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January 25, 2007

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Safe harbour

The Work at Height Regulations 2005 specify inclusion of emergency and rescue planning, so Terry Oliver explains how the property developer he works for got together with its naval neighbours to carry out a rescue exercise in Portsmouth docks.

It’s a fairly safe bet that King Richard I, when he first let the land that is now Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth out for development at the end of the 12th century, did not envisage the plethora of retail outlets, restaurants, apartments and lofty towers that comprise the dockyard site today. Where, in centuries gone by, ships used to call to collect gunpowder and cannonballs before heading into battle, now visitors come to shop, dine, or simply enjoy the waterfront setting.

The redeveloped complex, next to Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, opened in March 2001, and it is still growing. The latest phase is the East Side Plaza, a £100m development of 313 apartments, 120 affordable homes for key workers, more designer outlet shops, and a nursery. Three blocks, all of concrete frame construction, are being erected, the tallest of which peaks at 31 storeys. In charge of the project is Berkeley Homes plc, and, at the end of November, it carried out a crane rescue exercise in order to fulfil its duty under regulation 4 of the Work at Height Regulations 2005 to ensure that all work at height includes planning for emergencies and rescue.

The decision to carry out the exercise was the result of collaboration between the Berkeley Homes project team, on which the author is safety advisor, and Fleet Support Ltd (FSL). The latter is the principal commercial partner of the Royal Navy in the Portsmouth Naval Base, supplying integrated support to RN ships at the waterfront. This support includes estates and buildings maintenance, logistics and warehousing, engineering, ship support, and transport operations. FSL’s health and safety team, led by Brad Hicks, had previously made a ‘benchmarking’ visit to the site to compare and contrast preventative and protective measures. The team was particularly keen to observe examples of construction best practice, which could be employed on other construction projects within the Naval Base.

The rescue exercise was undertaken on a 108m tower crane following a weekend during which high winds buffeted the south coast. Excessively strong wind can, of course, affect stability of cranes and, with a load added into the equation, risk considerably increases. To ensure that all lifting operations are undertaken with the lowest possible risk the site management team uses a facility that provides projected wind speeds at various heights up to and including that of the highest jib on the project. This enables lifting operations to be adequately planned and to be undertaken within the working guidelines of the manufacturer. Thankfully, on this occasion, the poor conditions abated to a degree that enabled the exercise to take place on the date planned.

Ship to shore

The opportunity to take advantage of a highly trained rescue team to help Berkeley Homes fulfil its duties under the Work at Height Regulations was one we couldn’t pass up. The FSL rescue team had originally been formed to respond to confined-space rescue situations on board ships and in dock culverts. Such scenarios often involve work at height too,1 so the team expanded its confined-space skill set by training in ‘at height’ rescue in conjunction with and certificated by a technical rescue unit.

The training consisted of rope rescue, abseiling, and safety procedures. The Naval Base operates more than 30 dockside cranes, so having this site capability is essential. With the advent of more and more construction projects within the base any opportunity to practise tower crane rescue was useful, particularly on such a high crane.

Planning process

The original plan was conceived by senior construction manager, Jon Love, and the author during the pre-planning stage of the final section of the development. Practical experience and technical expertise was provided by Chris Eastland, the FSL rescue team leader. Various consultations, team briefings with both Berkeley Homes and FSL teams, and walk-throughs were undertaken prior to the exercise.

Two scenarios were considered. In the first, time was the critical factor, as the crane driver was in a life-threatening situation and emergency medical treatment was required. In the second, the crane driver needed to be retrieved from the cab and was unable to descend the mast by himself. Following discussions among all those involved, it was agreed to base the day’s events on safe removal of an incapacitated driver rather than the higher-risk, time-critical operation, which would have involved other factors, such as external traffic management.

On the day, the 10-man team took approximately 30 minutes to retrieve the victim (in this case, a weighted dummy) from the crane. The victim was attached to a flexible stretcher, which was passed through the tower crane mast to a man cage (see picture, right). This was then lowered to the waiting ambulance in the delivery area outside of the site boundary. Most of the time was taken up by members of the FSL team having to climb the 108m mast!

Lessons learnt

The event ran to plan, with little effect on the build programme, and the general comment during the review of the operation was that it had been a successful and useful exercise, benefiting both parties – especially the crane drivers on site! Lines of communication are critical in such instances and, on this occasion, they appeared to work very well. For the exercise, two communication systems were used – one for FSL and one for Berkeley’s site team. This ensured that access routes and all factors affecting the rescue plan were managed.

Points identified for improvement included reducing the time from the call to the FSL rescue team to site, and determining the type of rescue required. Arranging internal police escort, opening a closer dockyard access, and ensuring that emergency first responders can attend directly to the victim following retrieval were all added to the plan.

It became apparent that a degree of flexibility would be required in a real-life situation, so a dynamic risk assessment would have to be carried out. Also, future developments that could affect the procedure, such as a change in access routes, personnel, etc. will now be conveyed to the FSL and Berkeley Homes teams to ensure that the procedure remains current.

Berkeley Homes is fortunate to have the expertise of the FSL rescue team on its doorstep, as it serves as a useful component for our rescue strategy on the East Side Plaza project. This exercise familiarised us with the techniques, equipment and training requirements involved in such a plan, which will serve us well on future developments.


1 For more information on work at height in confined spaces, see Frank Hallett’s article, ‘Room for manoeuvre’, in the April 2006 issue of SHP, or in the Features Archive.

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