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Falling short in workplace safety - An analysis of falls in the construction sector

At A Glance

Falls from height and falls on the same level are a significant cause of harm in the construction sector. It is estimated that nearly one-third of serious harm accidents in construction result from slips, trips, or falls, either from height or on the same level.

Falling Short in Workplace Safety analyses 340 serious harm investigation files related to falls in the construction industry in 2007 to 2009. The accidents represented in this study include nine fatal accidents. The key findings of the analysis are presented here. These findings represent situations where accidents occurred, rather than practices across the entire construction sector.

Falls from ladders, scaffolding, and other temporary structures

Falls from a temporary structure made up just under half the total number of accidents investigated. Falls from temporary structures include falls from ladders, mobile work platforms, trestles, and scaffolding. Of these:

Falls from permanent structures

Falls from a permanent structure were the next most common type of fall (21 per cent of all falls). Of these:

Slips, trips and stumbles on the same level

Ten percent of cases involved a slip, trip or stumble on the same level. However, in a further 20 percent of all accidents, slips trips, and stumbles contributed to a fall from height.

Falls of less than 3 metres

For falls where the height of the fall was recorded, and excluding falls on the same level, falls of less than 3 metres in height accounted for:

Regulation 21 of the Health and Safety in Employment Regulations 1995 states that employers should take all practicable steps to provide means to prevent employees falling where that fall would be more than three metres in height. This regulation does not exempt duty holders under (sections six to 10, and 16 to 19 of) the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 from providing fall protection where there is potential for harm from falls that are of 3 metres or less in height.

Fatal accidents

Nine fatal accident files were examined. Fatal accident victims were, on average, 10 years older than the average age for all accident victims (51 years and 40 years of age, respectively). Fatal accident victims were also concentrated in specialised construction trades rather than in general construction.

Fatal accidents were mostly from heights of more than 3 metres. This contrasts with non-fatal accidents, where the largest group was for falls of less than three metres. More serious injury would be expected with higher falls, as a greater amount of energy is released in the fall.

Factors that contributed to the accidents

The accidents examined by the Department were affected by the factors described below.

Poor hazard management

A formal system to identify hazards was only found in one-third of cases. For those worksites where hazards were identified, less than one-third identified working at height as a hazard.

Lack of training and awareness

Often there was a lack of training and awareness on the construction site about best practice in preventing falls from height, or a failure by the duty holder to implement best practice. Only 16 percent of victims received training in health and safety, and only 17 percent had a site induction that would have shown them where hazards were on that site. In two-thirds of the accidents, a failure of the employer to follow best practice as stated in codes and guidelines contributed to the fall.

Inadequate work standards

Inadequate work standards contributed to two-thirds of the accidents examined, including untidy work areas, hazardous landing surfaces and workers climbing ladders with muddy footwear that contributed to slipping.

Structure or equipment failures

Structures collapsing, tipping over, breaking or failing accounted for 38 percent of falls, including the collapse of structures that people had been walking on, or the collapse of structures that ladders had been propped against. Equipment or structures to prevent falls failed in 4 percent of cases.

Deliberate disregard for instructions

Victims’ deliberate disregard for instructions contributed to almost one-third of accidents.

The victims’ trade, type of work, and employment status

When divided into individual trades, most accidents in the files examined happened to carpenters (26 percent), roofers (11 percent), electrical workers (8 percent), painters and decorators (8 percent), and general labourers (7 percent).

The building and completion of commercial structures accounted for nearly 50 percent of the accidents. Thirty percent of victims worked on residential structures. Civil construction accounted for less than 10 percent. It is likely this data understates the proportion of accidents in the residential sector, probably due to under-reporting of serious harm by residential builders.

Two-thirds of accident victims were employees, or employees of contractors. A further 25 percent worked as self-employed contractors, with almost 60 percent of workers working under a principal/contractor relationship.

Harm reduction

The Department of Labour’s ‘Preventing Falls from Height’ project will focus on reducing the harm caused to builders, roofers, and painters and decorators by falls from less than three metres off ladders, and falls from roofs. As a high number of construction workers work under a principal/contractor relationship, the contracting environment is also a focus of the harm reduction project.

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