Safety and compliance on a timber construction site

Safety & compliance on a timber construction site

The timber construction industry is bound by the same health and safety regulations as they apply to the rest of the construction sector. When on site, workers should be fitted out with their PPE (or personal protection equipment), which includes items like hard hats, safety harnesses safety gloves, safety boots, overalls, safety goggles and earplugs, where applicable.

Article by Werner Slabbert Snr, Director of Cape Timber Frame Homes.

Based on my understanding of safety regulations, should a house under construction be a double-storey house or taller, then the construction project in question must be registered with the Department of Labour’s Occupational Health & Safety division. Registration of the project must occur before any construction commences; this involves an enrolment fee and renders the project subject to bi-weekly visits (days and times at random) by the assigned Health & Safety officer, who will do his/her necessary inspections for compliance.

Equipment training

There are also health and safety regulations governing the use of equipment on site. Every person on site must have the necessary training to use the equipment that they are expected to use. The individual needs to have successfully completed a CETA (Construction Education and Training Authority) accredited training course on how to use a particular piece of equipment, like a drill, or a circular saw, for example. Training on the use of equipment is generally quite broad, and covers a few items of equipment at a time. The training certificates must be inserted into the Health & Safety file and remain on site. The same applies to what aspect of the project with which a worker is involved; if he is building walls, he must be trained and qualified to build walls.

First aid

It is mandatory to have a government regulation DC05 first aid kit on site that is fully stocked at all times. It is also imperative to always have a trained and certified first aid person on site. Their certificate needs to be renewed every 2 or 3 years, depending on the course, after having taken a refresher course. This certificate should also be inserted into the Health & Safety file and kept on site at all times.

Working at heights

Floor/sub-structure elevation:

Project managers must ensure that construction sites are hazard free as far as possible. In the case of a timber structure, workers are not allowed to walk along the timber beams that will later support the permanent floor structure. Temporary floor boards must be put in place, which should be made accessible by temporary stairs complete with handrails.

Safety harnesses:

Safety harnesses form part of PPE. Safety harnesses are prescribed for use when working at heights of 1m or more. This is not always practical, but it is the law.


Scaffolding is to be erected by an accredited scaffold erector who must have been on a scaffold erecting course and be in possession of a valid certificate. It is best practice for this certificate to be renewed every two years, subject to refresher training, and must be kept in a file on site at all times.

It is essential for scaffolding on site to be declared safe for use by the scaffold erector, who will display a green sign denoting the scaffolding is safe for use, or a red sign, indicating the scaffolding is unsafe and should not be used.

In some unfortunate cases, the owner or builder might wish to cut corners and save on costs by using site-made scaffolding; this usually comprises a piece of wood nailed to a wall with the addition of cross sections supporting a regular Pine plank across upon which to walk. This is a very dangerous practice and it is not legal or fair to allow people to conduct their work from such a construction.

Scaffolding must be erected to standard and considered safe by the scaffold erector for use. If it is too costly for the builder or owner to invest in their own scaffolding, there is the option to hire scaffolding. Putting people’s lives and safety at risk is simply not worth the ‘savings’ of shoddy, site-made scaffolding.

The Toolbox Talk

The Toolbox Talk is held every morning on site before work begins. It Is conducted by the assigned site health and safety officer and runs for about 15 to 20 minutes. In this meeting, individuals are assigned their tasks for the day, explained what potential hazards may come with each of these duties and how to prevent from getting hurt. The health and safety officer must also ensure that everyone has – and is appropriately utilising – their PPE. This is an essential part of the Toolbox Talk.

Once complete, everyone in attendance must sign the register, agreeing that they have understood the Toolbox Talk, that they fully understand the dangers that can come with the day’s work and that they will take all necessary precautions and measures to prevent from hurting themselves or causing any harm or danger for anyone else on site. This register must be attached to the Health & Safety file and be available for inspection at any given time by the designated Health & Safety inspectors.

It is mandatory to have a health and safety officer on site and it is important to make sure that the workers have everything they need to do their work, as well as instructions on what to do for the day and a good understanding of the safety hazards that come with their tools and jobs.

The more you talk about safety, people will more rapidly and effectively implement safer building habits. We know that habits eventually become behaviours and behaviours are the cornerstone of work ethos. In this case, the daily Toolbox Talk aims to instil an ethos of safety on site – always.

Note: Make sure all the tools are in good condition. It is unfair to expect high quality work from an individual using tools that are of a low quality or in disrepair. Poorly maintained tools can also pose a serious safety risk to the operator, (for example, a circular saw that has a missing blade cover or even one that is not working properly) putting the construction site at risk as well.

Sobriety and proper rest

While it may not be essential, I feel that all construction sites should have blood alcohol breathalysers and rapid drug screen tests on hand for random testing. It is not safe for anyone under the influence of alcohol or drugs to operate power tools or to work at heights. If an individual on site is found to be under the influence, they should not be permitted to work that day.

It is also important to me that my staff are well rested before they arrive on site. Proper rest helps with alertness; an alert person will do more accurate work and make fewer, potentially hazardous mistakes.

Health & Safety file and compliance

The health and safety file, issued to the project by the Health & Safety office of the Department of Labour prior to commencement of construction work, must be kept on site at all times. This file, created by a specialist in the field, contains information pertaining to that specific site detailing the potential hazards that could be posed by the work taking place on the site. Such a file costs in the region of R5000 and must be issued before any work can commence.

Risks of non-compliance

Non-compliance with health and safety regulations first and foremost puts your staff in danger of being physically hurt or worse. From a legal perspective, if your site is found to be non-compliant from a health and safety standpoint, the safety officer will issue a citation and, depending on the severity of non-compliance, your site runs the risk of being shut down.

Workmen’s Compensation is crucial to have as a construction company. The fund offers a kind of insurance that will pay out in the event that an accident or fatality occurs on site and everything is found to be compliant. Should an employee have been hurt, they may not necessarily inspect the site, but should a fatality occur, the site will be shut down and inspected.

In the event of an accident or fatality on a construction site found to be non-compliant, the owner of the construction company stands a good chance that the Department of Labour’s Workmen’s Compensation Fund will not pay out and he/she will have to foot the bill for any damages or compensation. This could easily bankrupt a business.

Ensuring proper health and safety measures on site is a small price to pay to ensure compliance with the law, but also to show respect to one’s employees and to foster high quality work. The consequences of non-compliance are a dangerous and potentially fatal work environment for your staff, a precursor to shoddy work and a serious risk not worth taking at any cost.

First published in Timber iQ.