Steel’s safety push on HAVS and fumes

1 April 2019 | By Neil Gerrard

The steelwork sector has a strong record on health and safety, but its main trade body has concerns about hand arm vibration syndrome and welding fumes. Neil Gerrard explains.

Constructional steelwork’s safety record is ahead of government and industry targets – but the industry’s main trade body still has worries it wants to address.

Pete Walker is director of health, safety and training at the British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) and one of his main areas of focus this year is occupational health. He is concerned about the levels of white finger, more correctly known as hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) in the sector. In his view, it is due to overuse of grinders, a ubiquitous tool in constructional steelwork.

Walker says workers typically want to get a “shiny edge” on their steelwork and will use a grinder to achieve it – but he points out it is very often painted over or welded anyway.

The steel sector’s record on safety

In 2017, the BCSA accident frequency rate* was 0.4 compared with the 2010 government target of 1.6 and an industry target of 0.7 (set by BCSA members).  A frequency rate of zero remains the desired target.

*Frequency rate = Number of accidents x 100,000, divided by the average number of hours worked.

“There are times when we need to grind and edge for technical reasons but let’s not just grind everything for the sake of it,” he adds. “I am trying to get people to stop and think: do they really need to use the grinder? If we only grind what we need to, I think we will make a significant difference to HAVS.”

He also sees a more holistic safety benefit to reduced use of the tools, because of the hazards associated with flying sparks, noise exposure and increased fire risk.

The BCSA is also working to highlight the risk of welding fumes, after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) introduced new enforced control measures for welding operations, following an announcement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which has classified welding fumes and UV radiation from welding as Group 1 carcinogens.

“We have been running talks on weld fumes and we want to raise awareness of this issue,” Walker says. “We are about to issue a training pack because you need the person who is exposed to weld fumes to understand what they need to do. Managers can put as much equipment and facilities in place as they like but if people don’t use them then they are not much use. It is all about education.”

Broadly though, the sector performs well on safety. Leading fabricator Cleveland Bridge UK has recently completed one million hours without a recordable accident.

The firm, which employs more than 300 at its Darlington facility, attributes the achievement to the continuing development of its safety culture and an extensive programme of training, coaching, information and supervision.

Initiatives include regular scheduled meetings, toolbox talks and safety audits to encourage the workforce to adopt a unified and positive attitude towards safety and compliance.

Managing director Chris Droogan says: “The fact that Cleveland Bridge UK has surpassed a million hours without a recordable accident underlines our deep commitment to the welfare of our workforce.

“It is even more remarkable given that we operate in an industry in which we deal with major engineering and construction challenges.” 

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