BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Analysis of accidents aids safe practice

The principal contractor's approach was ill considered and negligent, contravening sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act

Author: Jeffrey Tribich

31 August 2019

Although accidents are never welcome, analysing them can inform safe practice in future, and the circumstances of a recent site incident offer just such lessons.

The accident involved work to the pitched roof of an occupied office building. The principal contractor obtained risk assessments and a method statement from its roofing subcontractor. The works started with stripping the existing roof covering. A lorry was to attend site to take away the old slates, felt and battens, but it did not arrive at the agreed time. Therefore, the subcontractor changed its sequence of work and the old materials were kept on the roof while the stripping continued.

However, this resulted in a roofer inadvertently stepping on an unsupported tile batten. The batten gave way, the felt tore and the roofer fell. His feet crashed through the suspended ceiling below before his fall was arrested and he came to a jarring stop, each of his arms over adjacent rafters.

He was bruised, grazed and shaken, but not seriously hurt. No one was working immediately below where the ceiling tiles had landed, although there were office workers to both sides. It was pure luck that he had not fallen on someone: the consequences could have been tragic.

After the accident, the principal contractor's health and safety consultant prepared a report stating that the root cause was the late arrival of the skip, which led to the storage of stripped materials on the roof, and this in turn restricted space for manoeuvring. A little probing revealed a more concerning picture, however.

  • Although the builder had carried out a risk assessment, he appeared not to have considered the possibility of falls and the risk to roofers and people working below. This was surprising given that these are the main risks of working at height.
  • The roof worker was not formally trained and had not received any information, instruction or training on the risks hemight come across, either on this or any of his previous jobs.
  • He was working alone and unsupervised.
  • He had been carrying an armful of battens and could not see where he was stepping.

The principal contractor's approach was ill considered and negligent; it contravened sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974., which aims to ensure a safe system of work, maintain a safe working environment and provide information, instruction and training, as well as requiring that work be supervised by a qualified professional and that no other parties are exposed to risk either.

The approach also contravened the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

So, what are the key lessons from this case for contractors?

Before starting work, they should carry out a comprehensive risk assessment. They should devise a safe working method that addresses the risks, avoiding danger to employees and other parties, and use adequately experienced and trained supervisory staff to ensure compliance with the safe working method.

They should certainly not do as the contractor in this case did afterwards, doltishly devising a new system of work that did nothing to address the very risks that gave rise to the accident in the first place. Such situations can, conceivably, expose surveyors to prosecution. Choosing competent contractors – those with suitable skills, knowledge and experience – will help avoid this, but the choice is not always in a surveyor's gift.

So other than contractor choice, what can a surveyor do to avoid similar situations? First, ensure that the contractor prepares risk assessments and method statements. Second, although checking and approving method statements is not generally a surveyor's contractual or statutory duty - and is best avoided - a light-touch review may reveal irregularities that, if corrected, will provide both physical and legal protection for them and their client alike.

Jeffrey Tribich is lead health and safety consultant at Malcolm Hollis jeffrey.tribich@malcolmhollis.com

Related competencies include: Health and safety

Further information: The report Staying Alive: Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities While Working at Height is available from workingatheight.info

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