Safe access for HVAC contractors
The tragic death of an HVAC contractor recently is a reminder to renew diligence in WHS procedures in our workplaces
The workplace accident occurred while the contractor was carrying out routine maintenance at a university campus. The man, in his forties, fell 7 metres and suffered critical and fatal head injuries. It was an appalling and avoidable loss of life.
How can further tragedies be avoided? We can retrain our contractors in WSH safety procedures when working on HVAC systems in high or inaccessible places, but are safety protocols enough? The Safety in the HVAC&R Industry survey and report disclosed disturbing concerns about access for HVAC routine maintenance:
Of those surveyed, 29% said access-related issues were the biggest cause of risk in their work day, including:
- working at heights
- working in confined spaces
- working alone and after hours
- unsafe access routes and
- lack of space to safely carry out maintenance
- overuse of vertical ladders (with harness wire) to access plant, as opposed to stairs, walkways and platforms.
The report concluded that the 'increased safety risks and higher ongoing costs associated with poor access to HVAC&R plant and equipment are "designed in" to systems from day one, from before construction even starts.'
Poor design, often dictated by cost, at construction stage, means that access to the HVAC system imposes a dangerous workplace for maintenance personnel for the life of that equipment.
For many years there have been safe access issues in the HVAC industry, as commercial HVAC condensing units are often located on roofs, with ductwork high in ceilings.
Rooftop mounted equipment is often also located too close to the roof edge and multiple rooftop units installed haphazardly can lead to erratic electrical wiring and refrigerant piping on a roof, according to the report.
Access for HVAC maintenance must be provided as part of the National Construction Code (NCC) building certification process, which would include specifying adequate space and guard railing for fixed walkways, platforms and ladders.
But until this happens, maintenance contractors' safety procedures must be paramount:
- only use approved ladders or scaffolding and take care in placement of ladders
- insist on safety harnesses and use harness points
- bring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to every site and every job (including slip resistant footwear)
- avoid exposed edges, open voids or brittle surfaces
- never hang over the side of a building to reach for equipment.
Contractors must not place themselves at risk when carrying out repairs or maintenance on equipment and ultimately this can be done by refusing to undertake work until risks are mitigated.
The AIRAH report recommends that the HVAC industry take action by:
- Industry collaboration with WHS regulators to coordinate and enable a drive to a culture of reporting WHS issues
- National licensing of RAC trade
- System certification for RAC
- Inform building owners about construction legal obligations
- Risk assessment sheet/process for every job
- Design review step
- Remote monitoring and fault detection
- Better communication and enforcement of regulated requirements for access.
- Review and development of guides, codes and standards.
Ultimately, building designers and owners must take responsibility for safe access to HVAC equipment, but as an industry, we can work together to prevent work-related death and injury.