform had not been designed or approved by a qualified engineer.
    – None of the people involved in building the platform were qualified engineers.
    – Nails were used to secure the platform instead of bolts (as intended by the design), because an appropriate drill had not been taken to the building site.
    – The steps to the platform, which were supposed to be attached as a counterweight, had not been properly attached.
    – A Building Consent had never been obtained for the platform.
    – the plans had been lost and replacement (and incorrect) schematics were hastily drawn by an unqualified volunteer exchange student so as to lodge a retrospective application.
    – The platform was not listed in any register that would have resulted in regular inspections.
    – A warning sign for the platform, suggesting a maximum limit of five people, had been ordered but was never installed at the site.

    What the coroner said is valid for anchor points. Expertise and competency is vital and oversight critical. The Cave Creek disaster killed 14 people in one hit. Without proper control of the safety critical process of anchoring workers, the potential for disaster is just as real and inevitable. History tells us it is unlikely that every employer will act responsibly to manage it. Maybe applying the safety legislation, which in most states imposes duties upon designers, installers and builders, is one current way to regulate this process.

  6. The issue of getting employers to demand a paper trail from building owners that indicates proper engineering documents on the capability of the anchors, that shows proper regular inspection by a qualified structural engineer and that all contractors be required to sign off that they have been shown said documentation. These documents must in an easily accessible format. No small part of these documents need to have up to date, physical non-destructive pull testing of all permanent anchors, particularly those that may be configured by a worker for a dynamic free fall. As is so often the case a shoddy paperwork trail is often the sign of an unsafe operation. Building owners will to great lengths to protect the building and worker from fire damage (hydrostatic testing of hoses and extinguishers). Yet falls from elevation remain a much higher threat of death and injury to workers than fires.

  7. Pingback: Working at Heights seminar video available « SafetyAtWorkBlog

  8. It is clear to say that the self regulated industry issue has struck again. The Industry has become reactive not proactive. It will be a situation of catastrofic failure before authorities will act rather than regulate.

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