Coroner calls for ladder ban and abolition of height-work distinction

Thursday, 08 March 2012 

In a report on the death of a worker who fell from a ladder, the Victorian Coroner has criticised an employer for its "superficial" safety documents, and called for WorkSafe to "abolish the distinction between working at height above or below two metres".

Coroner Kim Parkinson also recommended an immediate ban on the use of A-frame ladders for the installation of air-conditioning ducting.

In March 2009, an employee of Allstaff Airconditioning Pty Ltd, working on a major Australand construction site, lost his balance on a ladder and fell backwards onto concrete.
He died soon after in hospital from severe head trauma sustained in the fall.

The Coroner found the worker had been installing spiral ducting in a ceiling cavity using a 'Hilti' gun - an explosive power tool with significant recoil - while standing on a poorly maintained, aluminium A-frame ladder that shifted, causing him to lose his balance.

The Coroner found the task required both hands, leaving the employee with no free hand to stabilise himself. He found there were no restraints provided, and no co-workers available to hold the ladder.

Further, the worker was not wearing protective glasses or a safety helmet. As he fell he hit a piece of ceiling grid, sustaining an eye injury that the Coroner said could have impeded his ability to break the fall. Evidence from a colleague of the deceased suggested requests had been made for ceiling grids to be removed to make the installation job less difficult, but the request had been refused by the project manager.

"An overview of the publications of Australian and international work safety authorities suggests that… the danger of falling from a ladder is a risk that had been clearly identified and publicised," the Coroner said. He found the safe work method statement produced by Allstaff and endorsed by Australand was "a limited and superficial document which failed to identify the most basic of risk factors in the work being performed and did not engage in any serious analysis of the work being performed, the risks which may be associated with that work and practical and available steps to ameliorate that risk".

"I believe that an indictable offence may have been committed in relation to the death," he said.

Coroner challenges three-point principle

In his report, the Coroner addressed the fact that the worker had been standing on a two-metre ladder, which meant he was not considered to be "working at height" under WorkSafe Victoria guidelines.

He described the two-metre distinction as "dangerous and illusory".

"This distinction is prone to encouraging a lack of attention to the risk of falls from working at any height off ground level and also results in less attention to remedial steps to prevent falls from the lesser height," he said.

The Coroner also challenged the concept of maintaining three points of contact when working on ladders.

He found that "it is insufficient… for there to be two feet and either knees or chest maintaining contact with the ladder" and that "ladders are generally not appropriate for tasks requiring the use of two hands."

The report is not available online.