Twice in early April 2014, 7.30, a current affairs program of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ran two lead stories about occupational health and safety – home insulation-related fatalities and the risks of working at heights. The latter of these provided only a glimpse of a complex OHS issue and only touched on the matter of the self-certification of anchor points where compliance does not necessarily equate to safety. This issue has been taken up by the Working at Heights Association (WAHA) on 11 April 2014. In a media release WAHA stated:
“In the wake of last night’s ABC 7.30 Report on falls from height, the Working At Heights Association has a warning: “If you’re counting on a harness attached to an anchor system to save your life when you fall from a roof, you need to know that many roof anchors don’t meet the most basic safety standards.”
WAHA has conducted some “drop tests” of common anchor points that are currently in use in Australia and that meet the relevant Australian Standard AS/NZS5532 – Manufacturing requirements for single-point anchor device used for harness-based work at height. They found that
“In the tests, 100kg loads dropped through 2 metres tear single-person anchors away from their mounts, while 150kg loads for two-person-use hit the ground, smashing the weights. Only one out of the five anchors tested pass.”
This is a matter of enormous concern as anchor points are an essential element of fall protection. A lot of attention has been given to fall protection harnesses over the years with some new product types but all of these rely on the integrity of a firmly secured anchor point that can withstand the high forces involved in stopping someone falling to their deaths. The report on 7.30 mentioned the risk and used footage of the drop tests but failed to expand on the issue, instead focussing on the cool response of at least one OHS regulator to the hazard of working at heights.
Below is chilling video of WAHA’s drop tests:
Mr Gordon Cadzow, secretary of WAHA, said in the media release that:
“Australia’s rooftops are bristling with anchors unfit for use… Until the regulators can take decisive action, WAHA urges workers and employers to demand a report from an accredited lab proving roof anchors pass the basic AS/NZS5532 drop test before they are used.”
The Executive Director of Health and Safety of WorkSafe, Len Neist, had only a short time on the 7.30 story and his comments deserved more context, but they have caused a stir. The transcript says:
“GREG HOY: Clive Austin’s team was hired to work on a high-rise building in Melbourne. They found its abseiling anchors, though certified, were woefully faulty and asked they be replaced. Instead, Clive’s company was replaced, so he reported this to the regulator. But because the replacement team hadn’t yet started, it did nothing.
CLIVE AUSTIN, ENGINEER, ABSAFE: We reported that to WorkSafe and they declined to – they said they wouldn’t investigate because it didn’t constitute a building site. GREG HOY: Is that good enough?
LEN NEIST, VICTORIAN WORKCOVER AUTHORITY: This wasn’t a workplace though. We don’t have an essence in law to go in there and send in inspectors and try and enforce this particular instance doesn’t mean I don’t come back here to my …
GREG HOY: You’ve got six workers doing heavy maintenance on one site. If that’s not a work site, what is?
LEN NEIST: We have limited resources. We have to apply those resources where we are best fit.”
The “not a workplace” argument is very odd and hard to understand but the OHS regulator is not the only place for Absafe to raise the issue. The issue is related to a workplace but the faultiness of the anchor points are also a product failure and so action could perhaps be taken under Consumer Protection laws, an avenue mentioned by Michael Tooma in relation to other OHS issues.
On the development of Australian Standard AS/NZS5532, WAHA told SafetyAtWorkBlog that
“The Standard went through two rounds of public comment and widespread industry consultation and the Standard committee members represented a good sample of industry and government [including Workcover NSW, ed.]. Having been through a thorough technical review and a lengthy democratic process, WAHA’s position is that the Standard has struck the right balance between compliance, safety and practicability.
This Standard should be applied as an absolute minimum, and this Standard should be applied to all anchors, irrespective of when they were installed. It doesn’t matter when a building was built, or when the anchors were installed, this Standard represents the base standard in terms of safety requirements since it’s the most current information available. “
In Australia’s new world of OHS due diligence, it is reasonable to expect that owners of any buildings that have anchor points as part of their roof and building maintenance programs would now reassess those safety measures to meet or exceed the “absolute minimum” safety standard. This is unlikely but wait to see the panicked rush when there is a fatality that is suspected to be caused by a failed anchor point. If business really wants to avoid OHS red tape, it needs to be proactive on this type of safety issue.
OHS regulators should be much more attentive to the quality of safety-related products, and in some ways allowing the self-certification of anchor points seems absurd, but, although Neist’s comment on resources seems a cop-out, it is a reality that will only change through political activism and, cynically, elections ……. or a fatality.