Safe Work at Height

Build it from the ground up

by Jason Woods

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Users and contractors across the Middle East have embraced powered access equipment as one of the safest ways to conduct temporary work at height. Project managers, supervisors, operators and regulators are committed to making work at height as safe as it can be, which is laudable, but challenges remain. Powered access is safe, providing it’s underpinned by proper planning, risk assessment and management, and the selection of equipment appropriate to the task, used by operators and overseen by supervisors who have undergone quality training.

Falls from height are a leading cause of workplace injuries and fatalities around the world; so as one of the safest methods of carrying out temporary work at height, it is perhaps no surprise that the powered access industry is thriving, whether in established markets such as the US, the UK and Europe, or in booming new ones such as the Middle East, China and wider South-East Asia.

“was it really the operator that did something wrong, or were there underlying problems with the planning or management of the job?”

Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) are increasingly safe and sophisticated in design – there is a piece of equipment available for almost every conceivable work at height requirement, from push-around scissor lifts designed for indoor use, to truckmounted booms that can move up to six people to heights of more than 100m.

There are relatively few accidents involving the use of powered access equipment. Those that do occur are often blamed on operator error, but what does that mean? Was it really the operator that did something wrong and avoidable, or were there underlying problems with the planning or management of the job?

Learning from trends

It’s important to analyse accidents involving MEWPs worldwide to look for trends and learn from them. Research indicates that all too often the underlying cause of accidents is a manager choosing the wrong type of equipment or asking an operator who is not trained to carry out a poorly planned job. In many cases, ‘operator error’ can be traced back to a manager or supervisor’s mistake.

The simplest solution is for all managers and supervisors to undergo basic training on how to properly plan and organise the safe use of MEWPs. And the first thing anyone planning temporary work at height using MEWPs should do is to ensure the people being asked to operate the equipment are correctly trained and familiarised on the machines they will use.

Of course, operator training can vary in terms of quality and the rigour of the assessment involved in obtaining the qualification. There are training companies who claim to be able to have an operator trained and passed as competent within a few short hours, but given the thorough grounding required in basic safety knowledge, theory of operation and the practical element required to test that knowledge, such a short course simply isn’t viable. There’s a reason this sort of thing is often referred to as a “crash course” – and a crash involving powered access equipment is best avoided at all costs.

Increasingly, contractors on major projects in the region, and indeed many of their clients, are demanding stringent safety measures in place and requiring the highest standard of training and risk management on their work sites. Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal and UAE mega project Expo2020 are some of the key projects welcoming IPAF-trained MEWP operators.

“As of September 2019, Dubai Municipality launched two technical guidance notes in relation to MEWPs and Mast Climbing Work Platforms (MCWPs), aimed at improving safety standards by requiring contractors to follow the new guidelines,” says Jason Woods, IPAF’s Middle East Representative.

These guidance notes state that MEWP operators must hold a valid IPAF PAL card, supervisors must be trained in areas key to managing MEWP operations, and MEWP rental companies must comply by ensuring delivery staff hold demonstrator, load and unload licences. All boom-lift operators must wear a correct lanyard and harness, mandating additional training for the user. It was also stated that training should be renewed every two years.

“Where training is mandated there are always going to be companies that claim they can certify operators quickly and cheaply – sometimes taking just a few hours – to minimise employees’ time off the job,” Woods continues.

“However, this only heightens risk, putting workers’ lives in jeopardy and increasing the likelihood of costly standdowns while the cause of the accident’s investigated and new machines and operators called in.

“Contractors and project managers aren’t daft, they know that if an accident occurs, the work site grinds to a halt while the accident is investigated, so supposed time and cost savings when it comes to proper training, risk assessment or planning are a false economy.

“It is critically important for managers and supervisors and all employees and sub-contractors to be professionally trained. This means fewer stoppages and minimises the risk of people being injured or killed.

“There is no excuse for cutting corners where safety is concerned, and no defence after an accident occurs for not validating or verifying that qualifications were bona fide and of sufficient standard to prepare the operator to work safely and well.”

Key safety elements

There are many key elements to managing work at height using powered access safely, including the following.

Have a MEWP-specific safe-use plan

A MEWP-specific safe-use plan takes a systematic approach to overall safety for all persons operating or occupying a MEWP, persons and other equipment in the work area, and the safety of any person, such as the general public, not involved directly with MEWP operations but adjacent to or likely to come into proximity of the work area.

It will address how you can prevent accidents and improve the productive use of the equipment. MEWPs are a safe means to gain temporary access to work at height, providing that:

  • A site risk assessment is performed to identify hazards, evaluate risk, develop control measures – to include a rescue plan – and communicate with affected persons that suitable equipment is selected for the task to be performed • The correct selection, provision and use of a suitable MEWP and work equipment associated with it is made • Access, preparation and maintenance of the site, as required, is identified and scheduled to include an assessment that the ground is adequate to support the weight of the MEWP • MEWP maintenance, including inspection(s) and repairs as required, are scheduled and conducted by qualified persons
  • All personnel are properly trained as a MEWP operator or supervisor as applicable, and all occupants receive correct occupant knowledge
  • Trained MEWP operator(s) are only authorised to work after being familiarised with the specific MEWP to be used
  • All MEWP operators are informed of local site requirements, warned about and provided with the means to protect against identified hazards in the areas where the MEWP will be operated
  • A trained and qualified supervisor(s) is assigned to monitor the work of the operators
  • Processes are in place to prevent unauthorised use of the MEWPs
  • Consideration and actions are in place to address the safety of persons not involved in the operation of the MEWP
  • All required documentation is completed and maintained

Developing the plan is also not the end result in itself, rather it is vital to ensure that the proper practical implementation and verification of compliance with the plan that is needed. For instance, it is not enough to name a qualified supervisor of MEWP operations in the plan, managers should ensure that qualifications are verified and the supervisor actually overlooks the MEWP operations adequately as they take place.

A risk assessment is a systematic process of identifying potential hazards and evaluating potential risks that may be involved in completing an activity.

“the global Street Smart safety campaign outlines the heightened risks of using MEWPs on or near roads”

This is where a safe-use plan shows its value, as a risk assessment has multiple stages to complete it correctly, including having a rescue plan in place when working at height. Successful risk assessments, a key component of any good safe-use plan, require details on how to physically carry out the risk assessment, who will complete it and who is responsible for communicating it to everyone else involved.

Report accidents and near-misses

This could save a life. Reporting of near-misses, safety breaches and accidents can help identify the main causes of injuries and deaths, and to ensure measures in place to identify and manage these risks are adequate and appropriate. Typically, the most common causes of fatalities in accidents involving powered access are falls from height, electrocution, entrapment, overturn of machines and being struck by another vehicle or machine.

Near misses can also be valuable in terms of safety learning, so it is important that companies foster an environment where managers, operators or subcontractors feel empowered to report things that have gone wrong.

Blame culture isn’t conducive to encouraging good reporting of nearmisses or accidents. IPAF encourages all MEWP operators or managers to participate in this by reporting all incidents at www.ipaf.org/accidents and together make a real impact in reducing these recurrent causes. Information reported via the IPAF portal is in strict confidence and completely anonymous.

Be street smart

MEWPs aren’t solely operated on a controlled work site or commercial premises such as a factory, warehouse, processing or power plant; they are also used in public areas, alongside roads, rail or airports or in pedestrianised areas, retail parks or business zones.

The global Street Smart safety campaign outlines the heightened risks of using MEWPs on or near roads. With the risk of being struck by a passing vehicle such as bus or truck, prior planning is needed so MEWPs can operate safely. Being hit by a bus or truck while operating a MEWP is a leading cause of serious injury or death, according to the latest analysis of global.

MEWP accident statistics. Key points of safety guidance include:

  • Plan ahead – assess risk; develop and use a traffic management scheme.
  • Be visible – wear hi-vis PPE to position cones/signs. Ensure vehicles are conspicuous (use flashing beacons/rear chevrons) and work areas are well lit
  • Manage traffic – use temporary traffic lights or close roads to separate the working area. Use signs/cones for maximum warning to oncoming vehicles
  • Implement an exclusion zone – segregate the working area from passing vehicles. Position the MEWP so it does not overhang into traffic
  • Load and unload safely – in a well-lit area, away from traffic or obstructions. When unloading next to a road, make sure it is segregated from traffic

The campaign highlights key risks and how to avoid them. Further guidance is available on using MEWPs alongside roads with detail on risks and safe operating procedures. For more information on all of IPAF’s safety campaigns see their website.

Brief your workforce with vital safety information

Delivering key safety messages to your workers on a regular basis is important, whether the team conducting work at height is experienced, or relatively new to the job. Even the most experienced workers can become complacent through familiarity, so a regular update focusing on specific risks and ways to manage them can ensure everyone is focused.

IPAF produces a series of Andy Access Safety posters for use in break rooms or on work sites. The posters are free to download, can be modified to carry your company’s logo, and are available in multiple languages. See the full range of posters, download them free from www.ipaf.org/Andy Access and use them in daily or weekly safety briefings.

IPAF has also recently started publishing a series of safety presentations called Toolbox Talks, to allow health and safety managers or site supervisors to get key messages across at the start of a shift. The talks are very short, being based on a single sheet of paper, with bulletpoints aimed at conveying best practice guidance and safety advice based on IPAF’s own technical and safety publications and supported by the Andy Access safety posters.

The first release schedule saw topics including MEWP Familiarisation, MEWP Pre-Use Inspections and MEWP Rescue Plans covered in Toolbox Talks and translated into Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and simplified Chinese. Download them free from www.ipaf.org/ToolboxTalk

Author Details

Jason Woods

Jason Woods is IPAF’s Middle East Representative, based in Dubai. With over 28 years’ experience in the access industry gained with equipment manufacturers, rental companies and training bodies, his key role with IPAF is to promote safe use of powered access equipment throughout industry and develop IPAF membership across the Middle East.