Training demands more than lip-service

7 December 2001

In the second of our regular series of features supplied by the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association, Derrick Bailes outlines the importance of training and suitably qualified staff

Throughout industry, there is certainly no shortage of companies declaring a genuine commitment to staff training. In a competitive marketplace, however, and with pressure on profit margins growing ever more intense, it is inevitable that training budgets are often seen as a soft target for cost cutting exercises.

In recent years, companies involved in the examination, supply, use and maintenance of lifting equipment have tended to reflect these conflicting trends. The latest legislation puts greater emphasis on the need for appropriately qualified staff, and there has indeed been considerable progress in terms of the priority given to training. At the same time, a significant proportion of the training that is taking place is too vague and lacks the rigorous assessment necessary to have a real impact on the safety of lifting operations.

Concerns over the shortage of suitably trained staff within the lifting industry are currently being raised within the insurance side of the business, in particular with regard to the quality and frequency of equipment examinations.

The consequences of these shortcomings are all too predictable. Inadequate or non-existent training is a common factor in lifting accidents and, beyond the obvious moral obligations that employers should respect concerning employee safety, the financial consequences of mistakes and omissions are growing ever more severe. A major scrap processing company, for example, was recently fined £200,000 ($290,000) following the death of a fitter at one of its plants in London, England. The man was killed during the annual overhaul of the fragmentising machine at the site. He was lifting a 130kg plate using a two-leg chain sling; one of the legs caught on part of the machine and then released violently, striking the man on the head.

Even relatively minor accidents can have major financial repercussions. With companies and consumers growing ever more sensitive to negative publicity, a bad record for health and safety can have a direct impact on the bottom line. Furthermore, accidents have knock-on effects in terms of lost and disrupted production, higher insurance premiums, increased sickness payments, the costs of finding new employees and overall staff morale.

While it is relatively easy to make the case for 'first class' training, defining it is rather more difficult. No two organisations will have precisely the same training requirements when it comes to lifting operations and it is vital that programmes are tailored to reflect individual circumstances. Despite this, it is possible to outline the general principles that should be applied to ensure that staff are properly prepared to perform safe, efficient lifting operations.

In broad terms, four job functions are involved: examination, planning, operation and supervision. As modern, risk-based legislation has moved away from prescribed maximum periods between equipment examinations to a more flexible approach, greater responsibility has been placed on the examiner. Any assessment of an examiner's training requirements will inevitably need to address the definition of a 'competent person'. Frequently used in legislation, but ironically never fully defined in law, for the purpose of thoroughly examining lifting equipment, the LEEA's description of a competent individual is: "A person having such practical and theoretical knowledge and experience of the equipment which is to be thoroughly examined that will enable him/her to detect defects or weaknesses which it is the purpose of the examination to discover and assess their importance to the safety of the equipment. The competent person should have the maturity to seek such specialist advice and assistance as may be required to enable him/her to make necessary judgements and be a sound judge of the extent to which he/she can accept the opinions of other specialists. He/she must be able to certify with confidence whether it is free from patent defect and suitable in every way for the duty for which the equipment is required. It is the view of the LEEA that competency can be a corporate responsibility." For those involved in planning and executing lifting operations, the training process should begin with an effective set of procedures to ensure that suitable candidates are selected in the first place. Reliability, responsibility and an appropriate attitude to safety are important and both mathematical and mechanical aptitude may be necessary. Physical and mental fitness should also be considered.

As far as operators are concerned, it goes without saying that they should be trained in risk assessment and the use of the relevant equipment. Formal training, fully documented, is strongly recommended and should be tailored to the skills and experience of the staff involved.

General requirements that training should address include informing operators on the specific use for which an item of lifting equipment is intended and ensuring access to operating instructions, the correct method of use of equipment and warnings on incorrect and dangerous practices, and identifying and understanding equipment markings. Training for those planning the lifting operation should cover identification of hazards, assessment of the associated risk and methods of controlling risks. Operator training should also cover daily equipment check procedures, pre-lift checks such as load and angle estimation and identifying and reporting basic equipment defects and correct methods of attaching load, slings and other accessories. Other issues that must be addressed include lifting and lowering procedures to be followed, signals to be used between staff, possible faults that could occur in use and procedures to be adopted on completion of lifting operations, such as appropriate storage of equipment. The need to seek advice in case of doubt should always be stressed to operators.

These then are the general issues. Training specific to the equipment involved will also be required. In the case of portable lifting machines such as hand operated chain blocks and chain lever hoists, for example, the selection of suitable suspension points must be addressed and, in the case of slings an appropriate type (i.e. chain, wire rope or textile) must be selected so that the sling does not damage the load and the load does not damage the sling.

Training for the supervisor or 'responsible person' is likely to include the above, but with a different emphasis. In particular, supervisors should be in a position to ensure that the competence of operators is continually monitored and the need for any additional or refresher training identified.

Whatever the particular content of a training course, two issues can be seen as critical to its effectiveness. The first is the ability of the instructor. In addition to being competent and experienced in the use of the relevant equipment, the instructor should be well motivated and possess the communication skills necessary to lead and control effectively and be responsive to trainees' needs. Key responsibilities include the ability to set a training specification, design an appropriate course and construct useful tests.

Closely related to the qualities of the instructor is the need for effective appraisal, which can include both written and practical tests. Only when these have been successfully completed should trainees be given specific authorisation to perform and/or supervise lifting operations.

The significance of training is hard to underestimate. Several years ago, for example, a serious accident occurred on a construction site due the type of sling selected and the way it was used. A large building was being refurbished and the contractor wanted a small forklift truck in the basement to handle stocks of materials. The only means of access was to lift the truck with a crane over the roof and lower it down the vacant lift shaft. Unfortunately the slings used were textile webbing and were placed around the truck such that they were over a corner. All seemed well initially but while the truck was being lowered down the shaft, a sling failed and the truck fell to the bottom. The debris which flew on impact hit a workman, with tragic consequences. The sling in question was of adequate capacity and had it been protected from the corner it would not have failed. Alternatively, a sling more tolerant of such use, such as a chain sling, could have been used.

In another case, steel pipes were being handled by pipe hooks attached to the legs of a two leg sling, normally a straightforward and safe method of handling large diameter pipes lying horizontally. The pipe hooks, however, had been attached using shackles with standard screw type pins through the eyes of the pipe hooks. As the legs came under tension and took up a straight line, the friction between the eye of the pipe hook and the shackle pin tended to grip and turn the pin. On one hook this was in the direction of tightening the pin but on the other it slackened the pin. After several lifts the pin came out and the pipe fell, again with tragic consequences. This accident would have been avoided if shackles with nut and bolt type pins which can be secured with a split pin had been used.

Above and beyond the health and safety benefits, it is quite possible to make a sound financial case for proper training, countering those that would seek to justify cutting corners in this area on 'economic' grounds. Just consider the financial cost of the above two examples in terms of damage to equipment and property, delays to the job in hand, the time of senior personnel in investigating and dealing with the aftermath of the incident, subsequent legal proceedings and, very likely, substantial fines and compensation. Compare that with the cost of a few days of proper and verified training.