The safety risks of falls from ladders have been in the spotlight recently, with workplace safety authorities in Victoria issuing stern calls for employers and supervisors to take better care of workers. Otherwise, they may have to face penalties that could potentially include jail time.
Victoria recently joined the ACT, Queensland and Northern Territory in passing workplace safety legislation that makes industrial manslaughter a criminal offence. An individual who has been found negligent can face up to 20 years imprisonment and fines of up to $16.5 million.
A legal briefing by Ashurst Partner Trent Sebbens and Counsel Paul Fowler notes that Western Australia is also currently progressing similar legislation. The recent laws mean four of the eight Australian States and Territories now have or are proposing industrial manslaughter offences.
Ladders Top List of Workplace Danger
The recent Victorian height safety blitz was triggered by three fatalities in the state involving portable ladders which occurred within a 12-month period. Those are in addition to 62 safety incidents reported to the workplace safety authority in the first ten months of 2019.
In her media statement, Victorian Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy says employers were being put on notice to take safety seriously.
A ladder is a piece of equipment most trades and builders have and use frequently.
Ladders are often a major source of workplace risks, according to Carl Sachs, Director of Workplace Wing, the advisory arm of the Workplace Access & Safety Group. He explained a ladder is a piece of equipment most trades and builders have and use frequently. However, he stressed, it is essential that the ladders are fit for purpose or fit for the tasks.
He has provided a comprehensive analysis of how to assess ladders and tasks to reduce the relatively high numbers of serious injury claims and fatalities in the construction industry.
Regular Ladder Inspection Critical
There are no mandatory Australian standards in terms of ladder design, fabrication or manufacture, he said. While there are options for third-party certification, it is up to the individual manufacturer or client to decide whether to insist on them.
Maintenance and inspection of ladders is critical considering their regular use, says Sachs.
They are a “desirable technology” for working at heights due to being relatively low-cost, easy to get and simple to operate. While all these are undoubtedly true, that does not mean they are always the best solution to controlling a specific risk, according to Sachs.
According to SafeWork Australia data, in the period from 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2011, 37 workers died following a fall from a ladder. In just three years (2009–2011), there were 3,830 serious injury workers compensation claims arising from falls from ladders. Most frequent injuries included fractures, open wounds, and sprains and strains of adjacent muscles.
2017–18 data on workers compensation claims across all occupations shows falls, trips and slips were the second most frequent cause of serious injury after body-stressing injuries and accounted for almost one-quarter of all claims.
Selecting the Right Tool
Sachs says it is crucial employers and site managers consider that ladders are specifically useful for access and egress—that’s what they’re primarily intended for. However, the classic A-frame or simple upright ladder is not designed to be a working platform; it is simply a ladder.
When considering the Hierarchy of Controls, working off ladders is the “lowest order of control measure” for height risks.
There are a number of safer solutions for jobs that require one or both hands, such as a platform ladder, fixed platform, elevated work platform or scaffold. To be safe when using a ladder to access a high area—a ceiling, for example—both hands need to be free to grasp the handrails at all times, so carrying heavy items up a ladder is definitely risky.
When considering the Hierarchy of Controls, working off ladders is the “lowest order of control measure” for height risks, Sachs explains. WHS legislation does mandate adherence to the Hierarchy of Controls as part of safety planning and risk management when developing a Safe Work Method statement for a task. But, Sachs says, it is vital to choose the best match of technology. Employers and supervisors also need to keep in mind that working at heights training and tickets do not specifically address the use of ladders.
If workers fail to receive appropriate training for the tasks and tools used to perform them, it can also land employers in court. For example, in January, a commercial cleaning company was convicted and fined $30,000 for failing to control the risk of falling from height and not ensuring workers had received appropriate instruction and training. The court action followed an incident in 2018 that resulted in a worker sustaining multiple injuries including crushed lower spinal vertebrae.
It’s also important to recognise who is responsible for what in terms of risk management and height safety.
The Workplace Group has published some useful information using ladder inspections as an example. Among those responsible for ensuring safe practices are the “controller of the workplace.” This may include the facility manager, project manager or head contractor representative; the WHS manager; senior managers and company directors; and also employees and subcontractors, who need to ensure they use the right equipment for a job and should report any unsafe situations.