Why the primary MEWP operator must always control the machine from the platform

Grounds for Concern

Entrapment is a leading cause of injury and death when using MEWPs; operating equipment from the ground to position workers at height significantly increases the risks involved.

Entrapment is where MEWP occupants become trapped between the controls or guardrails and an immovable object or structure. Such situations often occur suddenly and in some circumstances the operator can make the situation worse by using the controls incorrectly in an attempt to free the occupants. The risk is increased if machines are operated from the ground to lift occupants to work at height. There is a dire need to outlaw this practice in India.

A major concern on worksites in India when using Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPs) is the all-too-common practice of operating machines from the ground using the auxiliary controls to lift platform occupants to work at height. This goes against the recommended safe methods of working, and, in effect, outsources the control of the platform. Continuous observation and assessment of risk is necessary to protect the people most likely to be injured or killed if a mistake is made.

Looking at IPAF’s latest Global Safety Report, which contains analysis of data gathered from around the world via IPAF’s accident reporting portal (ipafaccidentreporting.org), the year 2020 showed the highest number of entrapment reports; the number fell slightly in 2021. IPAF has been gathering accident data from when the reporting portal was launched in 2012, and since 2016 it is evident that the numbers have been higher than in previous years. This is, no doubt, owing in part to an increase in reporting amid raised awareness in the industry about reporting and how it can improve training and provide technical guidance.

Most entrapment situations have been reported from the USA, Canada, the UK, and France – though once again this is down to levels of reporting, with many incidents from countries including India, China and across the Middle East likely going unrecorded. Construction experienced the most entrapment situations, followed by facilities management.

The data indicates that more people seem to have been killed in incidents involving a boom or 3b-type equipment than any other machines, followed by the scissor lift or 3a-type machines. The vast majority of personnel involved in this type of incident is the occupant or operator, though there are also a significant number of delivery drivers, technicians, engineers, and rental company staff involved.

Over the past 10 years (2012-21) there were 110 reported entrapment incidents from 16 countries. From these reports IPAF has verified that there were 111 people involved and 98 people died. In the past three years (2019-21) there were 50 reports from 14 countries. From these reports we have verified that there were 51 people involved and 46 deaths. Well over half (57.5%) of entrapments occurred in the US, mostly in the construction industry. The facilities management sector is not far behind with 21.9% of deaths.

Can entrapment be prevented?
The guardrails offer primary protection for platform occupants. Not all secondary guarding devices disable or reverse functions. Customers still want frames that are physical and not mechanical. Primary guarding also comes in the form of a foot or function-enable switch that will prevent any functions from operating.

MEWP operators should have received the correct training and instruction in the type of secondary guarding fitted to the MEWP. The MEWP operator and platform occupants play a key part in their own safety by being aware of their surroundings and what entrapment hazards are present. These may not be directly overhead but could also be at the ground level. If a MEWP is travelling inside a building, be aware that occupants can become trapped by low-hanging obstacles such as joists or beams.

Work at height needs to be properly planned, supervised, and carried out in a safe manner. Ground rescue personnel should also be familiarised with any MEWP ground control functions and be able to lower the platform in the event of an emergency.

Reducing the number of such incidents requires the combined efforts of manufacturers, management, hirers, rental companies, and operators. In recent years, manufacturers have made advances in safety and technical innovations. Various manufacturers and industry experts are working together to standardise MEWP platform controls in order to prevent unintended movement. There have also been advances in secondary guarding devices; these have been predominately for boom-type MEWPs, but recently there have been developments for vertical-type MEWPs.

Always carry out risk assessments when conducting MEWP operations on site. MEWP operators should be made aware of potential entrapment situations. Supervisory staff should be trained in the safe use and management of MEWPs. A nominated ground rescue person should always be available to lower the MEWP to the ground in the event of an entrapment situation. Rental companies should ensure that all the machines provided to their customers have the appropriate information and instruction on the safe operation of the equipment. All MEWPs should be delivered with an operator’s manual, which must be kept with the machine at all times.

Time to ground unsafe practices
MEWPs should never be operated using the ground controls to allow workers to be elevated in the platform. This significantly increases the risk of workers becoming trapped between the platform and the work area. The occupants of the platform are best placed to continually observe proximity to overhead and adjacent structures; therefore, the primary MEWP operator must always be an occupant of the platform and should be trained accordingly. The equipment is designed for trained operators to control the MEWP from the platform controls, not from the ground.

The ground controls are designed for a trained operator and nominated ground person to carry out function checks on their daily inspection(s); they can be used to position the MEWP platform when the platform is not occupied. Ground controls may also be used to effect an emergency decent in case the main platform controls are not functioning, or the primary operator is incapacitated.

Emergency rescue planning must be in place for any MEWP operations being carried out. These must be appropriate to the type of operation and the machine being used. The rescue plan should be communicated to all involved in the operations including the nominated ground persons and anyone acting in a supervisory role. Rescue plans should be understood and also practiced ensuring that they will be effective in case of an emergency and to ensure that those involved know the practical steps involved to safely lower the platform. Remember, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to rescue planning, and effective rescue plans are much than just a box-ticking exercise. It is not enough to ask, “is there a rescue plan”? There must be a plan in place, it must be an appropriate and effective response, and all involved must understand and have rehearsed the plan.

A good rescue plan should consider that if a platform occupant becomes trapped between the platform and another structure, then is the person:
  • Entrapped while the platform is elevated? An operator in the platform is best placed to use the primary MEWP controls to move the platform to a better position.
  • Entrapped and incapacitated, unconscious, or otherwise unable to access or use the main controls? In this case a trained operator must assume control of the MEWP from the ground to assist in rescuing the person or persons trapped at height.
  • Entrapped against a building or structure following a MEWP tipped or overturned on the worksite? The nominated rescue person(s) must inspect the MEWP for structural damage before attempting to carry out the chosen rescue plan using either the ground or platform controls.
The circumstances of an entrapment situation can be many and varied; there is no universal response to an entrapment situation, and an adequate rescue plan will always involve sensible planning for all eventualities and be properly communicated to both platform occupants, nominated ground person(s) and those acting in a supervisory role before work commences.

Useful resources www.ipaf.org/resources
  • IPAF Back to Basics campaign
  • IPAF Plan Ahead campaign
  • IPAF Walking the MEWP Toolbox Talk
  • Secondary guarding guidance
  • IPAF Overhead obstructions Toolbox Talk
  • IPAF Rescue procedure Toolbox Talk
  • ISO:21455 – Mobile elevating work platforms – Operator’s controls – Actuation, displacement, location and method of operation
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