Duty of Care & Rope Access

 In Height Safety News, IRATA International

Recently there’s been some healthy conversation online around workplace environments; including work and safety cultures. There was a particular thread that came up around a recent article published in New Zealand, titled “‘Someone could die’: Fears over safety and bullying“, and being a close nit rope access community in NZ, there’s not a lot that happens nationally, without people within the community hearing about it. Thankfully, the group that this news article was posted in, bore fruit some interesting perspectives on safety culture and how we can improve things.

Keeping in mind that a lot of people enjoy the negative rants over constructive thought or finding solutions – I asked the group as to what steps people think need to be implemented to reduce incidents occurring in rope access? It is well known that key stakeholders (WorkSafe NZ, IRAANZ, IRATA etc …) have prepared and published many documents containing thousands of words related to the risk of working at height and rope access to amplify the message to those at risk. Gravity has no bias, nor does it GAF what you’ve read. So despite these ‘actions’ by industry, we still do not see significant improvements in the statistics: injury and death rates remaining stubbornly constant (I’m referring to “falls from height” not just those within the rope access sector) with an average of 22.5 falls per month in NZ

The real costs of a fall, are not just the financial impact: the emotional and psychological impacts that these incidents place on all those involved have to be taken into account. Combined with financial impacts on lost time, production delays in work output and the pressures and scrutiny placed on management, these effects continue to increase exponentially every year. So if every rope tech is able to admit “human error” plays into incidents occurring or nearly happening … what steps can be taken to slow down? Shitty businesses and bosses will always exist. What WE do makes the difference in a workplace’s attitude to safety: and a supportive environment given the constant heightened awareness for safe processes is vital.

So after readying this thread online, hearing Ben’s disappointment in the news article at how he was misquoted, the discussions around workplaces with a ‘bad rep’, changes in law that don’t seem to be helping and a lingering feeling of helplessness in the situation …. I kinda just wanted to elaborate on the perception of safety in a workplace, where it might feel like you can’t make positive change without putting your job at risk. I would have placed this post directly in the thread, but it got … a little long.

So; TLDR on this one. It’s a bit of a read, and I’m delving a little deep around the question…

“why is it important to manage safety?”

Ultimately – we all want to go home at the end of the day. So, if we consider the possible effects of an incident occurring, if we think about who might be affected and how they might be affected we can look at it from two perspectives: personal and company. 

From a personal point of view, well, I’d like to hope we all care enough about our colleagues, to want to have safety managed safely. There’s potentially a reputational cost to you. There’s a personal cost if an incident occurs: mentally, physically, emotionally, and yes, potentially financial impact, from down time off work to recover, medical costs, but it even goes over to possible jail time or fines depending on the incident. There’s also a huge moral compass in play – the why we manage safety should accompany this moral compass. There’s a hell of a lot going on from a personal perspective when it comes to the importance of safety on site. 

From a company …. It’s a bit more streamlined. Reputation, costs of time, lost projects, legal fees, fines, financial implications etc. Financial tends to be the motivator for companies to place an importance on safety.

If we simplify it, it really is three things for both personal and company perspectives: Moral, Legal and Financial.

We all have a duty of care under the WHS Act: responsibilities to the health and safety of those you work with, supervise, manage, or employ. There is also a responsibility to the health and safety of anyone else who may be affected by your work too.

So … it’s important to manage work safely because businesses, and supervisors and employees have a legal responsibilityto do so. There is a personal (moral) expectation to look after others and yourself. There are financial implications to individuals and the business. 

As a manager or supervisor … your responsibilities are to look after the health and safety of those you manage and anyone else that may be affected by your work. You’re the company representative, and responsible for safety decisions. 

It’s important to understand legal implications and our duty of care. The WHS Act is the law (i.e. legal duty of care) and Regulations provide guidance on how to meet the requirements of a law (i.e. you must). That’s why you might commonly hear “Acts and Regulations” in the same sentence. 

For workers, what does the law require you to do? 

There are two types of statutory duty in Health and Safety law:

:- Absolute -: this means that under any circumstances these duties must be complied with.
:- Qualified -: two terms are used to qualify a duty:

  • “practicable’ which means that if something is technically feasible it should be done; and,
  • “reasonably practicable” that allows for a balance of risk vs cost.

The principles of law are fairness and justice, and this is reflected in the significance given to the use of the words ‘reasonable and practicably’ within the law. The minimum you need to do is comply with the law, as the law sets the boundaries within which companies must operate. Our managers and supervisors need to assess ‘reasonably practicable’ risks and put in place control measure to reduce the risks so far as is ‘reasonably practicable’.

The WHS Act places a duty of care upon employers, employees, the self-employed and those on control of ‘premises’ to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of themselves and of other persons who may be affected by their acts or omissions at work. As I mentioned earlier, the Act is then support by a series of Regulations that place specific duties of requirements upon those in charge of and carrying out work. 

And fuuuuu …. The words ’reasonably practicable’ both make me happy and make me hate everything. Why? well … ‘reasonably practicable’ allows for a business to balance risk vs cost. 

What are some examples of that balance? Well, we have our job descriptions, which provide guidance on the roles and responsibilities we have to an organisation. We have systems in place to increase worker safety – through training and qualifications (to ensure a worker is competent to perform a task), we have all the glorious paperwork around a job, SWMS, toolbox talks, safety briefings, codes of practice, standards that give guidance on minimum requirements, we also have equipment that meets the requirements of the job and has been tested / manufactured to a standard appropriate for the task it is designed to perform, and as long as the user is competent to use the equipment, it further supports the balance of risk and cost. 

An example? Well if you invest in equipment, invest in training, you reduce the risk of misuse of equipment. 

We have a duty of care to refuse to use equipment supplied by an employer if it does not meet the requirements of the job or meet standards in place (such as ASNZ or EN standards). 

We have a duty of care to ensure training is undertaken in the use of equipment or access methodologies: and if you don’t know how something works – you have every right to get that training.

We have a duty of care to read and understand all the contents of a SWMS, and if you do not agree with the measures put in place to control a hazard, you, and your supervisors, have a duty of care to discuss this, to understand how it may be improved, and to agree and implement a solution that is fit for purpose and meets that glorious catch phrase of ‘reasonably practicable’.

And I completely understand it can feel hella awkward asking someone to stop a job to train or teach you in how something is used, or to ask why something is being done in a certain way that you’ve not seen before or is unsafe. 

But I revert to the question “why is it important to manage safety?”. 

And my answer is because I have a duty of care to ensure work is undertaken safely. And that means I can say no, I won’t put myself at risk by doing what the SWMS says. Let’s discuss it again and come up with a safer way of doing it. And this is why I mentioned earlier in the comments on the thread, that workers can and should care about safety – and that our actions can and do play into making a workplace culture of safety, actually safer.

What WE do makes the difference in a workplace’s attitude to safety: and a supportive environment given the constant heightened awareness for safe processes is vital. Because we all have a duty of care to GAF.

The ‘responsibilities’ might change from being a level 1, or new to the business, through to a Level 3 supervisor or a rope access manager – but the duty of care you have to your colleagues and the business and yourself still exists.

Which means that you can, and should speak up if you see unsafe work practices at any level within an organisation because it is important to continue to promote, encourage and manage safety.

If it’s all a bit too daunting to speak up, there are other ways of ensuring your employer is looking out for you: when a company has invested in attaining external accreditation to certifying bodies such as ISO and IRATA International – these external audits are extensive, and delve deep to ensure the company has the right systems in place to ensure access methodologies, quality management systems, health, safety and environmental standards are maintained. They provide an unbiased check on the business to ensure they comply with local legislative requirements as well as international best practice standards. So always keep an eye out for rope access companies that have these external accreditations; they can mean a bit more effort is made to ensure worker safety.

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