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The dangers of unplanned maintenance


It is always upsetting to hear of someone losing their life in an accident at work. Nobody leaves home in the morning not expecting to come back. But it is particularly distressing – for the victim’s family and friends, colleagues and those in the wider industry – when you know that a death could easily have been prevented.

dangerAt Highwire we are obviously acutely aware of incidents where a properly designed and utilised fall-arrest system would have saved lives. We want all employers and operators to fully understand the risks and that just taking the time to put professional precautions in place before undertaking what may seem like a basic job at height can literally be the difference between life and death.

Tragic consequences

In 2012, Cheshire firm Lion Steel Equipment pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter and was fined £480,000 over the fatal fall of maintenance worker Steven Berry at its Hyde site in Greater Manchester. Berry had gone on to the roof in an attempt to locate and repair the source of a leak but he was unsupervised, untrained and wasn’t provided with a fall-arrest harness, crawl boards or any other safety equipment. The roof had several fragile sections, about which there were no warning signs, and it is believed that Berry may have been taking a short cut when he fell through a fibreglass rooflight 13 metres to the factory floor.

The judge responsible for the case described the accident as “entirely foreseeable” with “no precautions being taken to guard against something going wrong”.

“No one told me”

Lion Steel had in fact been previously warned by a Health & Safety Executive inspector about the lack of signs in reference to fragile sections of the roof, but that was just one of the factors contributing to Berry’s death and the firm had not been given specific directions concerning its working-at-height procedures at the site. It is all too easy for business owners to assume that their insurance providers would raise any issues that need to be considered or addressed, but in reality they don’t usually do so, are under no legal obligation to advise in that way, and are rarely qualified in height safety. It is not a defence for a company to say that the insurers haven’t mentioned something!

Make time to plan

If a firm does not already have full, appropriate systems in place for working at height, including on a roof, any maintenance work must wait until expert input has been sought and a proper, safe solution is in place. This is more critical than ever in situations where ‘emergency repairs’ are needed – an unplanned decision to check out a roof because a leak has suddenly sprung or there has been weather damage is far more likely to be approached hastily and without safeguards in place. Even in an era of the most advanced high-tech equipment, sometimes the right answer in the short term is a bucket on the floor to catch the drips while a properly planned repair is organised!

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Specifying the right fall arrest system for each individual


The right fall arrest system for each individual: So much more than a harness that fits

Who remembers the old playground trick question: Which is heavier, a tonne of lead or a tonne of feathers? How about this one: If you drop a hammer and a feather at the same time, which will land first?


The answer to the latter, of course, is that it depends where you are – as proven by Commander David Scott of the Apollo 15 space mission, who conducted this precise experiment on the moon in 1971. He was testing Galileo’s theory from nearly four centuries earlier that objects will fall at the same rate, regardless of their mass, in a vacuum or where the resistance of the medium through which it is falling is negligible. Check out this video beamed back from the Moon 45 years ago (can you believe it?):

The hammer and feather landing simultaneously on the moon’s surface is undoubtedly a ‘Wow’ moment but beyond the science lesson brought to life, the physics at play here has crucial implications in all manner of situations back on Earth.

Feel the force

What is less visible in the famous space footage is that, while the hammer’s acceleration is equal to that of the feather and it hits the ground at the same speed (metres per second – m/s), the hammer has a lot more energy (energy is a combination of speed with mass).

Many people outside engineering and associated fields don’t appreciate the difference between an object’s mass (kilogrammes-kg) and force (kilonewtons – kN) which results from the effect of gravity on that mass and gives the object ever more energy as is speeds up. Yet this difference is the critical factor between a successful fail arrest system and one that could result in serious injury.

A correctly specified fall arrest system needs to account for the mass involved so that the force can be calculated and the system can be tailored to the amount of energy it will have to absorb in operation. At Highwire, we are never simply dealing with a harness and safety lines – a one-size-fits-all approach in these circumstances will not work.

Scientifically tailored solutions

A system that functions perfectly for a 120kg (19st) man could injure a 50kg (8st) woman, for example, if it slowed her fall too quickly. Anyone who has skydived will recall the sensation of being jerked violently upwards as the parachute opened, which was in fact just the extremely fast descent being suddenly slowed – many will have also sported harness-shaped bruising as a memento. The potential for significantly worse injury, including internal damage, in a situation where the fall is unexpected, the person involved is in a far from optimum position and their acceleration must be halted almost instantly, is very clear.

With an increasing number of women working in industries, from engineering and construction to retail and catering, that rely on fall arrest systems under certain conditions, the systems themselves have to be designed and manufactured to cope with a wider range of body mass levels than ever before. At Highwire, this is what we specialise in – precision solutions for the changing market that can be trusted to work effectively whatever the application. The right answer may be slightly different, but our team can advise and deliver the best option for every individual need.

Please get in touch to discuss your fall-arrest requirements

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Quality training delivers the right people and right results


Thanks in no small part to Highwire’s own focus on professional practice and standards, and the way our determination to forge a better service has influenced the wider industry, overall performance and safety levels in the field have undoubtedly improved.


Tailor-made training

While this is clearly a positive move, our team at Highwire has found that external training within the industry can still fall far short of the exacting levels we are committed to within our company. This is not something that anyone at Highwire is prepared to compromise on – we never lose sight of the fact that our ultimate role is to prevent loss of life, and there is no leeway under those circumstances.

As a result, we have consistently invested in our own in-house training, developing successful apprenticeships and pioneering a unique accredited NVQ Level 2 in fall-arrest sector. This is the only qualification of its kind in the sector and key training for operatives.

Foundations of the future workforce

We can give our clients complete assurance that we only use direct and fully trained labour. We are proud to have as a current site supervisor someone who first joined us 12 years ago as a young trainee. Since 2014 Mark Normanton has built his skills and experience with us, recently completing his NVQ Level 2 and now ideally placed with his knowledge, practical abilities and understanding both of Highwire and our clients, to run height-access teams on site.

At the other end of the scale, just starting out following in Mark’s footsteps, we have height access apprentice Saul Del Rio, who has been with Highwire since early last year. He is developing a valuable skillset through a combination of hands-on experience with our operatives, college work and the dedicated Highwire NVQ.

The wider picture on site

Alongside his practical and college-based training, Saul – like all our operatives – is given the opportunity to learn about and respond to the wide variety of situations that crop up in the ‘real world’ by working alongside our teams on site. Highwire is involved with a large number of projects based at schools, colleges and medical facilities, among others, and we believe it is important for both clients and our team members that any of our staff on site understand and are comfortable with the specific environment. To this end, all our operatives are not only appropriately trained but also DBS (previously CRB) checked and always introduced to clients so they know who to expect on site.

Fresh talent across the board

We do not only offer apprenticeships on the height access side but appreciate the benefits of helping to develop quality staff across all aspects of the business. James Burney joined us in October 2015 to work in the sales and marketing department, and trains at NSPP Vocational training alongside his on-the-job experience with us. James is already starting to make an impact at Highwire.

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