When thinking of working at height and falls from height, many people will think first of construction workers – falling from scaffolding, through fragile roofs, or from ladders positioned against a new building. However, two recent cases remind us that falls from height can occur – with serious consequences – in manufacturing.
In the first case, one of the directors of a small textile manufacturing company in West Yorkshire decided that in order to clear a blockage from a carding machine, he would stand on top of the machine and poke it with a metal bar. Although the machine had been switched off, parts were still moving, and he fell into the machine when his clothing became entangled. He died. The firm had to pay fines and costs of nearly £240,000. The dead man’s brother, another director of the firm, received a suspended prison sentence of 12 months. Losing his brother is a sentence he must deal with for the rest of his life.
It would be easy to think that such incidents are limited to small, owner-operated companies such as this textile firm, but another case shows that even large organisations with reputations to protect can get it wrong.
Bakers of crumpets, tea cakes and sliced bread, Warburtons Ltd, have a factory in the West Midlands. Although cleaning machinery is a routine task, risk assessments had not been produced for all cleaning procedures. One task involved dismantling and reattaching pipes at height. A step ladder had been provided for the task, but it was not high enough to reach the pipes so staff routinely had to pull their weight up by holding onto the machinery, and climb onto a narrow ledge to reach the pipes. An accident was inevitable for such a task carried out on a regular basis, and when a worker fell 1.6 metres from this ledge he damaged his spine badly enough that he had to be dismissed on medical grounds.
Warburtons: Fined £2million
Working at height, such as climbing onto machinery to access other equipment does not form part of a safe system of work. Ladders are fine for jobs of short duration (less than half an hour) where a risk assessment of the job being carried out shows that there is no other practical way of carrying out the task, and the risk of injury is acceptable. For example, changing the battery in a smoke detector in a normal height ceiling does not involve carrying lots of equipment; if a heavy toolbox is needed, balancing this on a ladder would be inappropriate so a better means of access might be required.
In the case of the textile company, working from a ladder instead of climbing on the plant wouldn’t have prevented the accident unless they had also isolated the machinery. In the Warburtons case the ladder was too short to reach the job, and for routine jobs such as this, it is practical to provide a better means of access. Warburtons have since made a MEWP (Mobile Elevated Working Platform) available for workers to carry out the same job.
So here’s a “jolly” reminder you can use when deciding if a ladder is the right means of access for a job, whether carrying out risk assessments, devising safe systems of work, or providing a tool box talk to workers.
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