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Accidents? Nothing to declare at Heathrow

SAFTEY

The £4.2 billion Terminal Five programme at Heathrow is the largest programme of works on any site in the UK. So how does the team tackle the industry's thorniest safety issue - working at height?

Paul Howard reports

RUNNING a busy airport is, of course, a surprisingly complex task and Heathrow is one of the world's busiest.The potential for chaos is correspondingly great.Not that BAA's Terminal Five project is overly concerned with delayed flights, drunken louts or terrorists.These risks can wait until 2008 when the colossal new building is open to the public.

Rather, it's the traditional chaos of the building site that the airport operator is keen to avoid, particularly any kind of disorder that could threaten the health and safety of those working on the £4.2 billion project.

So it is not surprising that the client takes a rigorous line in the pursuit of safe working practice.

'We set all sorts of standards for our suppliers, ' says Mike Evans, T5's head of health and safety: 'What's more, as many of our standards as possible are common to the whole project, and affect all those who are working on it.We don't leave the setting of standards to each contractor; it would be a recipe for anarchy if they all had their own.'

Nowhere are the standards more in evidence, nor more important given the industry's appalling track record, than where working at height is concerned.

One of the central planks of BAA's health and safety policy is the booklet that is distributed to all suppliers before they come on site, outlining the health and safety requirements placed on them.This is littered with references to work at height and contains some very specific requirements.

Mr Evans says: 'We don't explicitly say that falls from height are our number one concern but, if you look through our literature and count the number of references we make to it you can see it is a key concern.

'It's fairly prescriptive. It's not just a wish-list, it includes nitty-gritty, nutsand-bolts detail as well.

'For example, we require that all the large cranes and excavators used on site come equipped with handrails on the superstructure to stop people from falling off when servicing the machines. Likewise, delivery tankers must have a provision to stop people falling from them.'

The guide sets out principles as well, although these too are related to particular contingencies.

'In general we want to see large, man-riding hoists, rather than steps.

We want to see powered access used, rather than ladders, although we don't encourage the use of man baskets on telehandlers - we share the industry's scepticism over these.We did use one on a very specific tunnelling job but we encourage the use of powered access platforms elsewhere.'

The prescriptive nature of BAA's approach is clear, and, according to John Burchill, safety manager at T5A for temporary services contractor Mace, this is welcomed by those working on the project.He says: 'The reaction from suppliers has been very positive.'

Mr Evans adds: 'There has been a good level of co-operation from suppliers. In general, people want to improve safety and they don't want to take risks.'

But a prescriptive approach isn't the whole answer. In fact, if anything is likely to breed resentment among suppliers, it is an overbearing attitude from the client.Mr Evans is aware of this.

'The role of BAA is to remind and challenge people to think 'isn't there a better way to do it?' ' he explains.

'We are prescriptive where we think we have a particular experience or expertise, but we are also challenging others to think for themselves.There has to be a balance between being laying down the law and encouraging the involvement of others.'

Ladders are a case in point.

'We want people to use other means, 'Mr Evans continues: 'We can't ban them as they are equipment of last resort and there may be occasions when they will have to be used. But we challenge every supplier to think of all the alternatives first.They must ask themselves questions such as 'why not use powered access here?'We won't accept the answer 'because this was how it was done in the past'.'

Something that certainly hasn't always been done as much as it should have is planning in advance to reduce the incidence of risk before it occurs.

This is another area where Mr Evans touts BAA's success to date.

'Take the unloading of materials from flat-bed lorries.We have tried to get the suppliers to think through this process at the point at which they're loading the lorry. In some instances this has meant attaching lifting slings during the loading of the truck to avoid having to climb on top of the load when it arrives.'

Such a desire to encourage suppliers to plan ahead is emulated by BAA itself on the assumption that successful planning means improved safety.

'Planning means finding the most efficient way of moving products and people around the site, 'Mr Evans asserts.'If you get this right, it's good for safety. It is also integral to the managing of the cost and time taken on a project of this size.'

Mr Evans is keen to insist on this explicit link between a successful approach to improving health and safety and keeping costs down, an association which in the past construction has too often overlooked.

'Improvements in health and safety and in productivity and the quality of the end product are inextricably linked.The industry often underplays this, ' he points out.'In most cases, the safest form of access or work at height is the most efficient. Look at the difference between a mobile elevated work platform and a ladder.An access platform is 10 or 20 times more efficient.Of course there is an upfront cost, but productivity is also that much greater.'

The holy grail of BAA's planning is the removal of all the risks associated with work at height.That such a desire is unlikely to be achieved in practice should not mean that the process is stillborn.

If risk can't be eliminated entirely, it can certainly be reduced and limiting the amount of work actually undertaken at height is a key strategy.

To this end, all the steel reinforcement cages used at T5 are prefabricated at ground level.More spectacularly, even the building's roof has been constructed at ground level.

Mr Burchill says: 'We've also added all the edge protection at ground level before the roof is lifted into place and even the temporary lighting is installed before it's raised.'

But even this degree of foresight is only effective if such an approach can be ensured at all times.

'We require risk assessments and method statements for all work at height and these must be reviewed and signed off as safe by the primary contractor, 'Mr Burchill adds.

'Each worker is shown the method statement and risk assessment and they must sign to say they've read and understood it.This whole procedure is auditable.'

It is also reliant on the successful communication of BAA's health and safety message.With 60 first-tier suppliers and a site workforce of 5,000 at peak, this is not a simple task.The result, says Mr Evans, is a plethora of communication methods.

He says: 'We have the high-level induction process and our site safety handbook.There is also a site newspaper and a monthly e-briefing to all staff. In fact, there are umpteen different communication vehicles to get message across.We have even had printed special health and safety posters to go on the buses that ferry workers from the Tube to site.'

The task is further complicated by the large numbers of workers on the project whose native language is not English.Visual communication of the safety message has become an integral part of the strategy.

This has lead to another set of requirements for suppliers.

'We insist they use at least one English speaker for four non-native speakers, ' says Mr Evans.'In fact, this hasn't proven to be a major issue. In November we did a study into accident rates and found that the rate for non-English speakers was within half of one per cent of that for English speakers.'

The work at height safety record so far at T5 is equally impressive.

'I don't think we've had one serious fall from height accident, 'Mr Evans says.'One guy slipped a couple of metres on a ladder.That's about it.'

The whole T5 project may be steeped in superlatives, but these are perhaps the most impressive statistics.

Safety millionaires

As Construction News went to press BAA announced that it had chalked up a million man hours without a single reportable accident among its 3,000-strong workforce on T5.While individual project teams have previously achieved the elusive million hours target, this is the first time that the whole site has achieved this standard.

T5 Construction Director Andrew Wolstenholme says: 'I congratulate the workforce for what is an impressive step in creating an accident-free site.However, we must all remember that construction is inherently dangerous and, even with this achievement, there is absolutely no room for complacency.'