What is a height safety risk?

Workers exposing themselves to risk working on the roof of a new house.

The things that can constitute a height safety risk are far more than most people immediately think.

In news that might surprise many workers and employers, just about every workplace will be exposing people to at least one form of height safety risk.

As is well documented, falls from height steadfastly remain one of the most common causes of injuries and fatalities in the workplace. Much of this stems from there being no common understanding of what a fall risk can look like.

In this blog post, our team will go through the legislation, and some research that can assist in highlighting ways to be more informed about the dangers that may exist where you or your team work.

Letter of the law

In New South Wales, where Height Safety Engineers is based, what is a fall risk is defined within the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017.

At clause 78, the Regulation states “a fall by a person from one level to another that is reasonably likely to cause injury to the person or any other person” is a risk that needs to be managed by the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) at the workplace or job site.

It also provides a few examples of what is considered an area where the risk of a fall exists. These include falling out of elevating work platforms (EWPs), through openings, over edges, and through non-trafficable surfaces.

The final item in the list reads “any other place from which a person could fall”. And it is in this sentence, where most falls occur.

What constitutes “any other area” is open to interpretation. And that interpretation differs wildly from person to person.

How high is a height?

Research conducted by SafeWork NSW in 2023 found that opinions on what constituted a “height” as well as what working in a “safe” manner at heights looked like varied wildly amongst their respondents.

Upon reviewing several photos of what respondents considered “safe” working at height, SafeWork inspectors found that many of them were not, by their standards, safe at all.

One of the more startling findings was that most construction workers considered six metres (nearly two storeys of a typical house) to be the minimum distance to be working at height.

Most falls resulting in serious injury or fatalities occur from heights of four metres or less (about one storey). Not quite half as high as what workers consider working at height to mean.

Where the danger lies

By the letter of the law, just about any situation could potentially be classified as working at height. This is due to the fragile nature of the human body where any fall, whether it be off a chair or from tripping on your own feet, has the potential to be fatal depending on a vast array of other contributing factors. Albeit in, in most cases, they won’t be.

However, in situations where it is identified that a fall is going to cause serious injury or worse, people have a tendency to be more careful and act in a much safer way. This immediately reduces the likelihood of a fall. For example, people are generally aware of the dangers of standing on top of a 30m cliff and will instinctively keep clear of the edge.

Where the danger lies is in those situations where the risk is very real, but not consciously accepted or considered. The danger is greatest between the small accidents and the clearly dangerous situations.

These situations exist in myriad situations across workplaces and across industries. Even in situations where a worker has identified that entering an area to complete a task is risky, they often find themselves quite willing to cross the line, past their own hesitancy, to make sure the job gets done.

It is in these moments where serious accidents occur.

There are no silver safety bullets

Improving workplace safety, particularly when it comes to reducing falls from height, does not have a single, easily implemented solution.

While height safety systems have a vital role to play, they are not the silver bullet solution.

Of equal importance is making sure that workers can identify risks and are given the time on site to be able to do this thoroughly and with care.

It requires all levels of worker and management to be active participants in the safety process. Whether they are responsible for managing the places people are working or looking after the work teams themselves.

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