Complacency When Working at Heights Can Be Deadly

Monday, April 6th, 2015
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How often have you been in a safety briefing and heard someone say something along the lines of, “all these new safety laws and procedures are nothing but more red tape. I have been doing this job for years and never had a problem.”

I heard those words only a short time before a worker with 30 years of experience in the construction industry almost lost his life when he fell from a three-storey ladder.

Picture the scene: the side of the building needs to be painted. The area is almost 10 metres high. Not wanting to “waste” money on a boom lift, the very experienced worker decides that he will just do it from a very long extension ladder.

He doesn’t think of it as a big deal. After all, he has been working on ladders and doing this kind of works his whole life and never once had a problem. All this new working at heights stuff just slows the job down and costs more money. As an afterthought he throws on a harness and attaches it to an anchor point on the roof via a 50-metre rope. Sounds safe enough right? He has a harness on so what could go wrong?

Well, a lot can go wrong. For a start, the anchor point was not directly above the work area, but was located five metres to the side; therefore it wasn’t “fit for purpose.” He hadn’t conducted a proper risk assessment which would have assured that he didn’t use a ladder but used a boom or scaffold. He did not have a SWMS or a rescue plan. He had not followed the hierarchy of control to eliminate or reduce the risks.

While working away on the ladder he overbalanced and fell. The rope line arrested his fall and most probably saved his life, but he then wildly swung across the face of the wall five metres until he was below where the anchor was located (this is known as the pendulum effect). During this process, he was repeatedly slammed into the wall. When he finally came to rest, he was upside down and tangled up in the rope line. He sustained severe injuries including broken ribs, a broken shoulder, punctured lung, cuts and bruises.

This worker was extremely lucky not to have lost his life. Ten months on and three operations later, he is still not back at work. I can guarantee you that hiring that boom lift sure looks like a pretty cheap option to him now.

This could have been avoided by following the Work Health and Safety Act and Managing the Risk of Falls at Workplaces Code of Practice.

There were four basic steps which, if followed, would have avoided this situation.

Step 1: Clearly set out the job that needs to be done.

Step 2: Conduct a risk assessment which identifies all the known and potential hazards and what level of risk exists.

Step 3: Following the hierarchy of control, write an SWMS.

Step 4: Have another person with experience in that area of risk control look over the SWMS and ensure that all areas of risk have been adequately controlled.

Every day on work sites, I come in contact with workers who still think that safety is a boring topic which does nothing but slows down their work. They don’t believe an incident will ever happen to them, but then, neither did the worker in the story outlined above.

It only takes a split second to end your life. Accidents are called that for a reason; nobody planned them and they weren’t meant to happen. No one goes to work and expects to be hurt or killed, but the reality is that each year hundreds of workers have their lives either taken from them or changed forever in the blink of an eye.

Don’t become a statistic.

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