We often take for granted what is involved for workers to erect and repair structures which are high above the ground. Domestically, just a mere climb up a ladder or the roof is considered a daunting experience. Just imagine then, the level of heights involved in the construction of a skyscraper. The Federated Mutual Assurance Company RF (Pty) Ltd (FEM) highlights the accidents in the sector. It works closely with organisations like the Institute for Working at Heights (IWH) and Master Builders Association (MBA), who offer training on the necessary precautions against falling from heights (FFH) accidents. No building should come at the price of human lives.


A comparative study between the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa (SA) found that research conducted in the UK by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) determined indirect costs of FFH accidents to be 11 times their direct costs; while research conducted in SA by the Nelson Mandela University determined indirect costs to be 14.2 times the direct costs. In the UK the accident costs are also determined as the equivalent of 8.5 % of the project tender price and approximately 5 % of the annual organisational running costs. Comparatively in SA the total cost of accidents is estimated to be approximately 5 % of the value of completed construction. In a nutshell, FFH accidents is an expense which is morbid, mortal and financial.

To shed more light on the prevalence of FFH incidents, FEM highlights the key categories to be falling from agents, surfaces and buildings:

  • Fall from agents includes scaffolds and ladders;
  • Fall from surfaces involves falling from platforms, openings, walkways, skylights, and other frequently used objects; and
  • Falls from buildings is the most hazardous when working at height due to overlapping factors, which include wind velocity, structure height, risky activities, and workers’ attitudes.

These risk factors are so comprehensive as to require proactive interventions. For all intents, work taking place any time from when a worker leaves the ground to do a certain job is considered work from heights. In addition, primary contributing factors to mortalities caused by FFH include age, attempted suicide, height of fall, type of ground on which the patient fell, place of fall, and head, thoracic, and abdominal trauma.

To further equip companies to mitigate FFH accidents, IWH is committed to regulated and controlled training of all persons exposed to the risks of working at height, strictly in accordance with the requirements of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). These services include being awarded professional designations and becoming registered practitioners of the Institute, being bound by a code of conduct that is administered by the Institute.

According to the Institute, any practitioner that is found guilty of a serious breach of this code can have their professional designation revoked by the professional body. All complaints against unsafe working practices by registered practitioners that are received by the Institute will be investigated by its rules committee. Accredited training providers are carefully monitored to ensure that the training standard offered meets with the requirements of the NQF and those of the Institute. The aim is to provide peace-of-mind for clients that make use of the services of such registered practitioners.

What is often overlooked is the associated costs of such accidents which are for both individual and company expense:

  • The individual is often faced with medical expenses not covered by Compensation for Occupational and Diseases Act No 130 of 1993 (COIDA), income shortage, no future career growth due to disability, no lifestyle improvement for the surviving spouse and limited education options for children.
  • On the company front, there is the loss of rebates and possible loadings (increased premiums), additional expenses to make the site safer, cleaning up and repairing the damage or faults, immediate staff downtime and lost work time, third-party investigations; and salaries for replacement workers. The most far-reaching costs for the employer are loss of company reputation, loss of profits, loss of skills and union interventions.

In sum, this problem covers several aspects which make FFH the leading cause of risky construction and task complexity or hardship diverting workers’ attention while at significant heights:

  • Individual characteristics that contribute to FFH include dynamic are age, gender, and weight, knowledge level (education and experience), human behaviours and attitudes, physical characteristics, and health (e.g., chronic disease and fatigue).
  • Site conditions are defects in the work surface, such as unprotected walkways, improper guardrails, slippery or sloped surfaces; unexpected modifications in surface properties; and insufficient lighting or illumination on night-shifts, which affect the visibility of the surroundings.
  • Organisation or management aspects involve small companies that might have improper safety measures or standards, such as insufficient or inoperative personal protective equipment (PPE), personal fall arrest systems (PFAS), defective safety belts or harnesses, and lack of training courses offered, especially for safety; riskier work usually conducted by small to medium sized companies rather than by large companies due to job distributions and time planning or saving; a lack of capability or of resources of contractor or sub-contractors also leads to FFH; inadequate or inoperative safety equipment, improper use of this equipment, non-availability of protective resources and procedures will lead to FFH; project timelines or shift work generate pressure on workers’ attitudes or behaviours to complete on time or ahead of schedule
  • Agents involved are scaffolds and ladders which are used to perform construction tasks at height. Primarily problems are positioning scaffolds and ladders in a risky manner which might cause construction worker fatalities. Also scaffolds can be very dangerous when they are improperly used or erected as well as prolonged construction activities on a scaffold or ladder with an unreliable design.
  • Finally, weather or environmental conditions in some cases contribute to FFH incidents.

After this detailed account of how precarious and prevalent FFH accidents are, the good news is that there are strategies to curb this preventable eventuality. Passive strategies include, on-site precautionary measures, education and training, and analysing the fall accidents data for future plans. Proactive methods are additional education and training, safety training courses for the workers, seminars and talks focusing on work at height risks, minimizing the amount of hazardous agents, researching and restudying to improve unsafe designs, regular safety regulations revisions, and regular inspections.

The South African Construction Regulations stipulates that every work site must have a Fall Protection Plan that amongst other includes all the following elements:

  1. TRAINING for working at height
  2. EQUIPMENT for working at height
  3. RESCUE PROCEDURES for working at height

FEM is still seeing accidents which are entirely preventable if there was proper planning and foresight. People are still being killed in foreseeable accidents involving falling from heights, being struck by objects or equipment and the biggest cause in respect of fatalities – motor vehicle accidents. Training and education, together with the provision of PPE and correct supervision will result in fewer accidents. A suitably trained individual is less likely to have an accident. The industry needs to take greater responsibility for controlling the risks that it creates.

More about FEM

Founded in 1936, the Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (RF) Pty Limited (FEM) is a legacy brand that provides specialist insurance cover to construction companies and their employees against injuries or illnesses contracted in the workplace. FEM is an independent company outside of the Workmen Compensation Fund that offers this kind of insurance to the construction industry.

As a mutual, FEM is owned by its policyholders, and any profits that the company yields, are reinvested in its policyholders, in the form of complimentary additional benefits, or annual rebates.

FEM’s services are centred on two key cornerstones, to be both passionate and compassionate. The company is mindful of the fact that when employees are injured, they need to have the assurance that their benefits and their medical bills are paid out speedily, so that they can focus on their recovery with peace of mind. For more information about FEM, visit www.fem.co.za or contact (011) 359 4300.

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