Falling Short in Workplace Safety: An analysis of falls in the construction sector

Falling short in Workplace Safety: An analysis of …
01 Feb 2012

Falls from height and falls on the same level have been identified in New Zealand and overseas as a significant cause of harm in the construction sector (Australian Safety and Compensation Council, 2008). The Department of Labour estimates that nearly a third of serious harm accidents in construction result from slips, trips, or falls (Department of Labour, 2011). Serious harm as referred to in this report is defined in the same way as in the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, and includes death and the conditions outlined in the first schedule to the Act.

The Department of Labour conducted work to analyse data from serious harm investigation reports on construction falls-related accidents in New Zealand to find out more about falls in the construction sector. This report presents the findings of this analysis. The project examined 340 accident cases from 2007, 2008, and 2009. Nine of the cases were fatal. The main findings of the analysis are presented below.


The aims of this project were to analyse serious harm investigation files to:

  • determine patterns or trends in how ‘serious harm’ accidents caused by falls from height, or slips, trips, and falls on the same level, in the construction sector occur
  • understand the nature and causes of these accidents in order to design interventions aimed at preventing further accidents of this nature.


This project analysed data from serious harm investigation files coded for falls from height, or slips, trips, or stumbles on the same level in construction, for cases notified in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Three hundred and forty-two accident cases were examined, including two cases with two victims. Nine of the cases

were fatal.

Case files meeting the following criteria were selected:

  • All files with Australia and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC) Codes E4***
  • Incidents coded as a ‘fall from a height’, ‘fall, slip, or trip’, and ‘fall on the same level, slip, trip, stumble’
  • Incidents occurring between 1 January 2007 and 30 December 2009

A coding framework was developed and was based on a similar framework that had previously been used to analyse quad bike investigation files. A construction safety expert within the Department helped develop the framework.

The coding framework included the following categories:

  • General data about the accident
  • Data about the victim and their workplace
  • Data about the victim’s experience and competence
  • Data about the victim’s work
  • Data about the accident event

Data was coded in Excel. During analysis, some secondary coding was done as numbers were very small in some categories.

In all, 340 case files were coded. Two hundred and ninety-six of the cases included were coded in the INSITE database as ‘falls from height’ incidents, and 46 were coded in INSITE as ‘slips, trips, and falls on the same level’ incidents. Two files had two people harmed as a result of the fall. These have been separated so that each person harmed is treated as one case. This means that the database has 342 cases.

Key Results

Falls from a temporary structure made up the largest group of incidents, at just under half the total number of cases examined. This category of fall includes falls from ladders, trestles, and scaffolding. Falls from temporary structures had the following characteristics:

  • They contributed to five of the nine fatal accidents examined.
  • Over half of these falls were falls from ladders being used as a work platform.
  • Seventy percent of the falls from temporary structures were recorded as being less than 3 metres in height.
  • Falls from temporary structures less than 3 metres in height were the main fall type for painters and decorators (35 percent), electrical workers (28 percent), carpenters (25 percent), and general labourers (23 percent).
  • Falls from temporary structures less than 3 metres in height were the second most common fall type for roofers (17 percent).

Falls from a permanent structure were the next most common type of fall (21 percent of all falls). These falls had the following characteristics:

  • They contributed to three of the nine fatal accidents examined.
  • Roofers experienced more falls from a permanent structure (40 percent of all falls for roofers) than any other industry group.
  • Half the falls by roofers off permanent structures were over 3 metres in height.
  • Only two of the falls from a permanent structure recorded safety harness or fall protection being used for falls over 3 metres in height.

Up to 10 percent of all cases involved a slip, trip, or stumble on the same level. However, in a further 20 percent of all accidents, slips, trips, and stumbles contributed to a fall from height. Although slips, trips, and stumbles should be highlighted as a risk factor in falls, there is little evidence from this data to suggest that slips, trips, and stumbles on the same level should be the priority for any strategic or harm reduction related activity.

Falls less than 3 metres in height accounted for:

  • almost 70 percent of falls from temporary structures
  • fifty percent of falls from permanent structures, and
  • 60 percent of all falls from height

This suggests that lower-height falls are a significant cause of serious harm, and should be a priority for harm reduction activities. Regulation 21 of the Health and Safety in Employment Regulations 1995 states that employers should take all practicable steps to provide means to prevent employees falling where that fall would be more than 3 metres in height. This regulation does not exempt duty holders under sections 6–10 and 16–19 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 from providing fall protection where there is potential for harm from falls that are 3 metres or less in height. In Australia, the minimum height where fall protection is required was changed to 2 metres in 2010 (Safe Work Australia, 2008, 2010).

The victim’s employment status

People working as self-employed contractors or employees of contractors make up 58 percent of all accidents analysed. Contractor procurement processes and supervision of contractors on a site could be potential areas of focus for strategy and harm reduction projects. A further 34 percent of the accident victims were employees, including labour hire workers. Ninety-two percent of the accident victims were workers engaged in construction activities, as could be expected. A greater exposure to construction hazards appears to be related to accident causation, rather than the specific employment or contractual situation the person was engaged in.

The victim’s trade and the type of construction activity

When divided into individual trades, most accidents happened to carpenters (26 percent), roofers (11 percent), electrical workers (8 percent), painters and decorators (8 percent), and general labourers (7 percent).

Forty-two percent of victims were classified as working in general construction, while 57 percent worked in construction trade services .

The construction and completion of commercial structures accounted for half of the accidents for all victims. Thirty-one percent of victims experienced their accident while working on residential structures. Civil construction accounted for  only 8 percent of the total sample. For the remaining files there was insufficient information to determine what type of construction the victim was engaged in. Data limitations therefore prevented us from estimating the prevalence of falls in different sectors.

Factors that contributed to the accidents

A number of factors contributed to falls resulting in harm including poor health and safety management on site. Hazards were not always identified, and where hazards were identified, work at height was not always identified as a hazard. There was evidence of poor site induction, with only 17 percent of victims going through a site induction.

A lack of training and awareness about best practice was a factor. Only 16 percent of victims received training in health and safety. Only half of these workers were recorded as also receiving training in the technical aspects of the work. In two-thirds of the accidents failure to follow best practice as found in codes of practice and guidelines contributed to the accident. In almost a quarter of the cases where best practice was not followed, a lack of leadership or supervision was also noted. A misunderstanding of information also contributed to a small number of accidents.

The victim’s deliberate disregard for, or ignoring of, instructions occurred in almost a third of the accidents. Some accidents occurred because the victim was distracted. In a small number of accidents mental or psychological stress, physical stress, and a lack of physical or psychological capability were noted as causative factors.

In 60 percent of the accidents, inadequate work standards were noted as a cause. Untidy work areas and people falling onto hazardous landing surfaces also contributed to a small number of accidents. Some of the cases where a slip or trip preceded a fall involved muddy footwear on ladders.

Structures collapsing, tipping over, failing, or breaking contributed to 38 percent of falls. This includes the collapse of structures that ladders had been propped against or people had been walking on. The failure of fall arrest or other safety equipment also contributed to four percent of accidents.

Injuries sustained in falls

The most common site of injury was to the victim’s head (23 percent of cases). However, we cannot determine if these were serious concussion related head injuries, or something less severe, as Department of Labour data does not record details about the permanence or severity of the harm. Seven of the nine fatal accidents involved an injury to the head. Five percent of all victims received injuries to the neck, and 13 percent to the vertebrae.

Injuries to the shoulders, arms, wrist, chest, legs, and ankles were experienced by up to 14 percent of all victims, while injuries to the back, hand, fingers, hips, knees, and feet were experienced by up to 10 percent of all victims. Eight percent of victims experienced a significant loss of blood in the accident, and 6 percent of victims experienced crushing or damage to internal organs.

Fatal accidents

Nine fatal accident files were examined. Fatal accident victims were on average 10 years older than the average age for all accident victims (51 years old vs. 40 years old). Fatal accident victims were also concentrated in the ‘Construction Trade Services’ group.

Fatal accidents also differed from all accidents in the height of the fall. For all accidents, the largest group was for falls less than 3 metres in height. In contrast, fatal accidents were mostly higher than 3 metres. More serious injury would be expected with higher falls as a greater amount of energy is released in the fall.


Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018