Heavy equipment – managing the risks


Heavy equipment – managing the risks

How can it be that month after month, and year after year, reports keep coming in about people being crushed under heavy vehicles? Gaby Grammeno explains what can be done.


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How can it be that month after month, and year after year, reports keep coming in about people being crushed under heavy vehicles?

In a recent case, a 19-year-old worker was run over by a harvester on a turf farm. Before that, a street sweeper reversed over a worker aligning bollards to separate traffic from road works. The previous month, an excavator at a waste management facility moved backwards, catching a man’s foot, knocking him over and crushing him.

Cases in which a worker on foot was run over and killed by a heavy vehicle or other mobile equipment are a regular feature in lists of prosecutions published by work health and safety regulators. Workers have met their deaths under tractors, forklifts, firefighter trucks and slow-moving heavy mining equipment.

And it’s not only workers who are killed – earlier this year, the 27-year-old driver of a garbage truck struck and killed a pedestrian who was pushing a pram. Though the woman was not a worker or at a ‘workplace’ as such, the driver was working – as the road was his workplace – so, in this sense, this too was a work-related fatality. Dozens of people die every year in such incidents, even just in NSW. Australia-wide, the numbers may be in the hundreds.
Hard as it is read about them, that’s nothing to how their families must feel, knowing how they died. Whatever measures were in place to prevent such dire outcomes, they were evidently not sufficient.

Risk management with heavy vehicles near pedestrians

Many of these incidents occurred when a driver was reversing. This circumstance prompts a number of reflections: could the driver see who or what was behind the vehicle? How large, where exactly and what shape was the driver’s ‘blind spot’? Would it have helped if the driver had had vision from a rear-mounted camera on a screen in front of him?

While it’s true that inattention on the part of the pedestrians who died may have contributed in part to the outcome in some cases, this is a foreseeable risk – that pedestrians will not notice the proximity of a vehicle, or will underestimate the danger. Therefore the focus of prevention needs to be on the driver, the driver’s training, the vehicle, visibility, supervision, systems of work and the process of risk assessment.

Assessing the risks of heavy vehicles near pedestrians

In addition to the risks of reversing, other contributing factors are often highlighted by the circumstances of the accidents. These include poor separation of traffic from pedestrian routes and the failure to immobilise a vehicle, either because the handbrake was not applied, the wheels were not chocked, the brakes were malfunctioning, or the components of the heavy vehicle or its trailer were not adequately restrained or supported.

Controlling the risks of heavy vehicles near pedestrians

Each of the risk factors revealed by a risk assessment highlights an opportunity to help prevent potentially terrible consequences. For example:
  • vehicles could be fitted with reversing cameras 
  • drivers could be instructed to double check the space behind them before reversing, and to ensure handbrakes are applied and wheels chocked if required, before leaving the vehicle unattended
  • handbrake warning systems could be fitted to alert drivers if the handbrake has not been applied
  • spotters could be assigned to ensure vehicular and pedestrian traffic is properly separated
  • traffic controllers (‘lollipop persons’) could be assigned to protect anyone on foot, even at the setting-up stage before road works begin
  • vehicle and equipment maintenance schedules could be given a regular place on the agenda at management meetings
  • adequate load supports could be used (eg stands or lifting devices)
  • first aid training could be provided for use in the event of crush injuries, and
  • safe systems of work can be planned from the outset.
In the longer term, it is to be hoped that the risk management measures set out in numerous codes of practice and other advisory material available from work health and safety regulators will be taken seriously and put into practice.
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