Contractor

Lessons learned – Delivering and installing heavy electrical equipment

Health and safety is the number one priority for construction companies and McConnell Dowell’s vision for health and safety is ‘Home Without Harm, Everyone, Everyday’. By Greg Wichman, Senior Project Manager, McConnell Dowell.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, he looks at success and the underlying factors behind accomplishing high levels of performance.

He analyses why accidents happen and identifies that accidents are never caused by one single failure, but very often the culmination of several factors, such as mechanical or equipment problems, timing, human error or poor judgement, and most importantly communication. The issues are not significant on their own but combined they result in accidents.  By looking to eliminate one element in this chain of events, incidents can be prevented; however, one factor is found to be key.

Communication is the most critical element in preventing accidents and achieving a high performance safety culture. At all levels, including planning, operational and cultural, good communication is the most important factor. Sharing a company’s safety culture and values
with contractors onsite is the best way to prevent accidents.

Greg Wichman

In September 2016 a subcontractor working on a McConnell Dowell project in North Otago sustained a serious injury while installing a large electrical switchboard. An investigation as to why the incident occurred was undertaken and in doing so, several key lessons about managing the installation of heavy electrical switchboards were learned.

“The biggest mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford.

In May 2018 WorkSafe New Zealand accepted an Enforceable Undertaking from McConnell Dowell in relation to this incident. bit.ly/worksafe_at_mcd

To help prevent similar incidents in the future and to make a positive contribution to the industry’s health and safety practices, we are sharing these lessons.

The investigation highlighted that several factors had combined to create a situation where, against plans and controls, the incident occurred.

These factors included:

• Decision making;  • Managing the job;  • Following processes; and • Understanding the equipment. 

Human decision making and how we respond to change is one of the more difficult challenges to manage.

1. Every step, every decision counts

If a situation or plan changes at any time on a project, it is important to “stop and consider the risks thoroughly”. Doing this could prevent potential incidents from happening.

Making safe decisions at every step in the task, and every task in the project makes a safer project and workplace for everyone. If the plan has changed, ask yourself:

• What risks were the original plan or method mitigating?

• Should I advise someone of a change in the plan?

• What is the safest course of action?

2. Managing the job

Managing subcontractors has unique challenges, and in this instance, the remoteness between sites added to the difficulty. But even before you are on site ask:

• Are the subcontractors right for the work being undertaken – is it their core function or do we need specialist expertise?

• Do you know what tasks are being done on what day and when? 

• Do the subcontractors understand the risks?

• Have we resourced them adequately?

• Have we empowered them to stop the job if they feel it is unsafe?

3. Processes are important, follow and verify them

The team had installed three switchboards without incident on the project already, so, what was different between the first three and the fourth installation? 

On the fourth installation, the scope of the job had changed, so the plan developed for the previous three was not suitable. Rather than stop and follow a change management process, a reactive work plan was developed onsite without an associated risk review. The normal verification change check by the McConnell Dowell Supervisor was skipped due to being absent, and a different chain of events began.

4. Know your machinery and equipment – assess it as a risk

The switchboard being installed had a narrow base width and high centre of mass, making it relatively unstable. Moving the switchboard on load skates provided no positive means of overturning restraint.

One of the key learnings was that the switchboard being installed was designed by the manufacturer with penetrations on the bottom support frame to take several 50mm dia tubes horizontally protruding out. This design was to mitigate the risk of the unit tipping while being manoeuvred into place. Being aware of the manufacturer’s design and risk mitigation for installation would have prevented the incident.

Example of how to use protuding tube supports and load-rated castors to shift a switchboard.

Large, heavy and complex items, such as a switchboard, are high risk and should be treated as such. Communicate with suppliers and make sure you are fully briefed on the safety risks and controls. Find out what state it will arrive in and what options there are to install the board safely. Share information with contractors, so everyone understands the risks and controls.

• Does the manufacture supply a process, or supporting structures to move their product?

• Does it have lifting points; where are they and do they have any limitations?

• Do we have the right tools and people for this task?

In summary, plan for heavy electrical equipment, such as switchboard installations with the designer to eliminate risks. 

Then, repeat the planning processes with the installers, and provide the correct installation equipment for the task. Finally, ensure there is appropriate supervision at every step of the process and that staff are empowered to identify and manage risk. 

McConnell Dowell acknowledge that there were gaps in the planning and implementation, and as a result someone was injured.

We deeply regret that this incident occurred and hope this article will help improve construction industry health and safety practices and prevent future incidents.


Please note: The details provided are intended as concept only. The actual arrangement required for any given delivery scenario should be assessed and designed/detailed by a qualified person.

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