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    GROUNDWORK SAFETY ISSUES

    “It’ll only take a minute”

    The text below formed the basis of an opinion piece by Philip Poynter published in Construction News on 18th December 2008.

    “Groundwork is an inherently dangerous business. Excavators and excavations present a significant potential for harm and illustrate some of the health and safety challenges that construction industry managers, specialists and regulators grapple with to make further progress. There is no quick fix for any construction hazard. Developing the right mix of technical, managerial and people based initiatives will reap the greatest rewards.

    Excavators – are involved in more fatal injuries than any other item of construction mobile plant. There have been over 30 excavator related construction sector deaths in the last 10 years with the majority caused when the workman was struck by the excavator bucket or arm. Others occurred as the vehicle was reversing, going forward, slewing or when it overturned. 

    Keeping people well away from a working excavator is a key precaution and accident investigations frequently find that poor separation of pedestrians and vehicles is a significant factor. However, it is common and often necessary, for a banksman or ground worker to be near a busy excavator. Well-designed cabs with good visibility, mirrors, and CCTV can all help but where people are present the standard of planning, staff training and awareness must also be of the highest order.

    In 2007 semi-automatic quick hitches came to the fore after three deaths occurred when the excavator bucket became detached and struck a nearby worker. Excavator users and manufacturers responded promptly and worked with HSE to ensure that such quick hitches would no longer be supplied in the UK. This is the best solution to a safety problem. Remove the hazard at source with a technical fix that does not rely on humans who are prone to error. However, the hazard presented by the many semi-automatic quick hitches already in use remains, so the technical solution is limited and deals only with the longer term.

    Excavations – Other groundwork health and safety problems are even less amenable to a technical fix. In 2008 three construction workers died in collapsing excavations. Excavation safety relies on human assessment of the risk, decisions about the physical support required and action to implement and maintain the precautions.

    However, the hazard caused by unstable excavations is nothing new so surely these deaths all occurred on small, unregulated projects using unskilled and untrained migrant labour? Not so. The three deaths involved a range of construction projects: a commercial contract for a water company; a new housing development and; a small home extension. None of the deceased were migrant workers and one was a young soil engineer. Construction hazards do not discriminate by age, experience, country of origin or profession.

    How could it be that in 2008 three construction workers could lose their lives to such a well-known and obvious hazard? Why would anyone enter an unstable excavation and what can be done to avoid such tragic deaths? Here are some thoughts on the subject.

    • Probability: most people are poor at judging the likelihood of a serious incident happening. For example, bottoming out an unsupported excavation with a shovel has serious potential consequences but, “it will only take a minute”, and the probability of an incident occurring can therefore be perceived as low.
    • Experience: if supervisors, managers and directors condone dangerous practices it becomes “the way we do things here”. At least until something goes wrong. Familiarity breeds contempt especially when, for an individual, a serious incident will be a rare event.
    • Planning: hoping that ground workers will not enter an excavation is not an effective prevention strategy. Identification of what the work involves and thorough planning are the building blocks for success.
    • Communications: engaging, discussing and agreeing precautions with everyone is essential. Doing so encourages openness and understanding of working practices at the sharp end. When people take risks they usually do so out of lack of knowledge or a well intentioned desire to “get the job done”. This kind of attitude needs to be harnessed and channelled into desirable behaviours.
    • Accountability: fair and robust approaches are needed from contractors towards their own staff and by main contractors with their groundwork partners. Everyone needs to know what is acceptable and what is not and that their services will be dispensed with if they cannot live with those standards.

    So, next time someone working with a excavator or in an excavation says   “It’ll only take a minute” then take a further 5 minutes to think through what is being proposed because a fatal accident takes less than a second.

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