Expansion of Aviation Industry Brings New Challenges, Says Virgin Health & Safety Chi

Expansion of Aviation Industry Brings New Challenges, Says Virgin Health & Safety Chief

Each year, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) receives about 40 reported incidents of air transport industry staff injuring themselves after falling from height - many of them occurring airside during aircraft maintenance - according to an article in this month’s Health & Safety International.
Of these, falls from height and workplace transport incidents are the most common, says the piece’s author, Virgin Atlantic Group Adviser Health, Safety and Environmental Risk, Colin Wehrle.

‘Global expansion of the aviation industry, along with ever increasing pressures to keep costs down (which means tighter turnarounds for aircraft), has brought new health and safety challenges,’ says Colin, who works at Virgin HQ in Crawley.

A significant proportion of the most serious accidents occur during aircraft turnaround. ‘During a turnaround (a Boeing 747 typically has 45 minutes to complete this manoeuvre), passengers have to disembark, baggage and cargo has to be taken off , the aircraft has to be maintained, fuelled and de-iced... ‘, says Colin. ‘Catering provision will also have to be made and cleaning carried out before re-embarkation of passengers.

‘Many of these activities will be undertaken by different companies, all wanting to get their part of the procedure completed on time. If caterers don’t restock an aircraft on time, or cleaners don’t get it cleaned, it holds up the aircraft and there can be serious repercussions for the service operator.’
‘Virtually all maintenance on an aircraft turnaround has got to be done at height. And because aircraft designers haven’t traditionally considered how the engineers will gain access to maintain different parts of the aircraft, it’s sometimes difficult to get to the place you need to, when you need to.
Access equipment needs to be flexible, lightweight and easily towable and to be able to reach all the aircraft’s nooks and crannies.

‘When I joined the industry seven years ago, I was surprised at the safety standards that were being accepted at airports,’ says Colin. ‘Without adequately designed access steps, engineers were placing boxes of oil cans – or whatever else they could get hold of – on top of steps to access the parts they needed to reach.’

But the Work at Heights Regulations 2005 placed new legal responsibilities on employers to ensure that equipment (such as ladders and platforms) used to facilitate working at any height above ground level minimises the risk of falling and offers sufficient protection to workers.

When it came to aircraft maintenance, the industry had used one design of steps for all tasks for the past 20-25 years, but that gave little or no protection from falling and when accessing the cargo hold, a large unprotected gap was left.

Colin explains in the article how specialist engineering firm Semmco helped the airline find solutions.

‘The challenge was to find steps that were easily towable, that could be used at variable height, that could withstand the harsh working environment of the airport and that could be easily manoeuvred by one person. They also had to work on all three airport types that Virgin operated (the Airbus A340-300 and 600 and the Boeing 747).’

The first version Semmco created, the cargo-bay access steps, were designed in response to a serious accident (an engineer fell from the cargo hold, sustaining serious back and head injuries). The top of the steps had swing-out adjustable gates giving total protection to those working in the cargo hold. And because both the swing out gate and the height of the steps were adjustable, they could be fitted to all three aircraft types.

The second model, the engine access steps were designed to safely access the front of the engines (to access fan blades) and underneath the engine (the engine cowls). They were also height adjustable (they can slide to a height of 1.5,2.5 and 3.2 metres) which meant you could get to the inboard engines as well.

‘What became clear when we trialled the second version, however, was that what the engineers really wanted was the old familiar set of steps – or at least the principle of them – for everday use – so Semmco developed the fixed height steps. These steps gave good access under the engines and outside the engines to top up the oil on turnarounds.

‘There have been no falls in the hangars at Gatwick or Heathrow since the steps have been introduced,’ says Colin. ‘The pressure’s still there in turnaround – it just means now that, rather than taking short cuts, engineers have equipment that is fit for purpose, easily towable and that enables them to get where they want to, when they need to, more easily.’

Colin has set up the Aviation Engineering Safety Advisors’ Forum, an interest group for industry members in the UK, which meets quarterly to share best practice. The group may be extended in future to become an international network.

Semmco’s variable height steps were shortlisted for Innovation of the Year at this year’s Safety & Health Practitioner IOSH awards.

- Falls from height are the biggest single cause of death in the workplace and the second biggest cause of major injuries at work in Great Britain
- There were 91.000 fall from height accidents in the UK in the seven year period 1997-2003, resulting in three or more days off work.
- Forty-five people died in 2006/7 as a result of a fall at work. In the same time there were 3750 major injuries (350 every month!)
- The Work at Height Regulations 2005 (as amended) set out a set of rules that must be followed when you are planning working at height
- The most common factors where falls from height occur involve a failure to: recognise a problem; provide safe systems of work; ensure that safe systems of work are followed; provide adequate information, instruction, training or supervision; use appropriate equipment, or provide safe equipment.
- The main causes of accidents and ill-health for air transport staff are musculoskeletal disorders; slips and trips; being struck by a falling object; falls from height and workplace transport.
[source: HSE]


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