Last reviewed 26 October 2015

Maintenance work continues to be a major source of fatal and serious accidents: up to 30% of fatal accidents in the manufacturing sector can be attributed to maintenance activity. Andrew Christodoulou reports.

It is the nature of maintenance which can make it so dangerous for workers. Often maintenance work puts workers into difficult “non-typical” work situations where a high standard of health and safety can be difficult to achieve. Often maintenance is unplanned and reactive, dealing with breakages, break downs and blockages which were not foreseen. Also, third party contractors are often used for maintenance activities, meaning that control of health and safety can be challenging.

Maintenance work can expose workers to a broad range of hazards. They can face sometimes unusual work situations and have to deal with a breadth of requirements and standards. It is only by detailed consideration and planning that the maintenance activity will be properly controlled. It should be a high priority for all organisations.

Legal requirements

There are no specific legal requirements for maintenance work but it is covered by the general requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Regulations made under the Act. In particular s.2(2) of the Act requires employers to:

“Provide and maintain plant and systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health”

Because of the range of hazards encountered, there is in turn the need to consider a range of legal requirements and standards and typically these may include requirements relating to both health and safety as well as those relating to premises and plant and equipment.

As with all work activities the starting point for safe maintenance is the risk assessment required by regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 which will provide a platform for the introduction of control measures designed to protect those involved in maintenance work.

The “Management” Regulations also require at Regulation 5, that arrangements are in place to ensure that health and safety is effectively managed and the Plan, Do, Check, Act approach promoted by the HSE in its HSG65 Managing for Health and Safety can be applied to maintenance.

Hazards

The nature of maintenance means that there are many different types of hazard which can be encountered and this adds to the need for careful planning and management of maintenance activities. According to the HSE there are four particular hazards which deserve special consideration because of the severity of the harm associated with them and because they are commonly faced by workers during plant and building maintenance. These are as follows:

Falls from height

Maintenance work often involves work at height often involving the use of access equipment to reach roofs, gutters, building services, and raised sections of plant and machinery. Apart from the risk of falls, there can also be the risk of dropping objects. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 require work at height to be avoided where reasonably practicable, otherwise measures need to be taken to prevent falls or mitigate the consequences of a fall. Typically, work access equipment such as Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) or tower scaffolds may be required to provide a safe place of work. The HSE’s WAIT toolkit, accessible on its website provides advice and guidance on the suitability of most types of access equipment. Falls from height remains the biggest cause of fatal accidents in the workplace and merits a high priority during maintenance work.

Isolation and permits to work

Maintenance work often involves work at height often involving the use of access equipment to reach roofs, gutters, building services, and raised sections of plant and machinery. Apart from the risk of falls, there can also be the risk of dropping objects. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 require work at height to be avoided where reasonably practicable, otherwise measures need to be taken to prevent falls or mitigate the consequences of a fall. Typically, work access equipment such as Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) or tower scaffolds may be required to provide a safe place of work. The HSE’s WAIT toolkit, accessible on its website provides advice and guidance on the suitability of most types of access equipment. Falls from height remains the biggest cause of fatal accidents in the workplace and merits a high priority during maintenance work.

Isolation and permits to work

Maintenance work often involves work at height often involving the use of access equipment to reach roofs, gutters, building services, and raised sections of plant and machinery. Apart from the risk of falls, there can also be the risk of dropping objects. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 require work at height to be avoided where reasonably practicable, otherwise measures need to be taken to prevent falls or mitigate the consequences of a fall. Typically, work access equipment such as Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) or tower scaffolds may be required to provide a safe place of work. The HSE’s WAIT toolkit, accessible on its website provides advice and guidance on the suitability of most types of access equipment. Falls from height remains the biggest cause of fatal accidents in the workplace and merits a high priority during maintenance work.

A “permit to work” is a formal, written, safe system of work to control potentially hazardous activities. Permits must detail the work to be done and the precautions to be taken (for instance, they may involve limiting the movement of overhead cranes, the precautions needed for high voltage work or requirements for entering a vessel). Permits should be issued, checked and signed off as being completed by someone competent to do so, and who is not involved in undertaking the work.

Permits to work will tend to be appropriate in the following types of situation: where a contractor's work interfaces with normal production activities; work on plant which must be isolated from the possible entry of fumes, liquids, steam or gases; hot work which could cause fire or explosion, and entry into vessels, machines or confined spaces.

Falls of heavy items

Maintenance work often involves work at height often involving the use of access equipment to reach roofs, gutters, building services, and raised sections of plant and machinery. Apart from the risk of falls, there can also be the risk of dropping objects. The Work at Height Regulations 2005 require work at height to be avoided where reasonably practicable, otherwise measures need to be taken to prevent falls or mitigate the consequences of a fall. Typically, work access equipment such as Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) or tower scaffolds may be required to provide a safe place of work. The HSE’s WAIT toolkit, accessible on its website provides advice and guidance on the suitability of most types of access equipment. Falls from height remains the biggest cause of fatal accidents in the workplace and merits a high priority during maintenance work.

A “permit to work” is a formal, written, safe system of work to control potentially hazardous activities. Permits must detail the work to be done and the precautions to be taken (for instance, they may involve limiting the movement of overhead cranes, the precautions needed for high voltage work or requirements for entering a vessel). Permits should be issued, checked and signed off as being completed by someone competent to do so, and who is not involved in undertaking the work.

Permits to work will tend to be appropriate in the following types of situation: where a contractor's work interfaces with normal production activities; work on plant which must be isolated from the possible entry of fumes, liquids, steam or gases; hot work which could cause fire or explosion, and entry into vessels, machines or confined spaces.

Disturbing asbestos

Asbestos is still present in many workplaces in the UK. Maintenance workers can be inadvertently exposed to asbestos where proper precautions are not taken. These include surveys to determine whether asbestos is or is likely to be present. Apart from asbestos, maintenance work can involve potential exposure to a range of other hazardous substances such as fumes, asphyxiants, and corrosive materials.

Case studies

In 2001, at Fresha Bakeries (trading as Harvestime Bakeries) in the Midlands, three men died when they entered a bakery oven for maintenance work. The men became trapped inside the oven where the temperatures were above 100ºC. There was no safe system of work in place and no means of getting the men out in the case of an emergency. The temperature gauge clearly showed the high temperature inside the oven. The Company and three Directors where fined a total of £373K.

More recently, a maintenance company, Aspect Maintenance Services Ltd, was fined for safety failings after an employee was injured when he fell from a roof. Southwark Crown Court heard how, in February 2014, an employee of Aspect Maintenance Services Limited of London was working as a roofing engineer on a domestic house in Tooting. He was repairing the roof when he slipped and fell, landing on a table on the patio area below. There was no edge protection on the roof at the time of the accident. He suffered a shattered elbow, a broken jaw, tissue damage to his knee and facial injury.

In another incident, an animal feed supplement manufacturer was fined for serious safety failings after a worker lost his arm after it was pulled into machinery. Frederick Sharp, 71, of Stamford, had to have his right arm amputated after the incident at UFAC (UK) Ltd.’s plant in Oakham, Rutland on 14 January 2014. He was adjusting a conveyor belt on a production line. He removed a guard to access the adjusting screw when his arm was drawn into the in-running nip between the belt and roller.

Conclusions

Maintenance work is one the most dangerous activities undertaken by organisations. The HSE’s “newsfeed” reports almost daily on fatal or serious accidents relating to maintenance. Positive action needs to be taken to change the news from bad to good.