Although this is a UK-based survey, the safety lessons for working at height apply internationally in every maintenance aircraft hangar and on the line.
Stuart McOnie, founder and managing director of Semmco – which designs, manufactures, installs and services a wide range of ground support equipment and aviation access platforms – says aircraft maintenance can be major work involving significant production processes or consist of minor check and repairs between flights.
In every case, it is important that the engineering or operations managers ensure their teams of maintenance technicians and engineers are suitability equipped for all tasks that could be required in the aircraft hangar, including working at height.
Employers and managers alike need to understand that even a relatively small fall from height in a hangar can result in significant injury, production loss or fines.
Risk of injury
Every year, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 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 and working on or from service equipment.
A significant proportion of the most serious accidents occur during aircraft turnaround, where increased activity is needed due to time pressures.
Almost half of the fatal injuries over the last five years across workplaces generally in the UK were accounted for by just two different kinds of accidents, with falling from height being the biggest issue. From 2012 to 2017, there was an average of 40 fatal injuries per year due to falls from height, 28 per cent 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 non-linear shape of aircraft and intricate maintenance tasks employed by technicians to avoid damaging the surface or structure of the aircraft pose additional risks to safety. Working at height is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.
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. This incident occurred during cargo loading operations using a high-loader.
The team leader was climbing a ladder when his foot slipped and he fell backwards to the ground, suffering an impact injury to his right foot. The 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 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 company employee and a worker from a temporary agency suffered broken bones when falling from mobile elevated work platforms while conducting service checks on the tail of an aircraft.
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 reputational damage.
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 was 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.
Additionally, 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.
To best cater to the safety needs of its 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, notice things that may not appear obvious and be able to provide some good, practical ideas on how to control the risks.
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, but good design with the user in mind and manufacture from quality materials is needed to maximise safety.
This includes ease of operation and positioning, limiting manual handling and improving efficiency.
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.
“Not only does providing engineers with intelligently built equipment keeps 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.”