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Health and Safety – The First Priority

Tony Fairweather reports.

Within the steel construction sector, the British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) Health and Safety Group is a well-established forum for discussion and a focus for initiatives and actions concerning health and safety.

However, reinforcing the exhortations and advice of the Health and Safety Group, recent proposals for, and changes in, national and European legislation, the increasing emphasis on all aspects of sustainability and the very high profile given to health and safety by the Deputy Prime Minister have served to give the topic the highest priority throughout steelwork construction. It is therefore an appropriate time to review a few recent and current health and safety activities in the sector.

Skills Cards

In 2001, the Major Contractors Group (MCG) released its Health and Safety Strategy. The objective of the strategy was to minimise the number of accidents on MCG sites, and to try to achieve this objective, the MCG companies demanded of its sub-contractors that they meet a number of criteria regarding the competence and operation of their on-site workforces. In particular, the MCG required that by 1 January 2004, all workers on MCG sites should hold an assessment of competence and a health and safety ‘passport’. Both criteria would be met by holders of, for example, Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) skills cards. The requirement was to be phased in over the 27 months from October 2001.

BCSA sought immediately to bring in skills cards for steel erectors in co-ordination with CSCS. This was not permitted initially, because it appeared probable that the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) would launch an erectors card early in 2002.

However, the ECITB proposal ran into difficulties, and in October 2002, BCSA and CSCS agreed on the requirements for a Non-vocational Qualification-based steel erectors card. A family of four steelwork erector’s cards and four steelwork fabricator’s cards were launched on 6 January 2003. BCSA member companies are now being encouraged to acquire skills cards for their own on-site erectors and fabricators and to advise their sub-contractors to do the same.

Vibration and Noise

It is expected that the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament will soon formally agree the new Directive controlling occupational exposure to noise. The Directive will supersede the existing Noise Directive (86/188/EEC), which is implemented in the UK by the Noise at Work Regulations 1989. The new Directive will then have to be transposed into UK law within three years. BCSA is represented in the forum that is discussing the implementation of the Directive with the Health and Safety Executive.

A European Community Directive on the exposure of workers to vibrations was agreed in 2002. It must be transposed into law in the UK within five years. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the effect the new Directive will have on industry. HSE has carried out some tests with individual companies, but the BCSA Health and Safety Group wishes to obtain much clearer data on the impact of the regulations upon steelwork contractors and their workforce. A project will be established in 2003 to obtain information on the performance of those tools in common use in the sector and those tasks that generate significant vibration. It is intended to produce guidance for the sector to permit steelwork contractors to ensure that their workforce is not subjected to potentially damaging levels of vibration and to support submissions to the sector’s insurers and insurance brokers.

Safe Site Handover Certificate

In addition to addressing issues such as safe working at height, personal protective equipment and preventing and arresting falls, site safety demands proper site conditions, access and hardstandings. In the past, these basic essentials for safe erection of steelwork have often been given low priority. In an effort to change this situation, the BCSA developed and, on 1 September 2001, launched its Safe Site Handover Certificate (SSHC). The objectives of the SSHC are to minimise on-site risks, improve efficiency, reduce costs, agree safety criteria, and assist all concerned in meeting their legal and moral responsibilities for health and safety on-site.

The SSHC provides a checklist approach to key areas of safety related to site conditions, and is included in tenders made by BCSA member companies. The checklist is intended as the basis of discussion and agreement between the principal contractor and the steelwork contractor during the tender award period. Ideally, the steelwork contractor should receive the completed SSHC seven days before the agreed start date. This will allow him to be assured that adequate site conditions have been provided, and for the delivery and erection of steelwork to begin in safety on the agreed date. The SSHC checklist provides the means for monitoring conditions throughout the programme of steel erection, to ensure that the site conditions are maintained at a satisfactory standard. HSE has welcomed the SSHC initiative, and over 50 leading main contracting companies have now accepted the certificate on steel construction projects.

Health and Safety Seminar – 3 July 2002 Following on from the ‘health and safety summit’ at Derby in October 2000, the National Steelwork Contractors Group and the BCSA Health and Safety Group held a joint seminar at Coombe Abbey on 3 July 2002. Those present were briefed on a number of topical health and safety matters, including an update on the main health and safety issues since the October 2000 summit, and the progress on the priority issues established at that summit.

The seminar recognised that manpower resources were limited, but recommended that greater use should be made of the expertise of the company representatives in the BCSA Health and Safety Group. It was proposed that small working groups be established to address specific health and safety issues and tasks, such as updating a particular sector guidance document. Although the National Steelwork Contractors Group had identified and prioritised ten health and safety topics, it would have been unrealistic to expect all ten to be addressed swiftly and successfully. Therefore, a short list of the four top priority items was recommended for action. These topics were:

  • Unsafe site conditions: The SSHC should be implemented as much as possible. It would require high profile PR to the main contractor community. However, in June 2002, the Chief Executive of the Confederation of Construction Clients had endorsed the use of the SSHC. This information should be used in the PR effort
  • Better liaison with HSE: It was necessary to improve liaison with HSE, aimed, in particular, at achieving greater uniformity of interpretation of health and safety regulations by inspectors. BCSA should produce more guidance and best practice documents for the sector. If supported or agreed by HSE, such documents could help to improve the uniformity of interpretation. The five areas that most urgently required guidance/best practice documents were: – Multi-storey buildings – Low rise buildings – Refurbishment – Bridges – Snagging and remedial work Five small working groups were established to generate the relevant guidance notes. Reports are expected from these working groups in the first quarter of 2003.
  • Training and competence: There was an urgent need for proper NVQ training for erectors. Equally, it was essential for some form of erector’s passport that would hold a record of the type of work done over the years. 
  • Construction [Design and Management] Regulations 1994 and the Designer’s responsibility: Steel construction should be made easier to understand. SCI might be asked to generate guidance documents and courses aimed at the design engineers. The aim should be to point out not only what the engineers must consider, but also what steps they should take to address the conclusions from their consideration.

Tony Fairweather, is Manager R&D at BCSA.

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