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November 28, 2012

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Construction – Rules of nature

The unpredictability of the UK climate can cause myriad health and safety concerns for construction workers. As winter approaches, Fredrik Blomberg provides a brief overview of some of the weather-related hazards and solutions that can be employed to keep building workers safe.

Outdoor workers are exposed to many types of weather hazards – from wind to rain, extreme heat to freezing temperatures, as well as lightning and ultraviolet radiation – so it’s paramount they are protected from the dangers that nature can bring.

In the last few years, the construction industry has had to deal with rising material costs, construction-related bankruptcies, reductions in government capital expenditure, and shrinking budgets. With the global economy still in a fragile state, building contractors all over the world are under pressure to deliver construction projects on budget, on time and on demand. As a result, an increasing number of construction projects needs to be carried out during inclement periods, or in months when bad weather would, traditionally, have caused huge delays.

The cost of delays

According to the Germany Construction Purchasing Manager’s Index, the country witnessed a staggering 24-per-cent decline in construction output during the winter of 2010/11, with the slump largely attributed to heavy snowfall. This year, temperatures during February dropped below -20°C and caused temporary suspension of work on many German construction sites, resulting in another short period of contraction, albeit on a smaller scale. In France, heavy rainfall in February this year forced many construction sites to suspend work – further delaying the country’s recovery from recession.

Extreme weather conditions and fluctuating temperatures are fast becoming the norm all over Europe, and precipitation and wind speeds are also on the increase. Closer to home, a recent study by the Building Research Establishment has predicted a 6-per-cent increase in UK wind speeds, another factor that could contribute to a decline in construction output unless contingencies are put in place.

Because the severity and duration of weather conditions are so notoriously difficult to predict, contractors often look for ways to compensate for its effects.

Temporary protection

For both contractor and client, a carefully considered build programme, which takes into account the effects of adverse weather, is crucial to any project’s success. However, schedules are subject to change, so the most common method to avoid unnecessary delays caused by bad weather is simply to protect a site from the elements.
Traditionally, construction companies forecast periods without precipitation or frost for the completion of critical project elements, such as the setting of concrete. Now, solutions such as temporary roofs can keep sites protected and prevent rainwater, or snow ingress at any time of year.

High work, high risk

Weather not only influences the pace of construction work but also affects the level of risks to which building workers are exposed. Extremely hot summer temperatures have been known to cause heat exhaustion and heat stroke among workers while, at the other end of the scale, windy or wet weather increase the likelihood of workers or objects falling from elevated areas, which could lead to serious or fatal injuries.

Rain and icy weather can cause surfaces to be slippery, which can then lead to personal injuries and damaged properties, while strong winds may cause workers and objects in elevated platforms to fall, or heavy equipment, such as cranes, to lose balance and topple over.

Site safety should never be compromised, so risk assessments must be reviewed, as freezing temperatures can greatly alter and increase the risks associated with most construction work. Walkways should be cleared of snow and ice, with regular gritting and salting, while platforms and edge protection should be regularly checked.

There are various solutions available to practitioners that can reduce such risks but every construction situation presents a different challenge for contractors and, most importantly, the staff who work at the sharp end.

Last line of defence

No matter what the weather, PPE is one of the simplest ways of ensuring your workers are ready for what Mother Nature throws at them. It goes without saying that safety helmets, gloves, eye protection, high-visibility clothing and safety footwear should be in the armoury of every construction worker, but it is also every employer’s responsibility to ensure PPE is adequate and fit for the job.

Clearly, wearing the proper clothes can prevent cold-related stress in freezing temperatures, so those responsible for specifying PPE should take into account whether they feature properties that could help reduce the impact of the weather for the workers who wear them. Other measures can also be employed, such as working in pairs, increasing calorie intake, providing warm welfare facilities, or even simply choosing, where possible, to work during the warmest hours of day.

Planning importance

Despite the obvious risks of working at height, particularly during bad weather, some companies still fail to plan jobs appropriately and ensure all works are carried out in a safe and secure manner.

With a considered planning process carried out by competent persons, many of the risks associated with working at height can be eliminated. The ideal solution is, of course, to avoid the need to work at height entirely, where possible. One such approach is to pre-assemble safety components – such as pre-cast safety attachments built into prefabricated elements – at ground level. By planning every part of the build meticulously – including the position of each post, clamp and hole– this avoids the possibility of having to drill into a new building’s structural concrete and steel elements.

The integration of building information modelling (BIM) into the construction process can also positively influence the way safety is planned. BIM programmes enable the creation of a virtual building to incorporate safety measures for a more efficient process and eliminate as many uncertainties as possible before construction begins – reducing mistakes, hazards and risks. By considering all of these elements before the project begins, companies can benefit from more cost-effective forms of protection, reduced labour costs and less time spent on site.

In the planning stage, all forms of collective safety measures – including edge protection and fall prevention – must be considered. A steel-mesh barrier system, fully compliant with EN 13374, the European Standard for temporary edge protection, will integrate guardrails, toeboards and containment mesh in a single system. A safety net fan, or similar solution, can protect people below from falling debris and materials, and should be tested and approved to EN 1263, the European Standard for safety nets. Combinations of these types of solutions can contribute to reductions in accidents, cost-effective sites, and safer, more productive workforces.

Mitigating the effects of unfavourable outside conditions in which building work is carried out is vital to protect workers, maintain machinery and tools in good working order, and ensure the integrity of structures – all of which ultimately helps keep projects on time and on budget.€

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