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Safety under scrutiny

Events Civils 2004

Tougher health and safety legislation is forcing the accident prone construction industry to shape up. Implications for engineers will be scrutinised at Civils 2004.

Avoid, prevent, mitigate: This three word safety mantra should be running through the mind of every engineer, says Liz Bennett, chair of the ICE health and safety board.

Regardless of whether you are involved in design, construction or project management, you should aim to eliminate threats to health and safety from the outset of a project. 'That doesn't just mean risk during construction, ' says Bennett. 'It applies to the occupation, maintenance and demolition phases as well.'

This spring and summer will see sweeping changes in the way health and safety in the construction industry are managed, she explains. Everyone in the industry, from client through the design, contracting, project management, supply and supervisory chain, will be forced to focus more clearly on the risks associated with delivering and operating structures, buildings and infrastructure.

What they need to worry about, the consequences of negligence, and where engineers should turn for guidance on health and safety will be tackled by exhibitors and seminar speakers at Civils 2004.

A rethink of the planning supervisor's status will see construction clients shouldering responsibility for health and safety.

Planning supervisors, who are responsible for co-ordinating the design and construction processes, have to date been a statutory appointment. However, they are to be employed on a contractual basis from this summer in a bid to eliminate bad practice and incompetence.

'The duty of co-ordination and planning will be transferred to clients, ' warns Bennett. Although most clients will hire a planning supervisor for the job, clients will be held responsible for any health or safety failings. Clients need to be informed to ensure their planning supervisor is addressing all potential risks, and demanding safety-aware designs from consultants and contractors.

Clients and their engineers need to avoid prescriptive approaches to health and safety, Bennett says.

The knowledge needed to deliver highway pavement safely is different to that needed for highway bridges. A Safety in Design initiative has been set up, backed by the Construction Industry Council, to equip engineers with relevant knowledge.

Meanwhile, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is 'aggressively challenging' the industry to perform better, Bennett adds.

Falls from height is one of construction's biggest killers, says HSE principal construction inspector Hash Maitra. A new European Union Working at Heights Directive, to be implemented in April, is forcing the industry to look for ways of improving its record.

'From a safety point of view, the best design is one that doesn't involve working at heights at all, ' claims Maitra.

For example, it is possible to build highway overbridges by casting deep piled abutments and constructing a deck at ground level, he says. Parapets can be fixed before the ground is excavated away to create a cutting for the road to be crossed. This method removes any need to fix steel or erect formwork and falsework high in the air - it makes falling from height impossible.

Opportunities for top down construction are limited, though.

So designers and contractors need to find ways to prevent hazards turning into accidents. On scaffolding this typically involves installing toe boards and guard rails. Alternatively, workers could operate from the relative safety of a gantry or cherry picker.

If the risk of a fall can be neither avoided nor prevented, then designers and contractors need to mitigate its consequences.

Workers should be equipped with harnesses and lanyards, and trained to use them. Alternatively nets or crash mats, properly designed to cope with projected impact loads, could keep a falling worker from serious harm.

All too often the construction industry creates unsafe working situations through poor communication, or because designs are doctored to preserve the critical path. Under the Construction (Design & Management) regulations designers have a duty to look for ways of allowing for this, Bennett claims.

'A huge benefit can accrue from good design. Yet in most cases designers have no idea how their contribution will affect construction, ' she says.

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