A recent Safe Work Australia Report has uncovered that falls from a height are still a primary cause of fatalities in the workplace, despite increased awareness surrounding the safety risks and hazards involved in working at heights.
The Report reveals that the proportion of fatalities resulting from workplace fall injuries and accidents have steadily increased since 2003. Falls from a height or other falls accounted for 10.4% of workplace deaths in 2003, and they accounted for 13.3% in 2015.
In 2015, these fatalities commonly involved falls from a roof (6 fatalities), ladder (3 fatalities), scaffold (2 fatalities), truck/vehicle (2 fatalities) and animal such as a horse or donkey (3 fatalities).
Leaving aside falls from a height, other major causes of workplace fatality in 2015 included:
- Vehicle collision, accounting for 27% of fatalities;
- Being struck by movable objects, which caused 14% of fatalities; and
- Being struck by falling objects, causing 11% of fatalities.
In addition to the high number of fatalities resulting from falls last year, each day approximately 21 workers lodged a workers’ compensation claim for a fall-related injury and required one or more weeks away from work for that injury.
These statistics demonstrate that there is certainly room for improvement in terms of managing the risks of workplace fall accidents.
What are an employer’s obligations in relation to managing the risk of workplace falls?
An employer has a primary duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that workers are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from their employment.
Any circumstance that exposes a worker to the risk of a fall which is reasonably likely to cause injury to the worker requires an employer to ensure the implementation and maintenance of appropriate safety measures to manage that risk.
These circumstances include where a worker is:
- On a plant or structure which is at an elevated level;
- On or in plant or equipment that is being used to access an elevated level;
- In the vicinity of an opening or surface through which the worker could fall;
- In the vicinity of an edge over which he/she could fall;
- On or in the vicinity of a slippery, sloped or unstable surface.
How can employers manage risk?
In practical terms, an employer’s obligation to manage the risk of falls by workers requires them to:
- Identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that could give rise to a worker sustaining personal injury from a fall;
- Take steps to eliminate or manage the hazard and risk of injury as far as reasonably practicable, such as by providing a fall prevention device (i.e. guard rails), work positioning system (i.e. an industrial rope access system), or fall arrest system;
- Ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, that any work involving the risk of a fall is carried out on the ground or on a solid construction;
- Develop, implement and maintain work procedures relating to the use of control measures to reduce the risk of falls and the safe performance of work duties at heights;
- Ensure that workers are provided with information, training and instruction regarding those work procedures, as well as procedures for emergency and rescue;
- Provide the worker with a safe means of access to, and exit from, their work environment, including environments such as scaffolds, elevated platforms and roofs;
- Provide adequate supervision to workers who are exposed to a risk of fall; and
- Maintain all safety equipment and control systems to ensure that they remain in proper working order.
What about compensation?
Failure by an employer to meet any of the above obligations may see them liable in negligence to a worker who is injured as a consequence of this failure.
A claim of this nature could see an injured worker compensated for their losses arising from the fall injury including:
- An award for pain and suffering;
- Funds covering past loss of wages and superannuation;
- Reimbursement for past out of pocket expenses;
- Funds covering likely future loss of wages and superannuation; and
- Funds for out of pocket expenses expected to be incurred in the future.
For a worker to have an entitlement to bring this type of claim, they must first have an accepted statutory claim for compensation with WorkCover Queensland or the relevant self-insurer.
What are an employee’s obligations in managing the risk of falls from a height?
It is important to note that, whilst employers have onerous obligations to ensure a worker’s health and safety in the course of their employment, workers also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety.
In addition, workers must comply with any reasonable instructions given to them by the employer regarding the performance of their work duties and the utilisation of the safety measures in place.
Any worker who fails to do so and suffers a personal injury as a result of that failure may see their award of damages reduced for having contributed to their own fall injury.
Of course, it is therefore important that workers take reasonable care to ensure their own safety when working in environments which could result in falls from a height.