Working Safe, Working Smart
Construction Site Safety
When we set off to work first thing in the morning, most of us already have our day planned in advance. Unless something unusual comes up, like a last-minute deadline, we can anticipate how many hours we will be at our job, and what time we will return. Tragically, in some industries, not everyone makes it home on time, if at all.
For its many dedicated workers, the construction industry has numerous perils associated with high-risk professions. According to SafeWork Australia’s Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities, construction is third on the list of the 10 most dangerous jobs, surpassed only by agriculture, forestry and fishing in first place, and transport, warehousing and storage in second. With an estimated 1,026,000 workers, Australia’s construction sector saw 11,535 serious injuries (2013-14), and 31 deaths.
Although the number of construction site-related fatalities across Australia has dropped over the years – from 30 in 2012 to 19 in 2013, for example – deaths on job sites still occur. Causes range from falls from heights to vehicle collisions, contact with electricity, being struck by moving objects or hit by falling objects, rollovers of non-road vehicles, and even drowning. And while vehicle collisions are responsible for the majority of construction site fatalities at 40 per cent, falling from a height is responsible for 28 per cent of deaths, a sad statistic and the recent reason behind the second-largest fine in the history of construction in New South Wales.
Fined over $500,000
Earlier this year, a Sydney-based construction company and its director were hit with fines totalling over $500,000 for the death of a bricklayer in 2014. The incident occurred on a construction site in Hurstville, a suburb in southern Sydney. The bricklayer, 55, fell five metres through a plywood-covered hole which had not been secured to the concrete slab at the site. Sustaining serious head injuries as a result, the bricklayer died at the scene.
In the decision from the District Court of New South Wales, SafeWork (NSW) versus the contractor, it was stated inspectors at the scene saw that although a wood plank was across the opening with a piece of plywood partially covering the penetration, neither section had been nailed down or secured. And although the contractor had a Site Safety Management Plan and OHSE Management Plan in place before the incident, “these plans did not address the risk of a person falling through an unsecured penetration. There were no other procedures or systems in place to address this risk. There were no procedures in place to record planned or actual control measures for penetrations at the premises,” stated the April 11, 2016 decision.
Calling the work health and safety system adopted by the contractor “ad-hoc, unplanned and wholly inadequate,” SafeWork NSW Executive Director Peter Dunphy added the company should have ensured the penetration was securely covered and inspected the plywood cover. Despite being made aware of the risk and how to address it on numerous occasions by SafeWork NSW inspectors the contractor chose not to, and at least four other workers could have fallen before the bricklayer’s death. “Such a serious offence justifies the penalty imposed by the court which will send a strong message to others in the industry thinking of ignoring work health and safety laws,” said Dunphy in a statement. “A family is now without a father and husband.”
Reducing workplace incidents
Although it was recently reported that work-related fatalities have fallen to their lowest levels in 20 years in NSW, this is not being accomplished through luck or wishful thinking, but well-planned campaigns carried out by organisations such as WorkSafe to improve safety and productivity. Ways to increase construction site safety include visits, campaigns, industry programs, advisory services, assistance, and education.
Across the nation, worker health and construction site safety continue to be issues of concern. Under the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022, the construction industry remains a priority for work health and safety. While about half of surveyed construction workers and employers state risks are “unavoidable in construction workplaces” (Safe Work Australia, Work Health and Safety Perceptions: Construction Industry, February 2015), there are many ways to reduce risk on job sites. Causes of injury are wide-ranging, and include strain from lifting heavy objects, repetitive movement, falling, and long-term exposure to the sun, chemicals, airborne hazards, and excessive noise, to name a few.
The majority of construction sector workers (69 per cent) perceive that many work-related injuries are caused due to carelessness, followed by just not thinking, the nature of manual work, taking risks, and unsafe work practices or procedures. These factors were closely followed by improper equipment, dangerous machinery or equipment, alcohol or drugs, lack of training, and other factors such as lack of supervision, poor decisions by management, and shift work.
Organisations such as Safe Work Australia have detailed Codes of Practice for a number of construction-related areas, including demolition, excavation, safe design of structures, and preventing falls in housing construction, one of the most risky types of work, which sees employers fall through voids, suffer excessive sun exposure, and receive injuries through the unsafe movement of people and materials on job sites. As a result, injured staff may take weeks or even months to return to work, resulting in delays. To address these and other issues, WorkCover NSW launched the House Construction Industry Action Plan 2014-2015, as part of its Focus on Industry Program. The aim is not only to reduce deaths, injuries and illnesses, but also to reduce exposure to hazards causing injury and disease, eliminate/minimise high-risk hazards through the implementation of higher level controls, and ensure injured workers are protected, “and have sustained recovery and return to work arrangements.”
While job sites have safety staff, they cannot do it alone, and constant training and awareness is needed on the part of all staff. Along with supplying workers with all the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as helmets, goggles, gloves, hearing protection, boots, and protective clothing, it is essential equipment, machinery, and tools be checked to ensure they are in good working order. Scaffolds must be planked together and meet weight loads for the amount they are designed to support. Electrical systems must be respected at all times, with equipment and materials such as ladders and scaffolds kept from power lines at a safe distance. Openings in a structure under construction need to be secured and covered, and guardrails need to be used on elevated surfaces. And hazards must be communicated if there are dangerous chemicals or other substances used on-site through Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). And if incidents do occur, they must be property recorded and tracked.
At the end of a long day, construction site safety is ultimately everyone’s responsibility.