For Melbourne-based domestic construction contractor Wing Cheong Chan, one particular day in June, 2008 will haunt him for the rest of his life.
On that day, he and his two casual workers were carrying out domestic renovation work at a home in the Melbourne suburb of Lower Templestowe. A number of holes in the first floor of the house had been cut out by an electrical contractor to thread cables through.
Chan told his workers to be careful of the holes but did not take any steps to cover them or barricade them off, and while some holes were covered and secured, others were left unprotected.
Tragically, one of the workers fell through a hole and died after a three metre fall.
As WorkSafe Victoria executive director for health and safety Ian Forsyth observed last November after Chan was found guilty of two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and fined $30,000, the case underscored an important truth about fall prevention: merely telling your workers to ‘be careful’ isn’t going to cut it.
Some other so-called safety methods are equally insufficient according to a recent 66-page report from Australian engineering services firm C&V Engineering, manufacturer of the PenoGuard fall prevention system (pictured below). Merely covering the holes with unsecured plywood, for instance, is not adequate. Several cases have been documented in which workers needing more plywood for a job they are working on have picked up plywood, not realising it was covering a hole, and then stepped forward into the hole it was covering.
Injuries and deaths involving falls are far more common than many would think. In 2009/10, figures from Safe Work Australia indicate that falls, trips and slips accounted for 26 per cent of the 13,670 workers compensation claims for serious workplace injuries within the construction industry. Based on those numbers, just under 4,000 workers suffer serious injuries through falls each year.
What can be done?
One way to reduce or eliminate falling accidents is through employing the right equipment, which C&V says can make an enormous difference. All floor openings and floor holes should be covered with railings and/or floor hole covers. Stairway floor openings should be protected with railings, which guard all open sides as well as the stairway entrance side. Floor holes can be protected either with railings with a toe board on all open sides or with a floor hole cover.
Another useful option is for workers to wear harnesses which are attached to a rope by use of a retractable lanyard, thus arresting any fall in the event that a worker does step into a gap or hole.
Beyond that, a 2009 report from the Wyoming’s Occupational Health and Safety Department in the US outlines six basic steps to fall protection:
- If at all possible, all holes should be guarded, with the area in question being barricaded even before the hole is cut.
- Where holes must be left open during construction, permanent barriers should surround the edge of the opening.
- Where a hole is unguarded, it should be covered with something that is larger than the opening and able to withstand the weight of a person.
- All hole covers must be made of durable materials.
- Workers must be careful where they step – any sheet or plastic paper could be covering a hole.
- Extra care must be taken with regard to plastic skylights and smoke vents, neither of which support a lot of weight.
With basic care and the right equipment, risks associated with fall injuries on construction sites can be minimised. Simply telling workers to ‘be careful’ falls far short of proper safety measures.