Working at a Height and Winning 'Regulator' Strip Poker
WHS regulations, especially when working at a height, leave many business owners feeling exposed. Like playing strip poker every day - and losing - many of our customers come to us feeling a chilling wind where cold winds should not go. They fear that if something happens, their 'butts' will be ignored by the courts, that the 'butts' of regulators and buyers are getting in the way of business survival, and they are desperately searching for a way to cover their arse. That's where we step in, and if you'll 'bare' with us, we'd like to get you covered.
Now I know that was a lot of dad-joke punning, but don't make the mistake of thinking we're going to take a casual journey together. If you're a long-term reader of this blog, you know some topics stir me more than others, and this month, three of them merged.
- I'm passionate about worker safety, especially for our youngsters,
- I'm very serious about safely working at heights, at least partly because of how hard Joel Exner's 2003 death hit me, and
- I feel the pain of small operators getting legislatively squeezed out of business - because that isn't right!
I want to address all three issues today, and offer tried, tested and proven solutions. Specifically, we'll take a look at:
- The small print
- Our shameful history
- The business problems
- Strategies for safely working at a height (5 of a kind)
- How you can improve the hand you are dealt
The Small Print on Working at a Height
When we talk about 'working at heights,' the following foundation details seem relevant:
- Working at a height includes situations where a workplace fall of more than 2 metres is possible.
- A fall is defined as an involuntary (or accidental) descent.
- A consolidation of the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 came into effect in June of this year, and one of the areas impacted was the 'Prevention of Falls' (found in Part 3.3 of the Victorian version).
- There are also codes of practice.
Getting across all these can stretch your patience, endurance and finances, but this is where organisations like us come into play. More on that later.
The goal, of course, is to prevent or reduce injury and death resulting from those falls. You can bluff in standard strip poker, and you can fold to conserve your risks and live on for a future hand. But bluffing and folding isn't an option in the WHS game, and the rules are more challenging to implement.
Our Shameful History When Working at Height
This is not a new topic for us, and we soberly recognise that the stakes are high:
- In August 2020, we considered the 16-year-old who stepped off a ladder into a void and suffered a broken neck.
- In July of 2022, we looked at the death of Joel Exner in 2003, and I shared how his death impacted both myself and the entire industry.
- At the time of writing, we're on the first anniversary of the death of Christopher Cassaniti after scaffolding collapsed.
- More recently, an ACT worker suffered a traumatic brain and spinal injury as a result of a tragic attempt at unauthorised problem solving, resulting in paraplegia - for which the employer was found negligent. (More on this soon)
They're some personal stories, but from a macro view, it's wise to acknowledge that falls from height accounted for 13% of total Australian worker fatalities (in the 2015-2019 period). In real terms, that meant 122 workers lost their lives, and immeasurable loss was inflicted upon them, their friends and loved ones, and especially their children. On average, that's 30 a year, or one precious life every 12 days.
For a danger that is so foreseeable and so able to be mitigated, this truly is a shameful statistic!
Breaking down those figures across industries, the top eight 'fall from' categories were:
- Buildings and other constructions.
- Horses, donkeys and mules (no kidding).
- Trucks, semi-trailers and lorries.
- Openings in floors, walls or ceilings.
- Steps and stairways.
- Power hoists.
We've got a resource to guide your safety for almost everything just mentioned. Can you guess the one we haven't got? I could make another joke about it, but I'd hate to make an ass of myself (and maybe there's already been enough butt puns in this article).
The Business Problems of Working at a Height
The most recent of the examples cited above, where an ACT worker suffered a paraplegia injury, provides an excellent case study for the challenges small business faces.
The employer won the job, and since they're a small operator, that was a win. On arrival at the job, according to ABC News reporting, the business owner:
- Showed his workers the fall mitigation harnesses and ropes,
- Let them put on the devices,
- Had NOT yet instructed them to begin working on the upper levels, and then,
- Left the site temporarily to buy another ladder.
It was while he was away that the injured worker tied two ladders together to reach the upper level. This abysmal and unauthorised attempt at innovation is what collapsed and caused the fall.
In court, the employer pleaded guilty to not providing sufficient information, training or supervision to his workers - and training may have been coming, but this is difficult to ascertain. The question all this begs is who was really to blame?
We can only assume the court had more information than we do, but I doubt anyone could read the description and sequence of events and not ask some tough questions:
- Was the owner really to blame?
- Does the owner have to be there all the time?
- Is this standard only in place when working at a height?
- If an owner does a 'Bunnings run', do they have to lock down or put back into their car anything that might be used recklessly in their absence?
- At what point does a worker’s ‘brain-fart’ factor into assessments of who is to blame?
Put another way, how many rules are there? Are business owners expected to think of every lame-brained possible incident and specifically direct workers not to do that? For example, must they anticipate and instruct workers, "Don't tie two ladders together while I'm away?" or "Strop, don't use the blowtorch to warm up your lunch."
These may be questions the powers that be don't want to wrestle with, and in the meantime, small building companies can't have jobs running on multiple sites - significantly because of the ‘brain-fart factor'.
When the ability to tender for multiple jobs is removed, economies of scale are savaged, and the boss is almost inevitably called back onto the tools. Small businesses get unreasonable demands placed upon them, resources are few, and the bureaucrats are (perhaps deliberately) ignorant of the realities of trying to run a business.
Smaller businesses are being squeezed out. It's a sad but painfully present reality. I regularly hear from ultra-diligent clients who are left shaking their heads at the demands being made on them. Recently, one of these customers told me about being asked for verifications of competency during a tender process (which is primarily a H.R. rather than a safety thing). Is there any end to this burden?
There are seemingly endless regulations and demands to comply with. It's tough for the little guy, and there are no indications that things will improve. The government could provide grants, incentives or make allowances; they could proactively help you in your business - but we should not hold our breath waiting for that to happen.
Strategies for Safely Working at a Height (5 of a Kind)
In poker, there is a hand called "five of a kind". It occurs when you are holding, for example, all four aces and a wildcard (such as a joker). 'Five of a kind' even ranks above a straight flush. So here's a 'five of a kind' to protect your exposure.
These strategies include:
- Ace 1: Remember the Goals when Working at a Height
- Ace 2: Close the Little Guy Gap on Expertise and Training
- Ace 3: Implement, Regularly Check and Document your Fall Prevention Measures
- Ace 4: Get Grounded and Work at a Height as Little as Possible
- Your Wildcard: Provide Adequate Supervision
Ace 1: Remember the Goals When Working at a Height
To comply with the regulations, you must:
- Identify the fall hazards,
- Assess their risks and then,
- Eliminate or mitigate risk as far as is practicable.
- Maintain records to demonstrate fulfilled duty of care and due diligence.
Note the phrase "as far as is practicable". This is where our hope is found; it's in achieving eliminating or mitigating risk as far as is practicable - and proving you did it. If you can do this effectively and affordably, your workers stay safe, and your business goes forward.
This is what we help you do.
Ace 2: Close the Little Guy Gap on Expertise and Training
Small operators usually have fewer resources all around. The deck is stacked against them.
- They don't have the people they would like,
- They struggle to deliver sufficient training.
Expert personnel: Specialist knowledge in workplace safety, especially regarding working at a height, is neither abundant nor cheap. Using resources that experts have put together can help you close that gap.
Expertise also matters because workplace health and safety is repeatedly changing. Continuous monitoring is required because of the evolving nature of the legislation and regulations. For this reason, small companies often struggle to keep up with the changes.
Risking non-compliance by not keeping up is an easy way to be prosecuted out of existence. We stay abreast of the changes, and if you're one of our clients, we do our best to keep you informed.
Training Provision: Since smaller companies have fewer resources, it's often challenging to comprehensively invest in safety training, especially in the specialised and equipment-intensive area of working at heights. But training matters.
Where there is a lack of proper safety education, a higher occurrence of accidents and non-compliance is likely. This is why WHS laws and regulations stipulate that workers must receive appropriate training before working at a height. This training should cover:
- The use of equipment,
- Hazard identification,
- Emergency procedures, and
- Safe work practices.
How can you do that? Use our documents as the basis of your education and training experiences. This is a legitimate and cost-effective way to add value to your resource purchase. Here, too, we will help you close that gap.
Ace 3: Implement, Regularly Check and Document your Fall Prevention Measures
The regulations demand appropriate fall prevention measures, such as (but not limited to) the provision of guardrails, safety harnesses, and other fall protection systems. Companies must also ensure regular inspection and maintenance of such equipment.
We have resources within our systems that will also help you implement and check these processes and equipment items. Importantly. We'll also help you document and substantiate your due diligence in this area.
Ace 4: Get Grounded and Work at a Height as Little as Possible
Identifying and assessing hazards is greatly aided by a well-designed and deliberately implemented SWMS. Elimination or mitigation is similarly aided. Some simple principles or suggestions include:
- Arranging for tasks to be performed on the ground or a solid construction.
- Selecting measures following a specified hierarchy of control.
Even though the regulations apply when working at a height with a risk of falling more than 2 metres, the same strategies are also helpful where shorter falls are possible - and, arguably, your diligence in using systems even at lower heights might help you prove to an inspector or magistrate that you have been acting with due diligence.
Your Wildcard: Provide Adequate Supervision
As already discussed, supervision is necessary, and as we saw evidenced in the case of the A.C.T. worker, the unauthorised action of a worker is enough to get a business owner in trouble, no matter how seemingly absurd it may seem.
As we said, we've got to believe there was more to this in court than we saw in the news, but when a rouge employee of yours can tie ladders together in your absence, and in so doing can expose your financial arse, this is a wildcard item.
Get it right, though, and you've got your 'five of a kind' flush.
How do you know when you've got it right? That's the challenge. It varies with the task involved, but here are some items to look for.
A supervisor must be:
- Adequately trained and authorised to oversee workers.
- Capable of ensuring compliance on-site.
- In possession of relevant qualifications and licences.
- Competent in the skills being supervised.
- Appropriately experienced.
- Aware of applicable legislation, regulations and standards.
- Able to observe and assess competence.
- Able to monitor workplace activities.
We're drilling down on this as an ongoing topic of interest. When we're ready to be more specific, we'll let you know.
When Working at a Height - Improve the Hand You Are Dealt
When working at a height, quality SWMS and safety documentation is as fundamental as it gets. You'll find our SWMS and systems to be both comprehensive and practical.
Six SWMS are specific to working at a height. These include:
There are a further 19 that incorporate working at a height. It's an extensive collection, but if you need a SWMS for riding horses, donkeys or mules, we have yet to go there.
What we do have includes (in alphabetic order) Air Conditioner Installation (ducted, Split System and Repair and Maintenance), Bricklaying, Cement Rendering, External Wall Cladding, Fascia, Eaves and Guttering, Framework, Gutter Cleaning, Painting, Plasterboard Works, Roof Sheeting and Tiling, Skylight and Solar Panel Installation – Roof, Stair Construction, Awnings, Carports or Pergolas, Tree Removal and Working in a Ceiling Space.
You can also find resources in the wide range of Trade or Industry specific SWMS packs.
Without exaggeration, when you choose the right safety documents supplier, it's like finding a way to play strip poker with Uno cards. It's a total game-changer!
Call 1800 304 336 to talk your needs through with us. We don't have sales staff; you'll only speak to an industry expert, and we live by a code of ethics. We'd honestly prefer to save you money, play our part in covering butts and saving lives, and gain you as a customer for life. Our customers have learnt to trust us over the years, and there's a reason why that is so. For us, this is a big deal (which is what you want in strip poker).