Suction and vacuum excavators have become prolific items of plant in recent years and are particularly suited to carrying out excavations around buried services and other sensitive areas where a hand-dig-only requirement exists. Hirers and contractors have invested in these specialised machines but, as with all plant, it requires a trained and competent operator to safely and effectively carry out the work, and for an effective safety management system to be in place.
This specialist industry is still new compared to more traditional plant operations, meaning the operator training element was in general limited amongst individual hirers or contractors who have either set up their own in-house training regimes, or through an importers-delivered training programme.
Although a training syllabus for certification had been devised in the utility sector, this was not widespread amongst construction and there are variations in working practices, and the perceptions of what constitutes the required skill set for the operator. To combat this issue, a Yorkshire-based hirer approached the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS) with a request to devise a category with a supporting set of training and testing standards to ensure consistency of safe working skills within the industry. CPCS agreed to undertake the work and formed a working group in early 2014, which consisted of hirers, importers and contractors who have subsequently developed a training syllabus and test criteria for the category. It has six endorsements relating to the chassis type and suction hose support and with the development work being complete, the category will be available from mid-June 2016.
The industry was galvanised into reviewing current safe practices and the management of suction and vacuum excavator operations after an accident in 2015 resulted in the death of the operator of a truck-mounted unit. To prevent such an event occurring again, a number of voluntary meetings of contractors and hirers were held from which an agreement was made to form a special interest group under the umbrella of the Construction Plant-hire Association (CPA). The membership of this group includes the Health &Safety Executive (HSE), attending as an advisor to legislative and regulatory requirements.
The first meeting of this Special Interest Group for Suction and Vacuum Excavators (SAVE) was held in February 2016 and the group’s first aim was to develop a good practice guide, similar in format to good practice guides produced by other CPA special interest groups.
CPA technical staff devised a first draft of the guidance, which was presented to group members at their May 2016 meeting. To reflect the scope of operations and safe working practices, there are initially nineteen content areas and include:
- Management of excavation operations
- Selection of personnel
- Training and certification
- Travelling to and from sites
- Safe operations and exclusion zones
- Use of ground engaging tools, attachments and accessories
- Use of supporting personnel
- Cleaning procedures and dealing with blockages
- Tipping of loads and movement of waste
- Emergency procedures.
There will be a dedicated section on the selection, preparation and use of supporting personnel – the second man – who supports the excavation operation using a ground engaging tool such as an air or water powered lance. And as a number of machines can be operated using a remote control station, further emphasis will be made on the issues of safe operation when working near to the hose and excavation.
In defining the scope of their guidance, group members agreed that it would encompass truck-mounted, trailer-mounted, self-propelled and static suction types but would not include dedicated gully suction-type machines used for sludge removal operations, as the nature of their operation differs. However, the guidance will contain information relating to the suction of sludge and liquid-type substances using the excavating machines.
Other issues that the interest group has recognised for discussion and clarification include the use of rebated fuel (red diesel) and other matters relating to highway travel and excepted vehicles.
As with all interest group guidance documents, the content contains advice and as well as legislative requirements and is intended for owners, operators, contractors, hirers, clients, site managers and maintenance staff. Although in the early stages of development, the interest group envisage that the guidance should be completed and available from early 2017.