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The Problem With Falls

Published: 03rd Mar 2014 in OSA Magazine

A rethink on how we educate our workforces

There are many safety experts around, and among them there are many real and many self-proclaimed Work-At-Height specialists and/or experts. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to working at heights – all I know is that falls don’t kill people. It’s the stopping, or the hitting the ground or other objects that does – and that’s just it. 

Falling from heights is one of – if not the biggest – cause of fatalities in workplaces. Be it working in construction sites, shipyards, repairing roofs, cleaning out roof gutters, people are exposed to the possibility of falling from heights. 

Everyone working is exposed. The difference is how great the exposure is and how severe, in the event the hazard is realised, the consequences will be. For example, a worker working on the steel beams of a new skyscraper, or the office worker who is walking around in the wet pantry area – either one could fall, with markedly varied outcomes. 

Guarding against falls is not a new thing. Surely people have had years of statistics and analytical data showing just how many people have died, or how many people have been seriously injured from falling from height, or have suffered from slips and trips. 

Government departments come up with yearly annual reports showing the total workforce, the number of fatalities, the major injuries. They then go into the details of the fatalities or injuries, breaking them down into categories and types. Year after year statistics in most countries prove this point. 

Let’s take a quick look around the world and see how different countries fare. From Great Britain, falls from height accounted for almost 31% of all workplace fatalities. 

Extracted from Slips & trips and falls from height in Great Britain, 2013: 

Falls from height were the most common of fatalities, accounting for a third of fatal injuries to workers (31%) (RIDDOR)

Slips and trips were the main cause of major injuries to employees, with falls from height the next most common. (RIDDOR)

Slips, trips and falls were responsible for more than half of all major (56%) and almost a third of over seven day (31%) injuries to employees, making up 37% of all reported injuries to employees (RIDDOR)

Source: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causinj/slips-trips-and-falls.pdf

In the United States, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) calls the top four types of incident leading to fatalities in construction as the ‘Fatal Four’. With falls from height contributing to 278 out of the 775 fatalities in construction alone for the year 2012. Showing how falls from height affect workplace safety. 

Falls – 278 out of 775 total deaths in construction in CY 2012 (36%)
Struck by object – 78 (10%)
Electrocutions – 66 (9%)
Caught in/between – 13 (2%) 

Source: https://www.osha.gov/oshstats/commonstats.html

In Australia, slips, trips and falls contributed to a large number of workers’ compensation claims between the years 2011 and 2012. Again almost a third of all claims. Figure 1.

So each year the governments and the industries collect data and statistics, from the number of fatalities right down to the types of incidents. My questions would be – So what? What has changed? How have we used the data and statistics? Someone has already paid for our lessons with their lives. How are we making every lesson valuable? What are we doing that will make a difference? Are we doing the same old things again and again, while expecting different results? 

Sure, some people may blame the companies for not doing enough. The workers who died or were injured may also be at the receiving end of the blame game. Some safety practitioners may blame the bosses, or the culture of the company. But rather than blame others, what are you prepared to do now to get the results that you want? What are you no longer willing to do to get the results that you want?

Now you have statistics – what next?

Talk is cheap

Each time I hear of a fatality or an incident, right away the investigations start – which is great. Then come the intensified safety inspections and safety audits. More surprise audits and inspections are done. Companies are told or send their staff for more training. It doesn’t matter if that particular worker doesn’t need that training, or doesn’t understand the lessons learned – but let’s send them for training. With training providers and trainer, let’s add more slides in the PowerPoint packages. Let’s stretch the training to many more hours. 

Then after a while the intensity dies down. The interest and attention disappears. Until the next fatality. 

Change is only temporary. We say that we want to do things and that we want to reduce the number of incidents in the industry or in our companies. Yet when push comes to shove, what are we prepared to do to make change happen?

Are we prepared to stop using safety harnesses or safety belts? Can we not believe that we can create safer work environments without depending on personal protective equipment? Are we afraid to use new ways of doing things? Better ways of doing things? Of course people in industry will be up in arms and say that new ways may cost lives. But aren’t we already killing people?

Talk is cheap. If we really want to do things right then we need to do the right things. We need to look at things differently. We need to understand that companies have to survive and that people need to be kept safe. Why can’t people plan their work so that hazards are eliminated? 

I see companies developing risk assessments for work at heights without understanding or looking at work environments. Coming up with risk assessments that meet documentary requirements but don’t actually mean anything. The people exposed to the ‘sharp end of the stick’, the ones that will work at heights and are exposed to the potential of falls, may not even know of the existence of these risk assessments and if they do, the risk assessment may not even be relevant. 

Of course some companies go overboard with solutions. They over think.


Sure, we all want people to go home safe. And it is a balancing act keeping things realistic and keeping people safe. We have all seen things get very complicated. The authorities get worried and roll out legislation that requires every person to attend training. From workers, supervisors and managers to safety professionals. Training requirements are rolled out to training providers and training centres, who then design 500 slide PowerPoint packages for workers, making sure that each slide is filled with lines of information about the legislations, codes of practise, the dos and the don’ts. 

Did we fall into the trap of over thinking? Designing solutions that are irrelevant and cause more frustrations instead? Designing and providing training that workers cannot understand because of the complexity? That supervisors refuse to accept because that’s not really the way they work?

The intention may have been great, but we all know that the roads to hell are lined with good intentions.

Keeping it ‘insanely simple’ 

Can’t we keep things simple? Better yet, can’t we keep things insanely simple? When we teach our children we understand that it is a series of small steps that we need to take. After all isn’t being great at something actually many small things done well? I saw this with my son. From small simple jigsaw puzzles to more sophisticated puzzles. Slowly gaining confidence and ability in doing things and doing them right. 

Should we not be looking at everything this way? Doing all the small things right before taking on bigger activities? Rather than a quick fix of a one day training course with 500 slides and then saying that our workforce is now certified and competent to work safely at heights? 

If we are doing the same things and still injuring or killing people, should we not try something new or even something old?Should we not look at what Henry Ford did with the assembly line? Getting each person to be very good at their jobs. Making them the Subject Matter Expert for the things that they did. Why can’t we use this approach when it comes to training people how to do their jobs?

Maybe another source of inspiration should come from Frederick Taylor and his work, ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’. He too looked at simplifying jobs and this meant productivity increased. He is known for his ONE BEST Way to complete jobs. This meant studying the job, designing the one best way to do the job, and ensuring that no one deviated from the steps. That the workforce follows the instructions to the letter. 

Then we will have naysayers who will say “Surely this can only be done in manufacturing and in production lines – it cannot work in dynamic industries like construction, shipbuilding or ship repairing.” 

My answer to that would be, has it been tried? Has someone or have some companies done this and failed? Or is it the same old excuse that ‘We have been doing it this way and it can’t be done’? 

So why can’t we change our mind-sets? Why can’t we change our belief systems? Why must people in industry believe that work is dangerous and people get hurt? Would you want your child to grow up and work in an industry where it is acceptable to get injured? I wouldn’t! So should we not do something now to change this culture of acceptance? 

Imagine this: the hottest job in 2014 did not even exist yet in 2004. Things are changing.

Technology is improving at amazing speed. Yet we still have the same old issues with working at height. We still keep killing people in industry. Surely we are trying but maybe not in the right way. So what will it take?

No single way forward

There is no single way forward. Safety experts and practitioners have to learn new things and new ways of doing things. Yes, they have jobs – they need to keep people safe but at the same time the companies that they work for also need to be sustainable. 

Companies and leaders of companies also have to understand that safety is not a separate thing. It is ingrained in the way we do things. It is the tasks that we do. And we need to find ways to do these tasks well. We can’t ‘bolt’ safety on to the tasks we do. We need to build safety into the tasks.

We need to be brave enough to give up the old ways and decide what we are willing to do to make things happen. Looking at statistics and annual reports is one thing, but the most important thing to do is to do something.

Published: 03rd Mar 2014 in OSA Magazine


Raj Singh

Raj Singh has been involved in Oil and Gas (upstream and downstream), Petrochemical, Marine and Construction industries for the past 18 years within Singapore, Asia, Australia and the Middle East. His core business philosophy and approach to life is to create a better, more productive, profitable and professional workforce.

With a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Adelaide, Raj has been providing consulting, advisory and training to the top management of organisations as well as projects. 

Raj’s sharp business acumen has allowed him to market his services to various organisations internationally, using his unique mixture of insights and delivery

Raj understands the complexities and challenges senior executives at these organisations face, thus allowing him to conceptualise custom solutions for them. Raj has worked with clients like Shell, PTTEP, PTTEP AA, Reliance, Aker Floating Productions (Norway), Aker Borgestad (Norway), Rubicon Offshore, Seaproduction (Norway), AGR, SABIC (Saudi Arabia) , BLNG (Brunei), SLNG and more. 

With Shell, Raj provided consultancy and implementations on their mega project, Shell SEPC (Houdini), involving more than 15,000 personnel over three different sub-projects (MEG, BRM and ECC). Rolling out initiatives like the Trainee Safety Advisor Program (apprenticeship scheme) as well as working with Shell on the Winning Hearts and Minds programmes. Successfully drove culture with the SCOT and BUGIS projects. 

Engaged by Petronas, Shell, Lend Lease, Koon Holdings and ASL Shipyards to facilitate in building successful organisational cultures, Raj still remains one of the most sought after expert witnesses in Singapore, having handled numerous expert witness cases for the courts. 

Raj is a prolific writer and the author of seven books. 


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