Steady On: Working at Height

Oct. 15, 2018
Inadequate equipment or lack of preparation for working at height activities can see serious repercussions for employees and employers

Aircraft maintenance can be major involving significant production processes, or consist of minor checks and repairs between flights. In any case, it is important that the engineering or operations managers ensure their teams of maintenance technicians and engineers are suitably equipped for all tasks that could be required, including working at height. Employers and managers alike need to understand that even a relatively small fall from height can result in significant injury, production loss, or fines.

The Risk of Injury

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) every year receives reports of workers in the aviation industry injuring themselves after falling from a height, with many incidents occurring during aircraft maintenance when entering or exiting the aircraft, working on or from service equipment. A significant proportion of the most serious accidents occur during aircraft turnaround, due to time pressures where there is increased activity needed to done.

Almost half of the fatal injuries over the last five years across workplaces generally in the UK were accounted for by just two different accident kinds, falling from height being the biggest issue. From 2012 – 2017 there was an average of 40 fatal injuries per year due to falls from height, 28 percent of the total number of fatal injuries recorded.

The hazards and risks involved in aviation maintenance work is often similar to those found in construction, however, the nonlinear shape of aircraft and intricate maintenance tasks employed by technicians to avoid damaging the surface or structure of the aircraft poses additional risks to their safety. Working at height is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

Business Implications

In 2015 Swissport GB, a subsidiary of Swiss ground and cargo handling services provider Swissport, was fined over £500,000 following two incidents at Luton Airport, one of which breached Work at Height Regulations. The incident occurred when a team leader was climbing a ladder loading cargo onto an aircraft using a high-loader, when his foot slipped and he fell backwards to the ground suffering an impact injury to his right foot. The Luton court heard that Swissport had failed to ensure that work at height on high-loaders was properly planned, appropriately supervised, or carried out in a safe manner.

More recently, Inflite Engineering Ltd. pleaded guilty and was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay costs of over £5,000 following two working at height injuries at Stansted Airport. One employee of Inflite Engineering Services and a worker from a temporary agency suffered broken bones when working from mobile elevated work platforms whilst conducting service checks on the tail of an airplane. The HSE investigation found “that no suitable risk assessment was in place and there was a lack of effective monitoring.”

Case in point that not only are there grave consequences for the worker when things go wrong, but inadequate equipment or lack of preparation for working at height activities can see serious repercussions for employers in the form of hefty legal fines and reputable damage.

Employer Responsibility

Whether working at height is a one-off task, or a part of an engineer’s day-to-day routine, a risk assessment must be carried out to identify any risks associated with the task so that suitable precautions can be implemented accordingly.

In 2005, new Work at Height Regulations were introduced, placing new legal responsibilities on employers to ensure that equipment, such as ladders and platforms, used to facilitate working at any height minimised the risk of falling and offered sufficient protection to workers.

Two years later, under the Work at Height (Amendment) Regulations 2007, wherever a worker is required to work at height, the employer, manager, project supervisor, foreman, or any person who controls the work of others must ensure:

• All work at height is properly planned and organised

• Those involved in work at height are competent

• The risks are assessed and appropriate work equipment is selected and used

• The risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled

• Equipment for work at height is properly inspected and maintained

It is the employer’s duty to ensure that the access equipment is safe for its employees and other people to use. Suitable and effective measures should be taken to prevent anyone falling a distance that might cause them personal injury. In addition, employers should not allow anyone to engage in any activity in relation to work at height unless they are competent to do so and have undertaken sufficient training. An employer who neglects or fails to minimise risk to ensure worker safety can be found liable if any employee in their care suffers a serious injury caused when working at height.

In order to best cater to safety needs of their workers, the HSE recommends employers consult their employees (either directly or via safety representatives), in good time, on health and safety matters and issues including:

• The risks arising from their work

• Proposals to manage and/or control these risks

• The best ways of providing information and training

This ensures all appropriate areas can be examined. Employers can ask employees what they think the hazards are, as they could have better insight of the risks in their everyday surroundings and notice things that may not appear obvious, and be able to provide some good, practical ideas on how to control the risks.

Types of Aviation Access Equipment 

Today, the industry has a wide range of access and ground support equipment that enables aircraft engineers to conduct their maintenance work safely. One company that offers aviation access platform design and ground support equipment is British engineering company, Semmco. Semmco designs, manufactures, installs, and services a wide range of ground support equipment and aviation access platforms for its global network of aviation clients.

Semmco’s modular platforms can be used across multiple aircraft, ultimately saving time and money for its customers. The entire range of ground support equipment is easy to operate and locate, limiting manual handling and improving efficiency. Manufactured and designed with the user in mind, the products feature innovative developments that make complex tasks easier to carry out during maintenance work, keeping the engineer safe whilst also preventing potential damage to the aircraft.

Founder and managing director at Semmco, Stuart McOnie says, “We are incredibly conscious of the welfare of workers and protecting them against the potential hazards they may face at work. We want to create equipment that will support them in what they do, not hinder or harm them at work. For this reason, we use lightweight aluminium in all our access steps and platforms, and ensure our ground support equipment is innovatively designed and is easily manoeuvrable and height adjustable to help reduce the burden of heavy maintenance equipment.

“Not only does providing engineers with intelligently built equipment keep them safe from workplace risks associated with tasks such as working at height, but prioritising worker welfare and wellbeing through ergonomically designed equipment improves productivity, service quality, and employee engagement, and helps to create a better safety culture.”

This year marks a milestone for Semmco as the company celebrates 25 years in business innovation and has opened its first U.S. office in Texas, following the launch of its maintenance and assembly facility in Dubai in January 2017. It is headquartered in Woking, UK.

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About the Author

Stuart McOnie | Managing Director