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.”