Why there’s a gaping hole in health and safety practice

20 JULY, 2017
Chris Gearren

The three biggest safety hazards on construction sites are widely acknowledged to be excavations, working at height and movement of vehicles and plant. Can you pick the odd one out?

Excavations is arguably exception, being the only one of these hazards often viewed as not serious enough to require essential and accredited training in how to minimise the risks.

Operatives working at height from a mobile elevating work platform must have IPAF cards – mandatory and checked on site. If they’re erecting a mobile access tower, they must hold a PASMA card (again, mandatory and checked on site). Similarly, if you want to operate construction plant equipment on virtually any site you must hold the appropriate CPCS or NPORS card.

But what about working in and around excavations – some of the most difficult and dangerous construction activities?

Burden of proof

Often, a simple toolbox talk and a flip through the shoring equipment manual is all that’s expected. But this is not always sufficient to ensure best-practice use of shoring equipment.

Official HSE guidance makes it clear that the safety of workers in or near excavations must be protected and that excavation supports or battering must be inspected by a competent person. However, unlike machine operations or working at height, it’s much less likely that someone is going to demand proof that groundworkers have had specialist training in how to carry out this work.

“It’s only when the tier one contractors demand a particular training certificate or card that all the subcontractors get on board and train their people”

It’s not that there aren’t any nationally recognised qualifications for groundworks. Courses such as the EUSR Install, Inspect and Remove Shoring Systems course are available. These provide both classroom and critical practical live tuition, which is renewed every three years to keep knowledge fresh.

But in the UK, health and safety legislation is ruled by ‘what is reasonably practicable’.

Until it’s too late

Essentially, you must take reasonable precautions to eliminate the work activity or minimise the risk. There’s no statutory requirement to hold any particular qualification; your competence is only tested when something goes wrong.

As we’ve seen with work at height and machinery movements, it’s only when the tier one contractors demand a particular training certificate or card that all the subcontractors get on board and train their people.

Sadly many subcontractors don’t feel the need to provide specialist training until a client demands it or their company suffers a fatality or a major incident – by which time of course it’s too late.

Chris Gearren is general manager (training) at Groundforce

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