BRUCE HAINES from the NSCA criticises the lack of application of ergonomics to building maintenance tasks and shares how building services can be designed to achieve a working environment that considers the health and well-being of maintenance workers.
New buildings are generally designed with care. Architects include ergonomic principles in their design for the occupants. Consideration of appropriate lighting levels, adequate work spaces, a comfortable thermal environment, protection from intrusive noise, and adjustable desk and seat arrangements to permit optimum positioning and minimise opportunity for strain injury at work will all be taken into account.
Yet buildings age and alterations are made, sometimes with less care. And, the same degree of planning and design should be invested in considering the needs of those who will maintain the building. In fact, under current Victorian occupational health and safety (OH&S) legislation, used as a basis for the National Model OH&S laws, an employer is required to provide a working environment that is safe and, importantly, without risks to health. This requirement applies equally to the plant rooms and back of house areas that maintenance contractors will work in as it does to the office areas and other occupied (leased) spaces.
Despite such legislation, maintenance technicians still work in noisy, poorly lit or cramped workspaces, which sometimes force them into awkward postures that risk muscle strain or worse. Tight spaces and poorly designed work areas often include tripping and head height impact hazards or extremes of heat and cold, or drafts. At other times, maintenance workers may have to work from a portable ladder or from a fall-arrest harness, because little thought has been invested into making sure they are safe.
Maintenance workers can also be required to handle hazardous chemicals or be exposed to electrical hazards or harmful radiation levels. In fact, while the needs of most building occupants are provided for, it appears we have accepted maintenance workers as second-class citizens who should be expected to endure all sorts of difficulties in their chosen vocation. Facilities managers reinforce this view with the expectation that the maintenance worker will sacrifice valuable family time at weekends or forgo summer vacations in order to be available for work that must be completed ‘out of hours’.
ENSURING ERGONOMIC BUILDING SERVICES
There are solutions. Building services can be designed to achieve a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. Greater consideration given to human engineering or ergonomic factors is required, particularly at planning stages. For example, specifying minimum lighting levels of 500 lux for task areas in plant rooms and specifying minimum clearance work spaces of one metre on all sides of installed items of plant/equipment when providing the building design brief to the architect could greatly improve access and visibility conditions for the maintenance worker.
Heavy items of plant required to be lifted during maintenance can be designed with rated lifting eyes and include load-transfer beams above (for example, over electric motors and fans – particularly within air-handling units) to enable safer manual handling.
In addition, hearing can be preserved by eliminating plant-related noise hazards at source. Buying plant with a maximum sound pressure level of 70 dBA (decibels) for example (or lower) at maximum load – for noisy items of plant such as compressors and refrigeration chillers – would reduce the likelihood of hearing damage.
Falls can be prevented by providing appropriately designed steps, fixed ladders, elevated walkways and handrails to enable maintenance workers to work on plant or equipment that is installed above head height. Furthermore, ceiling-mounted items such as variable air volume controls, valves, dampers and light fittings can be positioned, so that the maintenance technician doesn’t have to stretch over installed office equipment or computer workstations. It is even possible to have purpose-built platform ladders designed for particular tasks at height, which would greatly assist the maintenance worker. Each of these examples is an expression of ergonomics in action.
We can do better. For many high-rise buildings in Australia, designers appear content to encourage abseiling as their preferred method of worker access for window cleaning. In the UK, legislation requires that designers install double-hinged frames so that windows can be cleaned from inside the building.
Facilities managers are now being actively encouraged by government workplace authorities to improve workplace standards. Considering the health and well-being of maintenance workers is a growing concern, particularly as the focus on occupational health and safety at the national level aims to establish best practice across all states and territories. Ergonomics – the technology of work design – focuses on designing risks out of the workplace and puts the needs of the worker ahead of other interests such as short-term cost savings or building aesthetics. Building maintenance workers deserve no less.
Bruce Haines joined the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA) in 2012 as a senior consultant after eight years as a risk management consultant with Noel Arnold and Associates. He has worked closely with clients, assisting them to meet statutory compliance requirements in the areas of manual handling, OHS management, OHS plant, Building Code of Australia essential services, prevention of falls, dangerous goods, hazardous substances and asbestos regulations. He has conducted audits in each of these areas and assisted in the establishment of risk management plans, identifying safety, health and environmental issues, developing policies and performance measurement and reporting systems.