Refurbishment project danger from falling steel


A Bournemouth property refurbishment project nearly went fatally wrong due to a dangerous fall of steel, some 9 floors down onto unsuspecting workers. It highlights the need for proper preparation and vigilance as part of coordinated safety planning.

Principal contractor Harbourview Developments Ltd was refurbishing and converting two properties on Christchurch Road, Bournemouth on 16th July 2013.

As part of the project it was necessary to remove a stairwell and replace it with a lift shaft. The plan was to build a temporary platform over the void, consisting of scaffold planks on top of a tubular scaffolding structure.

Gaps left in working platform

Meanwhile, the company had begun to fit vertical and horizontal steel sections around the stairwell to support new floors and walls. In order to install these steel sections, workers had to chip away at the concrete around the edges of the stairwell area below the temporary platform. This left gaps of up to 16 centimetres wide around the platform.

On the day in question, a subcontractor placed a 1.4 metre long, 5 kg steel component onto a structural beam that ran parallel to the temporary work platform. He intended to step over it. However, as he raised his leg to do so, he inadvertently knocked it over and sent it plunging through the gap in the stairwell, onto other workers who were 9 floors below him.  

Injuries to two workers

There was no warning for either Ryan Smith (31) – who was hit on the back and suffered vertebrae damage that required him to wear a brace for months – or for Paul Martret (42) who fractured his elbow. Clearly they had lucky escapes – from such a height the blows could easily have been fatal.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) criticised Harbourview Developments Ltd for a failure to manage its work to avoid falling material. HSE’s recommended solution would have been to construct a combination system involving boards as well as debris netting so that materials like this, or smaller objects, could not fall through and put workers below at risk.

As often happens, the firm has come to a hearing (at East Dorset Magistrates’ Court) having already gone into liquidation, so it was only fined a nominal £1 having pleaded guilty under Regulation 8(b) of the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

Whether working on new build or refurbishment projects, contractors must be aware of their responsibilities and plan safety into the design from the outset – the CDM Coordinator role can be outsourced to experts such as McCormack Benson Health & Safety so that an independent view is taken of all aspects that may generate risks. And as the project proceeds and circumstances change, visits from an experienced safety consultant can be life-saving and will often avoid costly mistakes and inefficiency on site.

For general advice on working at height, HSE has guidelines here.