One in three safety devices unfit to save lives

On September 3 2013 I will be on a panel in Sydney discussing issues associated with working at heights. Below is a media release (not yet available online) about the panel and some recent data on working at heights risks. The quotes are mine.

Inaction by policy makers is putting lives at risk and now, says a peak safety industry body, there are the numbers to prove it.

The Working At Heights Association (WAHA) will host a crisis summit on Tuesday at The Safety Show Sydney, where it will reveal that one in three roof anchors are unfit for use. Of the 3245 anchors audited by association members over the last three months, 2260 were deemed unusable.

Part of the problem, says WAHA secretary Gordon Cadzow, has been the lack of awareness of the number of inadequate safety systems on Australia’s rooftops.

“Falls from height are one of Australia’s biggest causes of workplace deaths but the statistics aren’t able to tell you whether inadequate fall prevention systems contributed to the final outcome,” Mr Cadzow explains.

Twenty Australians are killed at work by falls from height each year – a figure that has remained almost constant over the last eight years.

OHS commentator and author of the SafetyAtWorkBlog, Kevin Jones, says height safety is often overlooked.

“The ‘fails’ identified by members of WAHA are of great concern and shine a light on an area of construction and maintenance services that few of us ‘ground dwellers’ really consider or understand,” Mr Jones says.

Regulators, too, seem to have a blind spot when it comes to safe work at heights outside the construction industry, says Mr Cadzow.

“The regulators will tell you that the law mandates the job has to be done properly by a competent person,” Cadzow says. “The problem is that it’s not being policed.”

The alarming survey results offer a serious challenge for Safe Work Australia, regulators and OHS decision makers, says Kevin Jones.

“WAHA’s survey is trying to get us to look up and not only to look but to see,” Mr Jones says. “Working at heights is an acknowledged hazard in the construction industry but remains a ‘hazard in progress’ in others. WAHA’s data should start a safety conversation but the test of the survey’s value will be what solutions are offered. Discussion must always lead to action, particularly on safety matters.”

Gordon Cadzow desperately hopes Tuesday’s summit will bring change. Prominent OHS lawyer and author, Michael Tooma will facilitate public discussion and a panel of experts including representatives from WorkCover NSW, construction, international height safety bodies, the occupational health and safety sector and WAHA itself.

“Our association was established years ago after a fatality and we continue to dedicate our efforts to stop it happening again,” Mr Cadzow says. “There’s nothing like a death to make you think in a different way.”

The fall prevention industry crisis summit will include an open discussion and, at its conclusion, WAHA will ask for a show of support from the public. Attendance is free but organisers say seating is limited. [links added]

Kevin Jones

Some of my costs of getting to Sydney have been covered by Workplace Access & Safety. I am not a member of WAHA.

18 thoughts on “One in three safety devices unfit to save lives”

  1. Every day contractors risk injury obtaining access to plant located in out of sight areas on roofs, in ceilings and in confined spaces, however, this is not on the PCBU\’s (Person Controlling Business Unit) radar as it is not policed by Worksafe and it is also out of sight and out of mind.
    Contractors are reluctant to raise this with the PCBU for fear of losing the job so they take risks.
    An alternative may be to use an independent OHS inspection service to visit the premises and produce an independent report for the PCBU and Contractor which will highlight the problem. Cost of around $200 for say two hours work, is very cheap when compared to the costs involved if an injury occurs. This cost could also be minimised if an arrangement with Industry Association or contactors group or body is arranged. My experience in OHS Consulting tells me that the PCBU is very likely to be interested in paying some or all of the cost as the Contractor is doing the PCBU a favour by highlighting hazards and risks prior to an incident occurring and fines being imposed.
    Bruce Hecker
    ACI Hecker

  2. Working at heights is a killer but there are too many work places that give little regard. I suggest everyone goes on to their state Worksafe site and down loads a copy of the national code of practice it is a very user friendly document which is not long and has lots of diagrams and simple straight forward wording.

  3. As a height safety company who installs fall arrest systems as well as certifying systems installed by other companies, it is clear that many installers do not take the installation of height safety systems seriously. The three issues which we see on a weekly basis are
    1. The incorrect installation of the product
    2. Installation on a structure which is not capable of withstanding the force of a fall
    3. Incorrect placement of the system which leaves the user exposed to risks
    I believe that one of the important areas is that of educating the consumer. Time and again we hear the same thing from builders and company owners that cost is the biggest issue and they will only accept the cheapest quote. With no regard as to whether the quoted system is a safe design and using approved products. As an industry we need to work together with our customers to educate them on the importance of proper design, product selection, correct installation and end user training.
    Chris Burrow
    Safe @ Heights Pty Ltd

  4. It\’s a minefield all this. Lots of inter-related issues, but hear hear to the WHA in their efforts to get people to pay more attention to the fundamentals of at least making sure anchors \”do as advertised\”. (There has been a huge amount of research done on this, and if you\’re a rock climber or mountaineer and you don\’t understand the fundamentals of anchor placement and performance you have rocks in ya head (pun intended). It\’s bizarre that the knowledge about the vital role of anchors is not \”leaking through\” to some commercial applications.)

    And it\’s patently clear that Dane Brown\’s simple point about building design has to be part of the process of working our way through the \”minefield\”.

    It\’s now been 7 years since Victoria\’s building designers\’ duty has been in operation, and the related duty was part of the \”model\” WHS stuff. Have we seen leaps and bounds in incorporation of good work safety solutions in building design since then? Probably not.

    Victorian TAFEs have a unit of competency dealing with occupational safety in building design. It\’s code is VPAU587 \”Design safe buildings\”. I\’ve worked on this, and now incorporate the key elements in a more general course on \”Contributing to strategies to control risk..\” for building design students. Treating work positioning systems as the first option when it comes to dealing with building maintenance is one of the most common catalysts for me to give the students a euphemistic kick in the bum.

    They get sent straight \”back to the drawing board\” to think that option through more carefully, once you disabuse \’em about the enormous amount of issues that have to be taken into account to have a work positioning system work effectively.

    Once the kiddies understand the safety implications and alternative options it isn\’t particularly hard to do some tweaks in the AutoCad drawing to either eliminate the need for rope and harnesses to be used, or to at least make that option more effective.

    Of course there is going to be a need for work positioning systems to be used, but for mine the Big Picture problem is it is being seen as a \”go-to\” option; a \”go-to\” option when there is so little understanding of the engineering, skill level and practical implications.

    PS: Without wanting to be seen as promoting Petzl (\’cause I\’m not) here is an excellent bunch of information from that company on the complexities of shock loading, g-forces and the capacity of fall protection PPE to take loads (http://www.petzl.com/masse/EN/accueil.php).

    Col Finnie
    fini:OHS

  5. Where are the designers, architects and engineers?

    They have a very important part to play in the process as Peter George points out.

    Designers, engineers and architects have obligations under a Code of Practise for safe design, but there aren\’t any courses to my knowledge that relate to this. There isn\’t much in their professional curriculum that is specific to this specialized area. Where in their training would they be taught about the hierarchy of control, or the difference between fall arrest and fall restraint (work positioning)?

    http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/swa/about/publications/pages/safe-design-of-structures

    They\’re struggling with this as much as anyone else. With mandatory training requirements, there is nothing to stop them doing some additional study that would formally qualify them to incorporate principals of safety into their design. Apart designers meeting their legal obligations, they would end up with a highly sought after specialty and another source of revenue.

  6. WAHA the regulator

    WAHA is not suggesting that they should self regulate. They\’re asking for something to be done because self certification and self regulation is failing.

  7. Evidence of an issue.

    \”Connecting up\” asks a common question, about whether there were any deaths or serious fatalities.

    I\’ve contacted the Workcover authorities and Safe Work Australia, and tried to establish what portion of the 26,705 reported slips, trips and falls, that cost $6.7 billion between 2008 and 2009 (that they reported), are directly attributable to equipment failure.

    They weren\’t able to provide any breakdown in the data.

    For example, a worker fell down 20 meters from a high rise building on the Gold Coast, while cleaning the windows. He never died, so where is that accounted for? (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-06-24/man-falls-from-gold-coast-building/2482486)

    A worker in Sydney recently fell off an unsafe and recently installed fixed ladder. Apart from the personal cost, that person has racked up a significant compo bill. Where is that featured in the stats? It\’s not even a reportable incident! None of this features in meaningful stats, and responding to an individuals post like mine could be questioned, and regarded as a knee jerk reaction.

    I\’m seeing this systemic issue in my work, and am constantly being engaged to investigate incidents and unsafe installations independently. I\’m constantly adjudicating between builders, contractors and clients to adjudicate conflict, in the absence of independent certification, BCA or Workcover involvement. I\’m seeing this all the time, but that\’s just me. (PS I should disclose that I don\’t consult to the Workcover authorities, and generally represent the employers interests rather than the builders).

    WAHA members are seeing a systemic breakdown in the installation of systems, which points to a major issue. They\’ve compiled figures that point to a problem. That needs a response.

    The Workcover authorities role and government is to make sure that incidents don\’t happen. If an employer tried to use as a defence that they hadn\’t had an incident, they would be strung up and quartered by the Workcover authority, and put in a press release to set an example of them. On that basis alone, I don\’t accept the argument that Workcover can argue \”where are the bodies?\”, and don\’t think that we need to wait to have high profile fatalities for things to change.

    There seems to be enough evidence to suggest something needs to be done about it.

  8. Is the issue that the regulators do not have the resources to determine and verify if the claims put forward by the manufactures and suppliers are what they say they are? Or are designers not properly conducting testing of their products to established standards prior to manufacture?

    Is WAHA in a position to self-regulate? Are there adequate guidelines and training material to support people in the industry in the correct selection, instillation and even methods on how they can verify (test) the integrity of their instillation?

    I agree with Dane Brown’s comments, “Where are the architects/designers in these conversations…,” They need to be included in any conversation if in-roads are to be made with this issue. Carl Sachs has made some very good points, most of with should be managed at the design stage.

  9. Can we get back to the point here about preventing death or serious injury please.

    Were any of the deaths or serious injuries in Australia due to failure of anchorages?

    For example, a well-publicised death from height in Melbourne is alleged to have been a heart attack. This was a crane driver. What of the other 19 deaths referred to?

    Has anyone looked at the Coronial databases to determine the causes of death?

    If a certification-type regime by government is being proposed, that\’s a minumum $900,000 per state per annum for the back-office costs.

    Carl Sachs\’ solution of integrating the requirements into the Building Code is eminently sensible.

  10. Our work involves a lot of work at height, sometimes on rooves of unknown state of repair. It is incombent on us as a company and on our workers to provide, inspect and use harnesses and lanyards by way of protection. We are often asked by clients to install approved anchor points for their use, but have to provide our own systems, life lines and anchor points to do this.

    Given the high risk nature of this work, I am far more comfortable with our engineering department designing the system and providing instruction for it\’s installation. Our personnel installing the system, knowing their life may depend on it; and us providing tested approved tools and equipment to provide for their safety.

    There is also one other important component to all this -training in safe work at height.

    I agree this type of inspection, assessment and discussion is imperitive to have in tne West. We all need to be aware of the hazards, risk and appropriate controls to ensure ALL workers can go home safe at the end of the day.

  11. I participated in this survey. The criteria that was broadly used to assess the anchors was based on Australian standard AS/NZS1891, manufacturers installation instructions, and design parameters based on various Workcover codes of practise. The anchors were being assessed against a variety of manufacturer¹s instructions which claim compliance with Australian standards, and also generally accepted industry practise.
    The fixed ladders were assessed against AS1657, which doesn’t have performance based specifications.

    Here are the most common issues that I observed, that resulted in the anchors or systems being deemed unfit and unsafe for use.

    1. Mechanical Fixing: Manufacturers would generally test their product prescribe to meet the load ratings. The installation instructions then prescribe the number and type of fixings to be used, and what it can be attached to. This relate to purlin mounted, and surface mounted anchor points, and is a visual inspection.
    Where there weren’t enough fixings, or they were undersize, the anchors failed.
    2. Friction or chemically set anchors
    These anchors are usually fund in concrete or brickwork. They need to be proof loaded to 50% of their load rating. For 15Kn rated anchors, these are pull tested to 7.5Kn.
    If the anchor pulled out, then it failed.
    3. Location and design
    If an anchor point was so close to an unprotected edge, that the worker was putting themselves at risk whilst trying to attach, then the system failed.
    If anchors were installed on top of brittle surfaces like asbestos or laserlite, and the worker was likely to go straight through the surface, then it failed even if it was nowhere near an unprotected edge.
    If an anchor was installed up at the top of a steep roof (say 35 degrees plus), and there was the risk that the worker would slide down the roof while trying to get there to attach, then it failed.
    4. Horizontal static lines
    If a static line was installed in such a way, that the worker had to walk over a brittle surface (like asbestos or laserlite) to use it, then it failed. If the line pulled out of the swaged fitting or screw swage fitting whilst under load test, then it failed.
    5. System plates
    If the information was incorrect, then it failed. For example, if the system was rated to 6Kn, but marked fall arrest capable for two people.
    6. Ladders
    If the fixed ladders didn’t meet the requirements of AS1657, then they were failed. In practise what we found is that there were multiple requirements that hadn’t been met. For example AS1657 calls for 12mm fixings (could be only one technically, and then still comply!) It wasn’t a case of the 12mm fixings having been substituted with say three M8 dynabolts. It was a case of it being fixed to flashing with cherry riverts, and lots of other clearance issues and landings.
    7. Certificates of compliance
    Installation certificates that were reviewed stated actual compliance with Australian standards, as opposed to meeting or exceeding, using some other equivalent means. If what a certificate stated was not true, it failed. For example, one certificate, certified an aluminium walkway system. The system was plastic.

    If meeting Australian standards for fall prevention on roofs in particular were a requirement of the BCA (Building Code of Australia/National Construction Code), then there would automatically be deemed to comply provisions available to certifiers. In other areas the provisions accommodate the substitution of Australian standard compliant equipment with alternatives that are equivalent or better in performance. All you have to do is provide evidence to your building certifier that what you¹re providing is equal or better, and it would probably be accepted, and certified.

    With this framework in place, we would see practical solutions and a common sense approach, that provides a safe working environment for workers whilst encouraging innovation and the wider use of high tensile fencing wire. (John, I’m not recommending it either, but you have a very good point.)

    Let¹s have the Australian standards referenced in the BCA, and encourage innovation and practicality within a measureable and structured framework.

  12. Safety in design is a nonsense in Australia, unfortunately. It shows how lip service is paid to WHS in this country.It is rare to see buildings with attachment points on ridges or anywhere else.
    Last year we were hanging huge internal doors on a fitout for Australia\’s biggest audit and accounting company.The doors weighed about 140 kgs each, one slip and the door would have crushed us. The site safety officer was dismissive of my concerns but later when a worker had a day off due to a cut finger from a Stanley knife he told us the client was very disappointed! Poor fella my country and its workers.

  13. Kevin
    Do any of these conferences get conducted in Perth?
    There is a huge amount of work being undertaken in WA both onshore and offshore and a great deal of it at height, and suspect we may not be doing it as well as we think we are.
    Given enough warning I am sure you would get enough people from across the FiFo and other related industry to attend to make it a worth while event.

  14. John Lambert emailed this comment through earlier today:

    The failure rate is the extraordinary high – as you commented. I\’m wondering what standard the members of WAHA are assessing anchors against? It is a standard with considerable detail about how anchors should be attached so that it is highly likely that anchors may fail in the detail? Or is it a standard which is performance-based – able to resist a force of 22 kN for example. As an engineer and farmer I know that it piece of 2.5 mm high tensile fencing wire looped in under corrugated sheeting and around a roofing nail would probably satisfy the standard if a lanyard was attached to it. The wire itself doubled in a loop is good for 32 kN and I would predict that a standard roofing nail trapped by two sheets of roofing would resist the necessary forces. Note I am not recommending this as a system..

    Would be interested in your comments

  15. Dare I mention Safety in Design here? Where are the architects/designers in these conversations, as they would be able to eliminate the need for roof safety systems and competent persons accessing height safety areas if they considered this in their design.

    1. Dane, Safety In Design was touched on during today\’s panel discussion but the feeling was that those who are in the best place to advocate Safety In Design, the OHS regulators, seem poorly equipped to undertake the role. This is because of changing priorities, an emphasis on inspection, and other reasons.

      The case was also put that the hierarchy of controls remains poorly understood as guidelines/obligations for building design.

      I believe, and stated, that cost often stops innovation but that the cost estimate applied is often different from the OHS and monetary return-on-investent that the client expects.

      Some in the seminar continued to emphasise the correct use of PPE, the obligation of the individual instead of the need to establish a safe working environment by designing out hazards. This underpinned some of the Hierarchy discussion mentioned above.

      Safety In Design remains largely a missed OHS opportunity but one that could be resurrected effectively if there was an influential champion that had the ear of government.

  16. Agree something needs to be done asap. There is such a lack of awareness and education around this within the construction industry as well. From balustrade installers to all trades working in EWP\’s there is very little awareness around the type of harness (travel restrain v /fall arrest) in what type of EWP or situation, lanyards, safety lines recovery procedures etc etc Be great to hear the discussion/panel outcomes. Craig. Safety In Industry Pty Ltd

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