Working on top of an aircraft is a dangerous place. Mario Pierobon talked to a leading UK manufacturer of safety equipment.
Every year, the United Kingdom (UK) Health and Safety Executive (HSE) receives reports of workers in the aviation industry who injure themselves after falling from a height.
These include incidents occurring during aircraft maintenance when entering or exiting the aircraft and working on or from service equipment.
Clearly the most serious accidents tend to occur during aircraft turnaround, where the increased activity is needed due to time pressure.
Founder and managing director of aircraft access solution and ground support equipment manufacturer at Semmco, Stuart McOnie, understands that employers within the aircraft maintenance industry are required to observe regulations when it comes to Personal Protection Equipment and safe working at height.
Namely, they must abide by the same local or national regulations as employers across all other sectors. “For example, in the UK, the Work at Height Regulations 2005 features legislation that requires employers to provide ‘the right type of equipment for working at height’, which would include access stairs and platforms in the aviation sector”, he says.
“Our customers and end-users respect the UK, European and other international standards when buying equipment, and expect Semmco as the manufacturer to supply equipment that meets the correct standards. This a responsibility we take very seriously.”
PPE and safety at height precautions
Aircraft maintenance can be major work, involving significant production processes, or minor checks 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 suitably equipped for all tasks that could be required, including working at height. Employers and managers alike need to understand that even a relatively small fall from height can result in significant injury, production loss or fines,” says McOnie.
The current state of affairs regarding the use of Personal Protection Equipment and the maintenance of safety at height precautions in the aircraft maintenance environment is such that the majority of operators are using fall arrest systems, including wing grip systems, to ensure safe working at height.
In some cases, however, they are using older steel system equipment, which is heavier to move around and may cause potential manual handling issues.
“Nonetheless, operators are making a conscious choice to protect their employees as much as possible and they carry this through by requiring workers to wear full PPE, including safety shoes, gloves, and glasses,” says McOnie.
“Our technicians and engineers have to be suitably dressed in the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) for installations in client hangars and some operators request full method statements prior to hangar entry.”
Promotion of safety
Today, the aviation industry has a wide range of access and ground support equipment enabling aircraft engineers to conduct their maintenance work safely. However, design with the user in mind and manufacture with quality materials is beneficial to maximise safety. This includes ease of operation and positioning, limiting manual handling and improving efficiency.
“We believe that there is always more to do to increase the safety of teams across the industry. It is the responsibility of customers and suppliers to work together to provide more flexible safety-focused products that, when used consistently and correctly, ensure the personal safety of technicians working around aircraft,” says McOnie.
“Each manufacturer should understand what needs to be achieved by aircraft maintenance teams, so that products can be designed with safety, flexibility and task requirements in mind. The customer’s needs should be challenged regarding their safety processes and reminded that there may be a safer way to do things than the way they have always done, making them think about potentially reviewing their safety methodology.”
Indeed, airlines are constantly upgrading their fleets to meet passenger demand and new aircraft are being phased in with new maintenance requirements, such as maintaining wifi in crown access. “This means more tasks are required to be completed in the same amount of maintenance time, resulting in tight turnarounds,” says McOnie.
Safety procedures are a constantly changing process and there is always room for improvement. “We encourage working practices that require technicians to perform fewer manual handling tasks, but some tasks mean it is necessary; handling of large, heavy wheels is still an issue and we are working closely with customers to develop the best solutions for optimum safety,” says McOnie.
“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.
“For this reason, we use lightweight materials in our access steps and platforms and ensure our ground support equipment is innovatively designed and is easily manoeuvrable and height adjustable.”
Human factor consideration
PPE is a very important part of workplace safety culture and there are risks inherent in an aviation maintenance environment that require PPE to ensure worker safety – dropped tools, slip hazards, working at height, high noise and low visibility.
“Whilst airlines ensure their teams are educated on these risks and provide them with all the necessary PPE, we believe that prevention is better than cure when it comes to workplace hazards,” says McOnie.
Although safety normally – and rightly so – focuses on risks to workers, when working around aircraft there is also the risk of damage to the aircraft itself – fragile or sensitive components are vulnerable and any accidental damage causes more maintenance and refit work, loses time and costs more.
“Our design aims to minimise risks to aircraft; we use lightweight metals such as aluminium and include padding in our designs to ensure that risk is minimised should access equipment come into contact with the aircraft,” says McOnie.
“Making our access equipment easier to manoeuvre and including braking systems minimises the risks of accidental movement into aircraft, and the flexibility of our variable height systems makes sure the right access level is used, so operators do not cause any damage using a system at the wrong height in the wrong role.”