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There is a need for universal adoption of safety measures across the entire range of rotary piling and drilling machinery, says Philip Ball.

The Federation of Piling Specialists has successfully managed the introduction of auger cleaners and non-contact with rotating parts as part of safe methods of working.

Unfortunately the same progress has not been made with minipiling and rotary drill rigs.

The prospect of someone becoming entangled in a rotating auger does not bear considering and yet there has not been universal focus on the measures that are intended to protect the operatives.

In the last few years there have been at least two very serious injuries to operatives working close to augers in the UK. Despite this, the level of attention from the wider industry is surprisingly low.

Contact with drill strings is virtually unavoidable when using minipiling rigs and drilling machines. Rods and augers need changing frequently and casings have to be loaded and removed - all of which takes place in the danger zone.

Rod handlers, carousels and lifting arms will go some way to removing the problem but these cannot be universally adopted, especially on the very small rigs.

This equipment and the activities around them are encompassed in the PUWER (Provision and Use of Work Equipment) regulations that were introduced in 1992. The British Drilling Association subsequently issued some practical guidelines on how the industry could perform the required assessment and meet its obligations under the act.

Those obligations include the assessment process itself plus the provision and maintenance of the adopted system. Not every organisation has complied though.

The consensus is that grab or trip wires are appropriate to the task. But these are not preventive; they merely limit the severity of an incident.

However, there are some useful developments emerging that will interface with the machine's hydraulics to prevent operatives coming into contact with the rotating parts when they are fully operational.

Typically the system permits only minimal rotation rate and torque while manual tasks have to be performed. Such devices include proximity switches, interlocking gates and, most recently, ultrasonic detectors. All these systems have the objective of eliminating the risk while an operative is close to the rotating parts.

Any system that is adopted has to be both robust and appropriate to site conditions to avoid the temptation to bypass it and to prevent it losing credibility when it fails to operate correctly.

One problem is that the costs involved are not inconsiderable and the temptation may be to neglect the risk altogether. However, the installation and maintenance costs pale into insignificance when compared with the human and financial cost of an entanglement.

More development work by the manufacturers to provide fully integrated systems would be welcome, especially as it may help promote 'best practice' in the field.

Although this whole issue has some momentum at present, it has a long way to go before being universally adopted. It needs to become an expectation of everyone procuring, providing and carrying out drilling and minipiling operations.

In the same way that piling platform design is fast becoming a prerequisite to site work, we should expect to see rigs properly fitted with protection systems.

The FPS and BDA are the main forces in this, but it will require an industry-wide focus to bring the message home.

The first step must be educating and training those at risk to convince them that they are the ones with the most influence when it comes to avoiding harm and that the equipment and systems are provided for their safety.

But employers, principle contractors and the Health and Safety Executive can all contribute by insisting that every item of rotary plant is suitably equipped before permitting work to begin.

They could help balance the marketplace for those who have made the commitment to providing what is, after all, a regulatory requirement.

Philip Ball is manager (ground engineering) for geotechnical contractor Cementation Foundations Skanska.

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