This month health and safety professional Alistair Moffat considers the need to think beyond the immediate hazard in order to reduce accidents.

Is that an iceberg? A thought that crossed the mind of the lookout on the Titanic when an iceberg was spotted. As history recalls the consequent actions brought devastation to many; however, with hindsight it was quite an obvious hazard.

Poor hazard identification is the root cause of most accidents. Typically plasterboard can look very similar although the density can vary greatly. Some sheets of high-impact resistant board can weigh more than 65kg which is well in excess of the HSE guidelines for two people to lift. When fixing floor track, using drill and plug, the hammer drill is used for three second bursts; I rarely find an operative wearing ear protection as he does not foresee the cumulative exposure to noise above the threshold limit. Regrettably neither does the supervisor overseeing the work.

When fixing floor track using discharge fixings invariably the operative just wears normal (medium impact resistant) eye protection. If the anchor were to bounce back it would invariably blind if not fatally injure the operative; in fact I know a case where this has occurred.

Recently I found an operative cutting plywood noggins on a large project, resulting in him cutting for extensive periods. A designated cutting room had been established so the cutting operation would not affect other trades and third parties. He had followed the risk assessment and was using the local exhaust ventilation (LEV) albeit a ‘Hoover’ type system, attached to his skill saw. As the LEV system only captured 75 per cent of the dust he also wore a disposable face mask. However, as soon as he stopped cutting he took the mask off while he marked up the next piece to be cut. There was no LEV system for the room therefore there was extensive airborne dust.

When I questioned him over the foreseen hazard he was adamant he was working in a safe manner. In the interest of the individual I tackled the situation head on and asked that work was stopped.

Regarding the Titanic, there is a school of thought that it may have been less catastrophic if evasive action had not been taken and the ship struck the iceberg head on. Sometimes we need to tackle unsafe acts in a direct way to increase awareness of the less obvious hazards which have long-term chronic health consequences. Last week a number of fixers were travelling downwards in a site hoist. For reasons yet to be explained (as the accident investigation is still ongoing) the hoist stopped suddenly between floors. The ladder stored in the hoist (to access the top of the hoist cage) came out of its retaining clips and smashed into the face of a fixer, breaking his nose and resulting in concussion.

In the first instance, why did no one perceive the hazard of the ladder coming loose? I suspect the retaining clips may have been subjected to dynamic loads, possibly up to 3g. Even if they were designed to address the dynamic loading was any consideration given to fatigue stress? The much overlooked issued of fatigue is that failure occurs due to repeated reverse stresses that are well below the ultimate failure load for that component.

But regardless of undertaking the design analysis of the suitability of the ladder retaining brackets, the hierarchy of risk control (first consideration – eradicate the hazard) should have been foremost. Why was the ladder stored in the hoist cage? Could it not have been held in an inert/static store on site?

Back on my marine theme, the designer of the Titanic, Thomas Andrews, did not foresee more than four of the ship’s compartment being flooded. He also did not take the watertight bulkheads higher than the waterline as they would have conflicted with the design requirements (large common areas, etc). So in summary, effective control measures would have conflicted with usefulness.

A common and foreseen accident in drylining is hand injuries. Fixers often drill through their fingers when fixing flat plate. If high-cut resistant gloves are used the material is akin to rhino hide which makes holding the screw cumbersome. Hence they compromise by using a lower cut, but flexible, material.

Hand injuries are also attributed to the use ofStanleyknives for cutting board. Magnetic devices (typically ‘Gyproc Blade Runner’) will eradicate the hazard but have never been embraced by the trade as the simple knife is so effective, a problem that is fuelled by price work.

I would like to conclude with a meaningful statement but in this instance I have failed, so suffice it to quote my mother: ‘if you are going to make omelettes then you need to crack eggs’. Construction is a high risk environment and accidents will always be part of the package; prevention must always be foremost.

Alistair Moffat, Brunel Construction Consultants,