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Safety fears grow over mobile elevating work platforms

At a glance

  • The HSE has issued a recent safety alert over one type of MEWP and is continuing to investigate how to more safely operate the machines
  • Many incidents are caused by human error and lack of training, which can lead to worker deaths and fines for companies
  • Zurich’s engineers provide expert advice on how best to move and operate MEWPs, as well as inspect machines for defects

The safety of mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) has been brought into question following a sharp increase worldwide in deaths involving workers operating the machines.

Globally in 2013, there were 53 fatalities of workers using MEWPs, a rise of 65% on the previous year, with three deaths in the UK including an incident last year in Buckinghamshire when a crane toppled over and killed a 29-year-old foreman. This has prompted the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to investigate and re-evaluate its advice on how the machines are being used.

In February, the HSE issued a safety alert over the machine involved in the UK incident, a Genie Z135/70 MEWP, to ensure its stability and says “more information” may follow on MEWP safety.

Reducing MEWP hazards

The HSE states that there are a number of precautions that can reduce the risk of injury when operating a MEWP.

  • Confined overhead working: If there are overhead structures, consider selecting a MEWP that has been designed to prevent such accidental contact
  • Ground conditions: The platform should be used on firm and level ground
  • Outriggers: Outriggers must be extended and chocked before raising the platform.
  • Guardrails: Make sure the work platform is fitted with effective guardrails and toe boards
  • Arresting falls: If there is still a risk of people falling from the platform a harness with a short work restraint lanyard must be provided
  • Falling objects: Barrier off the area around the platform
  • Weather: Set a maximum safe wind speed for operation. Inspect the platform before use after severe weather
  • Handling materials: Check the weight and dimensions of any materials and consider load distribution issues
  • Nearby hazards: Do not operate a MEWP close to overhead cables or other dangerous machinery, or allow any part of the arm to protrude into a traffic route

Used in a variety of sectors and for working at a height of up to 60 metres, MEWPs have become a common sight, on both the high street and building sites.

The machines come in a variety of forms, including vertical ‘scissor’ lifts, self-propelled booms, vehicle-mounted booms and trailer-mounted booms, and are seen as offering safe and quick access to heights. However, the various machines all come with slightly different operating methods and can topple over if they are overloaded or poorly operated.

“In many cases, it is human error,” said John McMullen, Chief Engineer at Zurich Engineering. “However, often the people who are operating the MEWPs don’t fully understand them, which leads to toppling incidents, where the stability is compromised and the vehicle falls over.

“While MEWPs look easy to use, they’re not. This is why there are many training schemes available and why operators need a licence to use them – because they are so many different types of vehicles.”

And failure to follow the HSE guidance on MEWPs as well as Working at Height legislation can see large fines for firms. For example, a £30,000 punishment was given to a Merseyside company who failed to properly train staff in using MEWPs, which resulted in the death of a 39-year-old worker who was crushed between the guardrail of a scissor lift and some overhead ducting.

Common causes of accidents

The HSE stresses that the most significant MEWP dangers arise from operation and use of the machine – incidents generally range from overturning platforms, to falls from height and entrapment – rather than from their movement as a site vehicle as its important to select the right MEWP for the job and site.

Zurich can help by supplying experts on how best to move and operate MEWPs – on all types of jobs, however complex – and reduce the risks involved..

Putting safety first

Maintenance of MEWPs is also important for safety. Last year, Zurich examined 5,583 MEWPs and of these, 35 had defects which would have harmed the users or nearby workers, while 105 machines had serious defects which posed immediate or imminent danger to personnel.

While larger construction companies are well aware of their responsibilities under the law, such as making sure a MEWP is properly maintained, it is smaller firms that may not be aware of potential risks.

Zurich Engineering’s teams are fully trained in ensuring that the latest plant and machinery meet all safety standards, providing expert site risk assessments and can help ensure firms comply with all relevant HSE legislation.

Image © Getty

For more information, get in touch

John McMullen | Chief Engineer - Zurich Engineering | 07801 135808

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