Falls from height are often the most frequent type of accident in the construction industry, and are the leading cause of serious injuries and fatalities.

As stated in July 2017’s eSafe Construction, there are about 1,700 incidents of serious injuries resulting from falls from height in Queensland every year, of which about 400 are from the construction industry. Although less than 10 per cent of the workforce in Queensland works in the construction industry, the construction industry accounts for more than 20 per cent of serious fall from height injuries in Queensland every year.

Much research has been done on analysing the fall from height accidents. What do we know about fall from height injuries based on existing research evidence?

A critical review of the literature on falls from height in the construction industry has recently been conducted to summarise the research trends of fall from height accidents, and provides signposts for future research. A total of 75 academic journal articles and conference proceedings related to fall from height accidents published between 1994 and 2014 were reviewed.

The review shows that 48 per cent of falls from height research papers reviewed were conducted in the United States whereas only about five per cent of the papers reviewed were conducted in Australia. While the review is not exhaustive, this suggests that more research needs to be done in Australia.

The review indicates that manual labour and masons/bricklayers, carpenters and roofers were particularly susceptible to falls. Fall from height accidents happened frequently in tasks involving scaffolding and roofing. The major factor leading to fall from height accidents was risky construction activities, such as complex and prolonged tasks that require working at height. Erecting or dismantling of scaffold was one of them.

On-site precautionary measures, such as personal fall arrest systems and personal protective equipment, were the most frequently mentioned mitigation strategy in fall from height research. While they are important, more research is needed to investigate how the concept of design for safety could be utilized to reduce potential risks of falls in the whole project lifecycle. Technology intervention, such as building information modelling, augmented virtual reality, and drones, will likely open up new ways to reduce fall from height risks in the construction industry.

Archival data, such as accident database and accident reports, was the most frequently used data collection strategy. Much existing research relied on archival data to identify the causes of fall from height accidents. However, this approach has limitations.

Accident databases are usually not designed to categorize the data to fit any specific research purpose. Besides, data may not be retrievable in the form that is conducive to further statistical analysis. Thus, more sources of data and research methods would be needed. The review suggests that cognitive mapping and critical incident techniques may be useful approaches to understand how falls from height accidents happened without stripping away the complexities of the incidents.

With the increasing complexity of the socio-technical environment, it is unlikely that one single root cause of an accident can be found. To move forward, interdisciplinary research with innovative research methods needs to be utilized to tackle the problem. On-site investigation by researchers and gathering of more accurate base data are worth considering. Research needs to be done to identify essential information to be included in accident database that would be useful for further data analysis.