Working at heights in management rights

Under the Work Health and Safety Act  there are a range of codes of practice that have been issued by Safe Work Australia.

As you would expect, there is a code of practice about managing the risks of falls at workplaces (the Code).

A management rights business remains a far less risky business from a work, health and safety perspective than most industries. If you subscribe to Safe Work Australia’s updates you will receive regular emails about far more serious injuries than are ever likely to occur in a management rights context. There are some unfortunate (and regular) reminders of the dangers of working with heavy machinery.

Working at heights in a management rights context will usually only be dealt with by the use of ladders. We haven’t yet had to help a client who has been asked to clean the external windows of a 50 storey tower, but we have had hundreds of questions about changing light bulbs in foyers and basements, trimming tall hedges and trees and cleaning out gutters.

The Code does not dictate what a safe working height actually is. What it does do is set out what safe working conditions are.

The Code is stated to apply ‘if there is a risk of a fall by a person from one level to another that is reasonably likely to cause injury’.  That is the legal test and one we think can be relatively intelligently applied.

The key aspects are:

  • There being the risk of a fall from one level to another.
    ‘Level’ to us doesn’t mean just from the top of a retaining wall to the ground. ‘Level’ is the reference to height. If you come down from a small stepladder, you are changing levels.
  • That fall being reasonably likely to cause injury.
    Falling from a small stepladder would probably not be considered reasonably likely to cause injury. A fall from an extendable ladder from a reasonable height would.

So, the height on its own is academic, as much as the higher you go, the more that a fall from that height could be considered reasonably likely to cause injury.

The key aspects of the Code from a management rights perspective for us are the parts about working at heights with ladders.

The Code sets out a number of guidelines around the use of ladders. Our takeaways from that are as follows:

  1. Ladders should only be used as a working platform for light work or for a short duration.
    People cannot be expected to be working on ladders for hours. That becomes unsafe with respect to fatigue and concentration. 
  2. A ladder must be set up on a solid and stable surface.
    This is quite obvious, but if the surface is not stable, neither will the ladder. 
  3. The working position on a ladder should not be uncomfortable – requiring the need to stretch sideways or work above shoulder height.
    This comes back to an individual person’s reach, and other physical attributes. It also reflects the type of work required. One obvious way to remove the need to stretch sideways is to be able to move the ladder to a safe position to reach the previously ‘stretched to’ area.
  4. There should be someone either holding the ladder or a way to ensure that the ladder is secured in some other way to prevent slipping or sliding.
    This ties in with point two above. If the surface was unstable or on a slope then it would be guaranteed that you would need assistance to secure the ladder. If you have jammed the foot of the ladder up against a railing on a flat surface, then the risk of it shifting is negligible. 
  5. Only light work should be undertaken while on ladders.
    No chainsaws!
  6. When on a ladder there should be three points of contact maintained at all times (i.e. two feet and one hand).
    If equipment is being used then it should be capable of being operated with one hand.  It should not need two. One handed chainsaw use is not safe. Using a screwdriver probably would be.

The context of this article deals with at what height a body corporate can reasonably require a manager to work up to under the Work Health and Safety Act.

If a body corporate is a PCBU (which we contend most bodies corporate with management rights are), and its resident manager is hurt in a fall, then we think there could be consequences for that body corporate to the extent that any of the above guidelines were not followed.

The other issues that run parallel with heights in a management rights context include:

  • what the caretaking component of the management rights agreements actually require the resident manager to do; and
  • what the management rights agreements say about using skilled tradespeople.

Each management rights arrangement is different and these two issues are a building by building situation.

Now for a warning – normally, this fine print is in the footer of the email but we think worth repeating it here. This newsletter sets out what we think are some overarching rules or guidelines under the Work Health and Safety Act. They are not global and they need to be applied to each individual set of circumstances and also potentially referenced back to each set of management rights agreements.

Based on the guidelines, there are going to be times when resident managers are going to be safe working at heights and others times not. This newsletter alone is not the single answer to the question of height. Each situation will depend on its own circumstances.

You can read the Code yourself here.