Health & Safety Update January 201724 Jan 2017
The Big Issue for 2017 – Work at Height
Following visits by the HSE to exhibitions and events in 2016, it is clear that working at height (WAH) will be a key safety issue and whilst it would be an exaggeration to state that this is an existential threat to the events and exhibitions industry, heavy handed enforcement requiring significant modification of stands and/or higher costs could drive away business. This month’s brief looks in depth at the problem.
WAH is any work at any height where a fall could lead to injury and this reflects current law. For the most this involves work on ladders, scaffolds, mechanical access equipment, and work on live edges such as double deck structures. Rigging is related but is a separate issue in this context.
The moral duty to prevent harm is clear but the new problem is that convergence of several recent changes in law have brought us to the point where enforcement action by the HSE or other agency could potentially lead to disproportionate financial losses. Following the introduction of CDM, the HSE has embarked a review of exhibition construction activities. They are on record as stating that, following the review, they regard the industry as ‘high risk’ and that from the samples they have taken 70% of the WAH they have looked at could be regarded as ‘actionable violations’. It may reasonably be assumed that their visits will change from informal visits as part of a review in 2016 to formal visits resulting in enforcement action in 2017.
The New Legal Position
Part of the legal problem is that new sentencing guidelines mean that the size of fine now relates to the ‘potential’ for harm rather than necessarily any actual harm that may arise and the size of the organization. Most exhibitions and events involve large organisations and in almost all cases a fall from above 2 or 3 metres which is quite possible during the build, is likely to be regarded as having a high level of potential harm. Even if all other health and safety aspects are regarded as being in order, the start point for an organisation with a turnover of over £50 million is likely to be a £600,000 fine even if the incident did not result in injury. HSE relevant guidance* is clear and they have shown themselves to take a by the book approach. In short there is a high potential for a heavy fine following an incident or a visit by the HSE related to WAH. This is not theoretical. In September 2016, a warehouse operator was fined £2.2 million after a worker was killed falling 2.5m from the unguarded edge of a loading bay in circumstances which are replicated at event builds every day.
It must be acknowledged that the HSE have a point. WAH practices in the industry are far from ideal. Much of which the HSE would consider actionable, particularly the unsafe use of ladders, could be prevented with better site discipline. Notwithstanding, the HSE has not made the case that there is a problem to be fixed in terms of reducing injury other than to improve working practices and enforce health and safety law. UK law allows businesses to decide on what is ‘reasonably practicable’ based on a balance of risk versus costs. There is an obvious gap between what the HSE regard as reasonably practicable and the current industry view.
* Working at Height – a brief Guide INDG401. Safe Use of Ladders and Step Ladders INDG455.
Work on Live Edges
Working on a live edge created by a double deck structure highlights the problem regarding what is reasonably practical. The HSE’s view and the view of some event safety professionals, is that all those working at height must be fully protected either by handrails or by being clipped on to a harness without exception. Solutions are likely to be costly in terms of time, money or both. There are also practical difficulties as follows:
- attempts to put up temporary hand rails are almost wholly ineffective because they are usually structurally unsound and in any case require those installing them to work on the pre-existing live edge
- the need to fit carpets and other work means that workers have to lean through and under the temporary rail rendering them totally redundant
- removing the temporary rail prior to fitting the permanent rail increases the risk by increasing the need to work on the edge
- temporary rails on platforms alone do not account for the need to fit them on the stairs that access them.
One proposed solution is that each platform has a drop wire onto which workers can harness. Aside from the cost of these additional rigging drops it is not clear how this would account for the need for multiple workers and the irregular shapes of the platforms including staircases. It might be possible to harness to a rigging point fixed to the floor but this would require a certificated rigging point in the middle of the floor that presumably would be about to be carpeted. These solutions may have merit in certain circumstances, particularly for longer builds, and should not be totally ignored but they appear to be likely to be expensive in terms of time and money. None the less the suggestion should be explored further since they cannot be discounted on the grounds of practicability unless the costs have been determined.
It must be understood that the HSE have an issue with ladders. They are all but banned from construction sites and are certainly not used as the events industry does moving them around a project without being tied off or fixed. The HSE mindset is that ladders should be used for temporary maintenance work where no other form of access is practical. HSE guidance is Safe Use of Ladders and Step Ladders INDG455.
The eGuide should be regarded as best practice. It states:
All reasonable steps should be taken to eliminate or minimise the risks associated with work at height through efficient work planning and selection and use of safe working platforms or other suitable equipment, including ladders and stepladders. Where work at height cannot be avoided, safe means of access and safe systems of working must be used. As far as steps and ladders are concerned, the following should be considered:
- What they are to be used for
- Industrial quality and not domestic
- Duration of the work
- Training and abilities of users
Ladders can be used as working platforms when it is not reasonably practicable to use alternative means and a risk assessment identifies the activity to be undertaken is low risk.
Ladders must be used in accordance with manufacturer's instructions at all times. Additionally, the following guidelines must be followed:
- Leaning ladders must be placed at the correct angle
- Ladders should only be used on level ground and must be secure e.g. suitably tied or, as a last resort, footed
- The top treads or steps must not be used as a platform for work
- Users should face the ladder at all times whilst climbing or dismounting Stepladders should not be used sideways-on where sideways loads are applied
- Only one person should climb or work from a ladder or a stepladder
- Users should not overreach
- Steps and ladders should be checked for suitability and defects each time they are used
‘Industrial quality’ means Class I or Commercial grade not Class III (Domestic) grade. Ladders which are demonstrably equivalent should be acceptable provided they are in a working condition and fit for purpose (though the HSE may not necessarily agree). It should be possible to prohibit the use of ladders that fail this test and require the contractor to acquire the use of a compliant ladder through a hire service. The eGuide does not set an unreasonably high bar for compliance and is a good start point for improvement regarding ladders which can be enforced by the floor managers.
Thus far, the HSE have indicated that action will be taken against offenders, however there is a limit to the extent to which the HSE will tolerate endemic WAH violations by contractors and exhibitors before they take issue with, and possibly legal action against, the organiser. CDM places clear responsibility for overall site management on the organiser and senior management within the organiser’s structure. Heavy punitive action against the organisers will hurt everyone’s business in the long run.
Any changes to the way this problem is approached will need to be reflected in the eGuide and thus have the venues’ acceptance in the same way that the adoption of the revision to BS7671 on electrical inspection and testing became enshrined in the eGuide and stopped short of full compliance strictly required by law.
The inevitable conclusion is that there is no ‘do nothing option’ and that some accommodation must be found between strict compliance with the law and best practice and an exhibitor base that needs to build complex stands in a reasonable timeframe. It is also clear that a solution will only be found if leading organisers, venues and contractors work together to find one.
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