Ontario’s mandatory training program for construction workers who work at heights has led to a modest yet significant reduction in the rate of lost-time claims due to falls from heights—especially in small construction businesses and construction sectors with the most frequent fall injuries.
That’s according to a multi-part evaluation study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), which found a 20 per cent decline in falls targeted by the training. The study also found that the mandatory training had high uptake across the province and led to changes in safety practices among employers and workers.
We found that the effects of the intervention were greatest in the groups that most needed it—the smallest employers and the construction sectors with the highest rates of fall-related claims, says Dr. Lynda Robson, an IWH scientist and lead researcher on the project.
According to our study, it does seem that the regulated training program is moving the bar upwards in Ontario in terms of protecting construction workers from falls from heights.
Mandatory training announced in 2013
Working at heights is a common job task on Ontario construction projects. It is also a significant occupational health and safety hazard. While construction workers make up about eight per cent of Ontario’s labour force, they account for 22 per cent of injury claims related to falls from heights that result in time off work. In December 2013, in response to a number of high-profile work-related deaths due to falls from heights, the government of Ontario announced a new training program standard that came into force April 2015.
Under the new program—spelled out in regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act—employers are required to ensure that workers on construction projects who may use certain forms of fall protection successfully complete working-at-heights (WAH) training. The regulations specify that the training must include a basic theory module of at least three hours in length and a practical, hands-on module of at least 3.5 hours in length, delivered to no more than 12 learners at a time. Employers must use training providers and training programs approved by Ontario’s Chief Prevention Officer. The regulations included a transition period for workers who had previously completed fall protection training; employers had until October 1, 2017, to ensure those workers had taken the new training.
With funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL), Robson and her research team at IWH set out to answer two questions: to what extent has the province’s WAH training reached the target population, and what impact has the introduction of WAH training requirements had on fall prevention on construction projects? To answer these two main questions, the team examined data from six different sources, namely:
- MOL administrative records of WAH training (anonymized);
- an IWH survey of 87 training providers;
- an IWH survey of 390 employers of varying sizes and from different construction sectors;
- IWH surveys conducted one week, four weeks and seven weeks post-training of 633 workers, of varying levels of experience and from different construction sectors, all trained by the Infrastructure Health & Safety Association (IHSA) or their training partners;
- IWH interviews with 10 labour inspectors from five different Ontario regions; and
- workers’ compensation administrative records of lost-time claims, from Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).
According to the employer survey, conducted in the summer and fall of 2017, more than 90 per cent of construction companies reported that all employees who ever used fall protection equipment had enrolled in or completed their WAH training. That level of compliance was found for both large and small employers.
According to MOL administrative records, 420,000 Ontario workers had been trained by the October 2017 training deadline. Of these, 78 per cent were from the construction sector, as estimated by the study’s survey of training providers. Putting those two numbers together—78 per cent of 420,000—suggests that about 70 per cent of all workers in Ontario’s construction sector completed the training. “This suggests a high degree of uptake by the target population,” says Robson.
The team’s survey of 633 learners found a large majority reported gaining new knowledge as a result of the WAH training. When asked how much information they learned, 52 per cent said “a lot” and 34 per cent reported “some”; only 13 per cent said “a little bit,” and only one per cent reported “none at all.”
This finding of a knowledge gain was backed up by pre- and post-training test scores provided by IHSA for 429 of 633 learners who gave their consent for the IWH research team to review their scores. A large improvement in knowledge was indicated by a 40 per cent increase in test scores, from a pre-training average test score of 6.8 (out of 10) to a post-training average test score of 9.5.
The IWH worker survey also asked learners how the training affected their confidence carrying out safety-related tasks when working at heights—for example, picking the right lanyard, setting up a travel restraint, using ladders safely, etc. For each of these practices, the majority (from 60 per cent to 87 per cent, depending on the practice) reported their confidence improved as a result of the training.
Changes in work practices
The study also found indications that the training led to safer work practices. Across the three worker surveys, respondents were asked how often they carried out 12 different safety practices targeted by the WAH training. These ranged from checking the worksite for fall hazards at the beginning of the shift to maintaining 100-per-cent tie-off of fall arrest equipment when working at heights.
The research team found statistically significant and meaningful improvements for 10 of the 12 practices. And these practices seemed to be enduring; improvements in practices were still being reported when the third survey was conducted seven weeks after the training.
For two of the 12 practices targeted by the training—using guardrails instead of fall arrest systems and using travel restraint systems—learners’ self-reported practices did not change substantially.
Employer survey responses also indicated practice changes as a result of the training. Out of 300 respondents whose employees had completed training, about 40 per cent said they bought new fall protection equipment, and 37 per cent said they made changes to their fall protection plans. When asked about worker or supervisor practices such as inspecting fall protection equipment or tying off, about 30 per cent said these practices occurred more often now, whereas 60 to 70 per cent said they occurred just as often now as before.
Impact on injuries
According to WSIB lost-time claims rates, the types of falls targeted by the WAH training—i.e. falls from ladders, off roofs or scaffolding, through openings in flooring, and other falls from heights—declined by 19.6 per cent between the 2012-2014 period and 2017. To make sure they were looking mostly at the effects of the training, the research team compared this decline to the trends for other types of falls not targeted by the training (e.g. falls on the same level or falls down stairs) and for other acute traumatic injuries (mostly contact with objects and equipment). Although the team found reductions in the rates of these other types of claims as well, the declines were much smaller: 2.1 per cent for untargeted falls and 7.2 per cent for other acute injuries, from 2012-2014 to 2017.
Among very small employers—those with fewer than five full-time equivalent employees (FTEs)—claim rates due to targeted falls declined by 36.7 per cent over the study period, compared to a decline of 4.2 per cent for untargeted falls and 21.9 per cent for other acute injuries. In contrast, for employers with 50-plus FTEs, the study team found a smaller decline in the rate of targeted falls (12.3 per cent), similar to the decline in untargeted falls and other acute injuries (11.5 and 9.5 per cent, respectively).
Among employers in the high-incidence rate group, a 22.2 per cent decline for targeted falls was found, compared to a 5.2 per cent increase in untargeted falls and a 7.7 per cent decline in other acute injuries. The types of work included in the high-incidence rate group include inside roofing, masonry, homebuilding, form work and demolition, siding and outside finishing, and inside finishing.
The study was unable to measure the impact of the mandatory training on fatalities due to falls from heights, as these numbers are too small to hold up to statistical analysis. Robson also noted that the study could not measure the full effect of the program on injury prevention since the most recent claims data available to the research team were from 2017, and the deadline for taking the mandatory training was October 2017.
‘Look beyond training’
The WAH evaluation study reinforces both the value of health and safety training as well as its limits, says Robson.
This training initiative met its objectives in reaching the target population, leading to safety practice changes and reducing the risk of falls on worksites, she says.
However, the findings also support what previous research has shown about health and safety training.
Training is necessary and is effective—but only up to a certain point,” Robson says.
Prevention efforts need to look beyond training. Preventing falls from heights is a tough challenge, in Ontario and elsewhere, especially with smaller employers in the residential sector. It will require multiple approaches and stakeholder prevention efforts to fully address it.