Falling from height

Lessons from Losses 4/2013. Work at height can be described as a work in any place, where a person could fall down and get injured when precautions are not taken. This description applies to most industrial workplaces and is – and has been – a major reason for many fatal accidents.

The case below is a classic situation that led to a fatal injury when falling prevention failed.

What happened?

A three-floor enlargement project of a school building was on its way and several different tasks were under construction simultaneously. Two men were installing temporary plasterboard wall in third floor when they ran out of boards and were instructed to carry the missing pieces from second floor after lunch break. During this break a group of subcontractor workers started installing permanent handrails in the stairway where the boards where supposed to be carried through.

As a part of this task the temporary handrails from the landing in the third floor were removed and were still missing when the workers carrying the plasterboards were passing the spot. While turning the board to fit to go through a doorway on the right, the worker carrying the board from the rear apparently stepped off the landing and fell down 3,5 meters. After three months he deceased in hospital care.

What caused the accident?

The installation of handrails created an immediate risk of falling for anyone in the area. Coordination of tasks during production planning should have taken these hazards into consideration and scheduled them so that the temporarily dangerous access would not have been needed until it was safe again.

A subcontractor creating a safety hazard is responsible for arranging and completing the required safety actions. Because the temporary handrail needed to be removed in order to complete the task, the obvious danger of falling should have been notified clearly and the access to the stairway and landing closed until the handrails were installed.

Carrying the plasterboard through stairway wasn’t the normal procedure, the other boards were lifted earlier to the third floor with a telescopic handler, but this option wasn’t available anymore. In any case, the stairway was used as the main route to third floor. Closing the access during handrail installation work would have been the absolute correct thing to do.

Preventing similar accidents

Main contractor is responsible for coordinating the construction project activities so that separate but simultaneous tasks won’t create hazardous conditions for anyone on the same construction site. Main contractor must also appoint a safety coordinator to overlook and verify the correct safety actions, as well as the ones that the subcontractors are responsible for.

In this type of situation where a work step creates a high-risk condition to certain area, the area must be secured so that no one can enter without proper safety cautions. It is also important to assure the safety of workers working in a high-risk area. Adequate falling protection, a safety harness in most cases, is vital when work must be done in a place without stationary fencing.

In shared workplaces like the construction site in this case, appliance of the same safety rules and procedures regardless of contractor would benefit all. In this situation generated during lunch break, the installation workers stepped aside to give room to pass when workers carrying the boards entered the landing. So despite the hazard, the mentality was more “everyone for themselves” rather than “safe working together”. When all workers on site know and follow the rules and procedures, the evolvement of a safety hazard into a serious accident can be stopped before it’s too late.

Ville Niemelä