There are myriad hazards in any working environment, but few are as dangerous – or as deadly – as falls from height. HR professionals and other business leaders must consider how they can develop a workplace health and safety (WHS) plan that helps employees minimise the risks involved with working at elevation.
Qantas has learned this lesson the hard way after a Star Aviation contractor fell backward onto concrete while cleaning an aircraft in 2014. According to HC Online, the 1.5 metre fall left the worker with spinal injuries, prompting a WorkSafe ACT investigation into the company’s WHS practices.
How many people are injured or killed annually as a result of falling?
There were 232 fall-related fatalities between July 2003 and June 2011.
Unfortunately, the Qantas incident is far from an isolated event. Every single year, thousands of employees across Australia are injured or killed as a result of falling from height. Between July 2003 and June 2011, there were 232 fall-related fatalities, according to figures collated by Safe Work Australia. This means that more than 1 in 10 (11 per cent) of all work-related deaths in this time period were caused by falls.
While this might sound like a fairly dire statistics, it does represent some significant improvements from years gone by. Thanks to better health and safety processes and a greater awareness of fall-related hazards, the number of workers who died from falls halved between 1991 and 2011, though this trend has levelled out, and the rate of fall-related fatalities has remained steady for the last eight years.
Falls are also responsible for a substantial number of injuries. In 2010/11, workers lodged 7,730 claims for serious injury, which involved an average of 6.2 weeks off work. This is notably longer than the 4.4 weeks average for all types of serious injury claims.
What is Qantas doing to improve its WHS processes?
— Qantas News (@QantasNews) February 13, 2016
AS HC Online explained, Qantas is now in the process of designing and implementing a comprehensive overhaul of its existing health and safety policies. Enforceable by WorkSafe ACT, the $680,000 revamp aims to improve many elements of the company’s WHS procedures. This includes the purchase of new infrastructure for its ACT division, which is centred around addressing the risks involved with working at height.
ACT WorkSafe Commissioner Mark McCabe was pleased with Qantas’ willingness to accept the enforceable arrangement in favour of going through a time-consuming court process.
“The great thing about Qantas agreeing to enter into this enforceable undertaking is that rather than go through lengthy court action, they’re investing a fair bit of money into health and safety and that’s a far better outcome than spending it on lawyers, which is where quite a bit of the money goes,” said Mr McCabe, as quoted by HC Online.
Understanding Qantas’ WHS history
As with most modern enterprises, Qantas puts a lot of emphasis on the wellbeing of its employees. Between 2010 and 2014, the total recordable injury frequency rate (that is, the number of lost time injuries per million hours worked) fell from more than 40 to less than 30, according to the company’s 2016 annual review. However, between 2014 and 2015, this number actually rose, resulting in the introduction of a long-term strategy centred around improving safety performance over the next three years.
Only time will tell whether these new initiatives will prove to be effective. Nevertheless, the incident highlights the need for businesses across every sector to have a robust WHS induction system in place to minimise the likelihood of such injuries.