Workplace Access & Safety - The working at heights specialists

Technical Article

Model OH&S laws – what it means for height safety

May 26, 2012

New draft regulations and a model Code of Practice for How to Prevent Falls at Workplaces are on the table. Height safety specialist Carl Sachs of Workplace Access & Safety outlines what you can expect to change, the implications for workplaces and how to prepare for a new era in safe work at heights.

Everybody wants to prevent fatal falls but getting height safety right is anything but straightforward. Until now, each state has had its own set of legislation for height safety. This has made working at heights difficult to manage, particularly for organisations and companies who need a consistent height safety solution for sites across Australia.

Who is responsible?

Currently, the law deems the “controller of the workplace” responsible for ensuring a workplace is safe. But debate has always raged about exactly who that person is. Defining the controller has been particularly problematic in tenant/landlord relationships when it comes to deciding who should pay for safe access equipment for working at heights.

Instead, the new model Work Health and Safety Act introduces the concept of the Person Conducting a Business Undertaking (PCBU). The PCBU may be the landlord, tenant, director, site foreperson or manager of an enterprise or site. Rather than pinpoint a particular individual, the WHS Act emphasises people taking steps that are within their control to reduce risks in the workplace. This may be as a simple as telling contractors not to access an area altogether until safe access has been put in place and ensuring the task can be done safely. There will be an expectation that all people behave in a reasonable manner rather than trying to apportion responsibility.

You don’t have to be 2 metres high anymore

State-based legislation and the national code of practice for fall prevention applied once a person was working at a height of 2 metres or more. This limit is about to be replaced with an obligation to minimise the likelihood of a fall from any height. In real terms, the law will encompass falls from low level platforms and ladders, bringing the courts’ attention to activities that the existing legislation might have excluded.

The hierarchy of control for working at heights

The five-level hierarchy of control will be the major change for PCBUs in NSW, Queensland and South Australia. For many years, those states either used a three-level hierarchy, or simply tried to apply the classical hierarchy for other risks to height safety (elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative controls, PPE). The five-level hierarchy of controls has now been brought into line with that of the national code of practice and Victoria’s fall prevention regulations.

The five-level system is good news for PCBUs because it takes human behaviour into account and cost-effectively deals with risk reduction. When correctly applied, it reduces the risk of falls and lowers the cost of control measures by calling for higher order controls like walkways and guard rails. The more commonly used lower order controls such as administrative controls or procedures demand much more documentation and maintenance.

Preventing suspension trauma through rescue

The draft code doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to suspension trauma and toxic shock. It explains in detail the consequences of being suspended in a harness for period of time and alerts the reader to the likelihood of death by suspension.

The requirements for rescue training, supervision, training and practising rescues is spelled out clearly. Self rescue is no longer an option and nobody should use a fall arrest system unless there is at least one other person on site to rescue them if they fall. The second trained person must be on standby to execute the rescue without relying on any assistance from the suspended person.

Apart from the costs of training, supervision and rescue equipment, this significantly increases the labour cost of working in a harness.

Regular inspections for ladders

The model code details ladder use, acknowledging that this may be an option when all other options have been exhausted. A new requirement is that of regular inspection of ladders and maintenance.

This may increase the cost of ladder use and is likely to steer users towards higher order controls like scaffold and elevated working platforms.

What if someone falls from height?

Fall from a rooftop and only a miracle will save you.

The penalties for those held responsible for tragic falls are also about to get much steeper. The model regulations prescribe far more onerous penalties on organisations and duty holders. Categories have now been created which are based on the degree of culpability and degree of harm.

Penalties have been significantly increased for category one, which levies penalties of $3 million on corporations, $600,000 for officers and $300,000 for workers. Workers and officers may also be liable for jail terms of up to five years.

How to prepare for the model regulations

Before you begin preparing for new regulations, start by ensuring height safety at your workplace complies with existing height safety laws.

Methodically identify all fall hazards in the business or undertaking. Reconsider future controls in light of the draft hierarchy of controls for working at heights, particularly if you’re based in NSW, Queensland or South Australia. Allocate a risk rating, so that rectification work can be prioritised and dealt with systematically, and control activities rated high-risk immediately. We’re in a period of transition. Your site will need to be fully compliant by the time these model regulations become law, so it’s best to get on with it now.

About The Author

Carl Sachs

Carl Sachs is the Managing Director of the working at heights specialists Workplace Access & Safety. He is a renowned expert in height safety and consults to major corporations and government on working at height. He represents the FMA (Facility Managers Association) on Australian standard committee AS/NZS1891, and was a committee member that redrafted AS1657. He is Chairman of the Technical Committee of WAHA (Working at Heights Association), and is a director of the Association.

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