How to reduce risks associated with falls from heights

While fall prevention has been a significant focus in many organisations for a long time, the effectiveness and success of different approaches to address fall risks varies significantly.

There are several reasons why different approaches to fall prevention are more (or less) successful, according to Scott Barber, CEO of the Working at Heights Association (WAHA).

Even when a fall event represents maybe only 5 per cent of an organisation’s broader risk profile, he said it may still account for 50 per cent of their fatal risk.

“But the lack of understanding and exposure to the fall protection hierarchy of controls and how they are applied means that the measures put in place to address this are not as effective as they could be,” said Barber, who spoke ahead of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference 2024, which will be held at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 21-23 May.

He observed that most efforts to improve safety are still based on the assumption that safety management systems are effective because they are based on the premise that it is the behaviour of individuals failing to follow procedures that create unsafe workplaces.

“It’s an easy line to follow if there is a disconnect between safety management and the actual application of policy and procedures,” he said.

“So, when we put our faith in these systems, we must understand that while an individual safety management system may be coherent and logical, it is always surrounded and impacted by other factors.

“It’s not only considerations like environment, weather, and changes in the workspace, but it’s the appropriateness and versatility of the systems and, more importantly, the working at height competency of those working in the space that will determine the best outcomes,” he said.

Barber said there is an identifiable gap in the competency levels delivered under the current RTO framework for safe working at height.

“WAHA acknowledges the current model is flawed and often leaves critical gaps in skills and knowledge, which in turn increases the potential for safety incidents – especially where the training being delivered is not relevant to the work that will be carried out, creating a further gap between work as envisioned vs work as executed,” he said.

This issue is compounded by skills shortages across multiple sectors, which leads to engagement of workforces with lower levels of knowledge, skills and experience, Barber added.

While compliance training is being undertaken, he said there is no guarantee genuine competency is being delivered, and it is these ‘unknown unknowns’ from each worker that are of the most significant concern.

“Organisations simply do not have line of sight on the ‘transparency of competency’ and have to assume training is relevant and workers able to interpret policies and SWMS to work safely at height,” he said.

A critical contributor to safe working from heights is safety leadership, according to Barber, who said that leaders need to develop a greater understanding of the complexities within operating systems and structures.

“This type of understanding would include the recognition of how difficult it can be for frontline managers, supervisors, and workforce to understand, rationalise and apply the intent of the safety protocols we apply in practice,” he said.

“In other words, while our safety systems look great in the comfort of our offices, we really need to look at them from the perspective of our teams in the field.”

Barber advised organisational leaders and safety professionals wanting to embrace a new and fresh approach to fall prevention to acknowledge the systemic and personal complexities in modern workplaces.

“We must broaden our view to include not only what makes up our safety management system but all the extraneous factors that potentially interact with the execution of those systems,” he said.

The outlier in delivering effective change in the culture around work at heights is training and competency, and Barber said that empowerment of all stakeholders by employing more relevant, engaging and measurable training tools utilising technological advances are an “exciting path forward”.

Applying these tools in parallel with (and complementary to) the RTO-delivered Safe Working at Height certification opens new opportunities for the verification of competency of our workforces, he said.

“WAHA has been working with a technology partner, Area9 Lyceum, for the last 12 months designing an AI-based adaptive learning program to be run in parallel with/complimentary to the RTO-delivered training, but focused on core learning outcomes based on industry-specific scenarios,” he said.

“It’s an exciting project that we have developed with sector SMEs provided by our foundation partners, Programmed and John Holland Group. This is where leadership has an opportunity to bring about large-scale change by looking at new approaches and embracing an industry-informed approach rather than siloed actions.”

WHS professionals also play a critical role in reducing risks associated with working from height, according to Barber.

“Without a significant shift in our approach to develop genuine, verifiable competencies, then we simply won’t shift the needle on statistics and will continue to see preventable fatalities and significant, life-altering injuries resulting from falls occur on our watch,” he said.

“We often allow for an oversimplification of the risk as the consequence of a lack of understanding of the complexities in managing fall risk.”

This results in an ineffective adoption of the working-at-height hierarchy of controls, leading to the assumption that applying the lower tiers of control measures (i.e. PPE and administrative) provides effective enough protection for those at risk.

“This oversimplification is a common phenomenon, but often only recognised after an incident has occurred,” said Barber, who observed that incidents often disproportionately focus on the behaviours or actions of the individual.

This almost always arises from hindsight bias, which fails to consider the realities of the situation from the perspective of those involved in the event.

“More progressive organisations are trying to address the patterns in work practices identified through observational data and the incident and near-miss reporting. But seeing these patterns does not necessarily provide clarity from an operational behaviour perspective,” he said.

“Ultimately, if we do not shift the paradigm around the culture of fall prevention, those statistics, which have been stubbornly fixed at approximately 20 per cent of worker fatalities in Australia since we started recording in 2018 (falls from height and dropped objects combined), will not change,” he said.

“Empowering all stakeholders to make better decisions, be they policy and procedure or the live modification of SWMS in the field due to changing environments and activities, will lead to increasingly safer workplaces and a more informed, engaged, proactive and productive workforce.”