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Head for heights

Although this is a UK-based survey, the safety lessons for working at height apply internationally in every maintenance hangar and on the line

Stuart McOnie, Founder and Managing Director of Semmco, which designs, manufactures, installs and services a wide range of ground support equipment and aviation access platforms, says aircraft maintenance can be major work involving significant production processes or consist of minor check and repairs between flights. In every case, it is important that the engineering or operations managers ensure their teams of maintenance technicians and engineers are suitability equipped for all tasks that could be required, including working at height. Employers and managers alike need to understand that even a relatively small fall from height can result in significant injury, production loss or fines.

Risk of injury

Every year, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) receives reports of workers in the aviation industry injuring themselves after falling from a height, with many incidents occurring during aircraft maintenance when entering or exiting the aircraft and working on or from service equipment. A significant proportion of the most serious accidents occur during aircraft turnaround, where increased activity is needed due to time pressures.
Almost half of the fatal injuries over the last five years across workplaces generally in the UK were accounted for by just two different kinds of accident, with falling from height being the biggest issue. From 2012 to 2017, there was an average of 40 fatal injuries per year due to falls from height, 28% of the total number of fatal injuries recorded.
The hazards and risks involved in aviation maintenance work is often similar to those found in construction, however, the non-linear shape of aircraft and intricate maintenance tasks employed by technicians to avoid damaging the surface or structure of the aircraft pose additional risks to safety. Working at height is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

Business implications

In 2015 Swissport GB, a subsidiary of Swiss ground and cargo handling services provider Swissport, was fined over £500,000 following two incidents at Luton Airport, one of which breached Work at Height Regulations. This incident occurred during cargo loading operations using a high-loader. The  team leader was climbing a ladder when his foot slipped and he fell backwards to the ground, suffering an impact injury to his right foot. The court heard that Swissport had failed to ensure that work at height on high-loaders was properly planned, appropriately supervised or carried out in a safe manner.
More recently, Inflite Engineering pleaded guilty and was fined £160,000 and ordered to pay costs of over £5,000 following two working at height injuries at Stansted Airport. One company employee and a worker from a temporary agency suffered broken bones when falling from mobile elevated work platforms while conducting service checks on the tail of an aircraft. The HSE investigation found “that no suitable risk assessment was in place and there was a lack of effective monitoring”. Case in point that not only are there grave consequences for the worker when things go wrong, but inadequate equipment or lack of preparation for working at height activities can see serious repercussions for employers in the form of hefty legal fines and reputational damage. Employer responsibility Whether working at height is a one-off task or a part of an engineer’s day-to-day routine, a risk assessment must be carried out to identify any risks associated with the task so that suitable precautions can be implemented accordingly. >>


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