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October 28, 2009

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Construction- This way up

Gerry Mulholland describes how his company — a major construction-industry employer — carried out a review of the equipment it was using for work at height in mechanical and electrical installation to determine the safest, most cost-effective and productive option.

Since the Work at Height Regulations were introduced, technical advances and new equipment have opened up a variety of solutions to the hazards of working at height. The traditional approach to work-at-height access solutions within the construction industry for internal, low-level mechanical and electrical installation has been the use of mobile aluminium scaffold towers and step-ladders, and, more recently, podium steps and small mobile-elevated work platforms (MEWPs). Selection of equipment has tended to be based on availability, cost to purchase or hire, as well as a risk assessment-based approach following the HSE’s hierarchy of control for this type of work, and any client requirements with regard to selection and use.

Given the plethora of solutions available, and the myriad benefits and drawbacks presented by each, Crown House technologies (CHt) — one of the largest mechanical and electrical contractors in the UK — decided to conduct a review of its policies and procedures in relation to internal work at height up to 4.5 metres, which is between the ceiling grid and the underside of the floor above where the vast majority of mechanical-pipe and electrical-cable installation activity is undertaken.

The first thing the company discovered was that a number of different types of work-at-height equipment was in use on its sites, including many of those mentioned above. To determine the users’ views, a series of seven workshops was arranged with members of the CHt workforce across the UK. More than 160 workers, both directly employed and members of the CHt supply chain, gave feedback on “what they wanted to work from”.  Managers were deliberately excluded from these sessions, to facilitate free and frank discussion on selecting work-at-height equipment.

The sessions were supported by Select, our plant hire partners, and key suppliers, who were able to demonstrate their equipment ranges while also taking the opportunity to discuss product improvements and development with end users.

The view expressed by the overwhelming majority who attended the workshops was that small, vertical, static MEWPs were their preferred option — ahead of mobile aluminium tower scaffolds and podium steps — for work up to and through the ceiling grid at a platform height of no more than 1.8-2 metres.

Change on the way

Following the workshops, a three-month project was instigated to review the current approaches to work at height within CHt, and, subsequently draft recommendations to change the way in which that work is carried out.

The following statistical information was gathered, relating to a particular three-and-a-half-year period:

  • Number of accidents: incidents involving work at height accounted for only 4 per cent of all accidents but in terms of RIDDOR-reportable events, this rose to more than 50 per cent;
  • Accident type: The accidents reported across the period were categorised according to the equipment used — MEWPs, mobile aluminium tower scaffolds, ladders and A-frame ladders, and podiums — and included slips, trips and falls, as well as manual-handling and trap injuries;
  • Personal injury claims: A review of personal injury claims for the period revealed that only 5 per cent of all accidents recorded resulted in a payout to an individual through the claims process. For accidents involving working at height from access equipment this figure was 25 per cent because of the severity of the injuries sustained; 
  • Equipment repair costs: The more component parts an item had, the less likely it was for them all to be returned at the end of the hire period, thus incurring additional costs. This was particularly the case with mobile scaffold towers, which have the most component parts; and
  • Equipment hire costs: One of the goals of the review was to demonstrate that basing hire decisions on cost did not mean the equipment chosen was necessarily the safest option.

The only item of statistical information we were unable to determine was the correlation between the quantities of equipment hired in and the number and types of accidents that occurred with each method.
In terms of the selection decision, this is not usually made by those who are undertaking the work but by their supervisor or foreman, or someone even further up the management or commercial ladder, who historically may have defaulted to the cheapest item of equipment to hire, believing this to be the most cost-effective. By highlighting these other factors that impact on the cost of specific items of equipment, it was possible to demonstrate that cheapest is not always the most cost-effective.  

Time and motion

Of the main types of work-at-height access equipment, step-ladders and podium steps are cheaper to hire than mobile aluminium scaffold towers, while small MEWPs are the most expensive option. Based on the feedback from our workforce, however, we believed that working from MEWPs is safer and more productive, but to really make the business case we had to prove that their use also helps improve productivity.

To do so, we adopted a ‘time-and-motion’ approach, selecting two CHt projects that involved work at height: Haywood Hospital as part of the North Staffordshire PFI project and Forth Valley Hospital in Falkirk, Scotland. Both schemes are Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), which were awarded to the Laing O’Rourke Group to construct, with CHt responsible for the design, installation and commissioning of the various M&E services. Haywood Hospital had a total construction value in excess of £29 million, with the M&E element comprising around £9million, while Forth Valley Hospital’s M&E works totalled in excess of £90million across a construction cost approaching £300 million.

The type of activity reviewed was mechanical and electrical installations and covered what are generally regarded as first and second-fix operations (the installation of brackets to hold mechanical pipework from the ceiling, and the installation and wiring of a panel-light unit commonly found in ceiling grids). This type of activity is typical of the work involved in standard M&E installation across CHt’s UK operations, so the results would be transferable to other parts of the business.

It was emphasised to those involved that the study was looking only at the equipment they were using, so they were clear it was not their individual performance that was being evaluated. There was also an element of ‘stage management’ to ensure we had ideal conditions, such as brand-new equipment without any defects, clear walkways, work areas free of other trades, and work equipment delivered to a location that was in easy reach of where the studies were being undertaken. All of this was considered necessary to ensure the study ran smoothly.

Using the same theory behind the time-and-motion studies undertaken by Frank Gilbreth in America in the 1920s, we were able to review each of the two specific tasks mentioned above by timing the installation process using different access equipment. Each type of equipment was used separately to install the respective items. Timings were taken at each element of this process, such as positioning the equipment, erecting the equipment, locking wheels, ascending and installing, dismounting and removal. We were also able to review potential risk at each stage of the process for each type of equipment.

As a result, we found that the potential risk associated with working with small MEWPs was significantly lower than when using either podiums, or mobile aluminium scaffold towers. Furthermore, the task was performed at least three times more efficiently using the MEWP than the other items of equipment, thus significantly improving productivity.  

Less margin for error

Equipment that requires users to make fewer — and potentially poor — behavioural choices inevitably reduces the potential for injury and incident, as well as breaches of safe operating procedures. Accident investigation and routine inspection reports have, for many years, shown that podium steps and mobile aluminium scaffold towers are often used with bracing missing, wheels not locked effectively, guardrails not in place, gates not closed properly, etc. In the case of the small MEWP, however, when the operator enters the working platform at ground level, they have to close the gate behind them and push a button that takes them to the right height at which they need to work.

Another incidental observation made during the study that reinforced the superiority of MEWPs as a work-at-height option related to ergonomic benefits. The fact that they are easy to adjust to the exact and most suitable working height for each individual means users are less likely to have to stretch or crouch during their work. Their functionality also dramatically reduces the amount of climbing up and down required to gain access to the correct working height. In addition to saving time this also means less strain on workers, who otherwise, for example, would have to duck between the braces of a mobile tower scaffold, twisting and turning their bodies to climb up through the internal trapdoor on to the working platform.  

Of course, a universal move towards greater use of MEWPs for this type of construction activity will not happen overnight, and they will not suit all circumstances all of the time. Organisations that have purchased equipment rather than using the hire option will continue to use those items, which, through the risk assessment process, can be deemed to be a reasonably practicable option. However, by demonstrating that using small MEWPs increases productivity, reduces incidents and accidents, improves ergonomic posture and reduces the potential for personal injury claims, their practicability as an option will seem more than reasonable.

Various site-management actions will need to be taken to facilitate increased use of MEWPs. These include:

  • making sure sufficient electrical charging points for the vehicles are available;
  • considering site logistics, in terms of corridor areas and widths, and floor space;
  • installing measures to reduce the potential for damage to door frames and walls as equipment is moved from area to area; and
  • ensuring that floor loadings are not exceeded and that indentations/uneven areas in the floors are addressed to prevent overturning of equipment.


The clear outcome of the research CHt carried out into work-at-height equipment for undertaking mechanical and electrical installation activity is that small MEWPs are more productive and cost-effective than ladders, podium steps, and mobile aluminium scaffolds, and are the preferred option of our workforce.

Using these results, the company has been able to create a strong business case for moving towards greater use of MEWPs, as this will satisfy the needs and preferences of the users while offering business benefits to the organisation and, ultimately, to clients.

CHt’s work-at-height study has also been shared with the M&E industry through the Heating and Ventilation Contractors’ Association (HVCA) and the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) — both of whom have provided positive feedback — as well as the construction industry in general, and manufacturers and hire companies across Europe.  

Reviewing and amending its practices for work at height will, CHt believes, have a positive impact on the number of work-at-height incidents and help it achieve its overriding aim of “sending everybody home safely everyday”.     

Gerry Mulholland is HSE leader for Laing O’Rourke Technologies.

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