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Using technology to segregate and signpost static hazards

21 May 2019

In this article, Gary Escott of SiteZone Safety discusses how RFID (Radio frequency identification) technology can protect personnel not just from collision with moving vehicles, but also static hazards.

Dangerous work – things that go bump on a site

Sadly, we read frequently about the safety breaches and dangers in high risk industries, whether it’s a worker falling from height or being struck by a moving vehicle. The construction sector is probably the most well-known for accidents, where workers are frequently injured or even killed while doing their jobs. This is closely followed by the waste and agricultural sectors, that also suffer from high injury occurrences. In fact, the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) reports on UK fatalities by industry show that the agriculture and waste and recycling sectors have the worst figures, with a rate of injury some 18 times and 16 times higher respectively than the average across all industries.

Construction and industrial sites can be very dangerous places due to a lot of activity as people, machinery and vehicles move around together in close proximity to one another. Being lulled into a false of security about how close one is to plant and machinery, coupled with compromised vision, is a dangerous recipe for collision incidents. The accident and fatality figures imply that spatial awareness is not always present when personnel are working close to vehicles and plant. Between 2017-2018, the HSE construction industry statistics show that being struck by machinery, flying or falling objects, a moving vehicle, dominate as common fatal accidents.

These potentially dangerous breaches of safety can be addressed by effective RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) proximity warning systems. RFID doesn’t require line of sight, is unaffected by environmental conditions, and can see ‘around’ corners and detect the risks that workers and vehicle operators may miss.

A different perspective on proximity warning

The initial safety focus has often been on preventing collisions between personnel and plant or vehicles, but the topography of a site itself can be a danger. Wireless proximity warning technology can be applied for another purpose - not just preventing collisions but to protect against dangerous, static spaces that pose a risk to workers.

Stand-alone and/or wireless proximity warning systems offer the same level of safety, but with the added convenience of being mountable just about anywhere without the need for cabling. They offer visual and audible alarms to let people know that they are approaching a static, unsafe area, or object.

What are static hazards?

Every site should be considered on its own characteristics; its inherent dangers are specific to the type of construction, remediation, refurbishment, or indeed demolition, that is being undertaken. However, we can correlate them with the familiar risk management topics in most safety manuals. Each type of injury risk associated with these features can be reduced by applying an RFID proximity warning perimeter to alert workers, alongside other safety protocols on the site.

MEWPS. There are the conventional vehicular risks such as lorries, heavy plant, forklifts, diggers to name a few. However, MEWPs (mobile elevating work platforms) provide a unique risk in that the operator has no clear visual on what or who may be moving around the base of their platform. While a MEWP is not always static, it can remain that way for long periods of time until the operator decides to move it. If they or pedestrians are not fully aware that this is about to occur, then collisions happen.

Other hazards include materials falling from height, if for example the operator was removing high level debris or construction materials. Having an RFID perimeter set up around the base of a MEWP would mean that other RFID tag-wearing workers could be warned not to stray into its path. Furthermore, the operator can feel more secure about moving the equipment without injuring anyone.

This also has implications for operator stress levels.  Plant operators have shared that fears of collision with a colleague on foot makes their working day more stressful.  Stress has been exposed as a pervasive element in the construction industry’s work-related health profile. Between 2017- 2018, the HSE estimates that around 14,000 cases of stress, depression and anxiety were reported in construction – the equivalent of one-sixth of all ill health reported in the sector.

Holes in the ground. A building site an often be a confused mixture of materials, rubble, trenches and holes in the ground. If undetected by a worker, they are accidents waiting to happen. Works are phased and scheduled and sometimes holes in the ground stay that way for a long time. So, until the holes or trenches (i.e. potential trips and falls) are dealt with, an RFID perimeter can be set up at key danger spots to warn workers, along with other precautions such as physical segregation.
This concept also applies to ‘holes’ inside a site structure. Consider shutes or disused shafts inside a building that, if not heeded, a worker could easily fall into or off. There is also the risk of unsafe structures prone to imminent collapse.

Crossing Zones. On some sites it may not be appropriate to fully deploy RFID proximity warning on vehicles operating on the site. This could be the case where robust and effective segregation systems exist and the main areas of concern are where vehicles and personnel may only interact briefly, such as crossing points.

This also applies to areas where visual impairments on the site, such as bulk materials, may obscure oncoming vehicles.  This is where the ability to ‘see around corners’ may be useful.

Exposure to harmful substances. construction and land remediation often mean dealing with hazardous areas.  There will be protocols in place for workers to carry out their jobs and navigate safely around a site. However, depending on how numerous and extensive the risks are, having an audible reminder to sound when workers stray too close to them is an extra level of protection.

There will also be the need to work around dangerous organics, such as excessive bird faeces, or stagnant ground water that may be harbouring biological contaminants such as rat urine. Ensuring that workers don’t stray into these mires reduces contamination risk among the workforce.

In particularly bad areas where there is pooling that requires drainage, RFID safety perimeters can be set up in tandem with other safety measures, until the offending area is dried out.

Asbestos is a perilous and insidious substance and is found on a variety of construction sites and derelict structures. Its detrimental physical effects are often not detected until many years after exposure.

Disturbing asbestos doesn’t not only pose a risk to workers on a site, but if it becomes airborne, nearby communities may be in harm’s way.  According to  “In 2013, a total of 2,538 UK residents died from mesothelioma, and from 2011 to 2013 — the last year in which figures are available — the UK’s mesothelioma rates rose to 68.2 per million for men and 12.7 per million for women.”

Until specialist asbestos removal contractors are brought onto a site to extract it carefully, other workers should be segregated from the risk.

Think beyond the vehicle

The above examples show that sometimes we need to think differently about conventional risk. Collision may not just mean an object moving into you, but that you might stray into the path of something dangerous.

Positive changes are always made when health and safety managers listen to workers and their needs. The people on the front line hold the key to achieving targeted safety practice, and, through their feedback, technology design can evolve to be even better. While workers may be diligent in their safety practices and existing protocols well thought out, there is always some unexpected risk that no one really thought about before. These are the holes in the plan that technology can fill.

RFID technology is finding ever more uses, no more so than on construction and industrial sites where it can protect workers from collisions, but also guard them against the myriad other risks that can be present.

About the author

Gary Escott is a Director of SiteZone Safety. He set up the company, originally called OnGrade, with Nigel Adams in 2009.

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