Sealing the deal on access covers

At points of multiple access, Strataform believes compliance with manual handling regulations does not necessarily require investment in high-specification access covers

When manual handling regulations* were introduced to protect against arduous and dangerous lifting of heavy loads such as access covers, it was perhaps only fair for water companies to assume that they should specify all covers as assisted easy-to-lift hinged, rather than the traditional drop-in. However, with sets of multi-lid covers - often four, six or more all grouped together, the additional cost of making each one hinged is, according to one access cover company, complete overkill.

Strataform, which in the late 1980s worked closely with Severn Trent Water to replace traditional GRP constructions by developing an at the time radical, galvanised mild steel access cover, claims to have received numerous recent specifications for multi-lid, assisted lift, hinged and flush fit covers. But "why pay out more for higher spec hinged covers that seldom need lifting?" said the Kidderminster-based firm.

If access is possible via one cover for inspection, and support beams and equipment need a crane, then drop-in covers are quite adequate. They can be lifted by crane if and when necessary - although this is usually a very rare event. The maths is quite simple, as Strataform showed just before Christmas to one pleasantly surprised water company representative, whose outlay was reduced in total by more than 20%.

Instead of purchasing a set of eight access covers, all of the costlier hinged variety, he was, thanks to proper dialogue between customer and supplier, able to buy seven standard drop-ins and just one hinged cover. Importantly, as well as this significant cost-saving, he was confirming fairly and squarely with the Manual Handling Regulations.

SCRUTINISING COSTS

David Clements, managing director of Strataform, commented: "It is surprising to discover that in an industry where costs are usually scrutinised so closely, that covers have been purchased in such large volumes with mechanisms such as special hinges, which were not totally necessary. Multiplying the many sets of four, six or eight covers adds up to either a massive saving or a hefty expense, depending on which route you have taken." As legislation has demanded the weight of covers to be reduced, a new challenge has presented itself to access cover manufacturers - how to develop a product that is light enough or that is designed to conform to the Manual Handling Regulations, but one that can withstand the weight of heavy goods vehicles that drive over it.

COVER WEIGHTS

For a normal cover to withstand a slow moving vehicle of 40t, the lid could weigh a massive 250kg - ten times more than the regulations. To convert this amount of solid mass could create a contradiction, in that there is a considerable force trying to push it up, while at the same time there is a massive stress caused on the fittings to hold it down.

In addition, if for any reason the catches failed, perhaps through metal fatigue, the impact of a cover flying up out of place could kill. Here, there is clearly no place for compromise. In addition to inferior quality covers or fittings, potential incidents could also be caused by the incorrect closing of a cover or by continuous vibration. "It appears ustomers are not always presented with all the options," added Clements.

"Those companies that take pride in producing quality are always frustrated by those offering what appears to be a faster and usually cheaper alternative. And it is usually of little surprise when the supposedly more expensive, higher quality product proves itself far more economical in the long run." Clements cites maintenance costs - an issue also commented upon by Fabricated Access Covers Trade Association (FACTA).

Access covers designed with a vent on the inside - produced cheaper than those with an exterior vent - are in most cases now proving to cause cumbersome and time-consuming work for water company and contracting staff because they have let in an accumulation of muck and rubbish, which has to be cleaned out before any work can take place.

With new features such as alarms and solar panels now being fitted to access covers, questions continue to be raised: Is cheapest best? Is it safe? What are the long-term maintenance costs?

* The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 - as amended in 2002, apply to a wide range of manual handling activities, including lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling or carrying. The load may be either inanimate (a box or trolley) or animate (a person or an animal). More than a third of all over-three-day injuries reported each year to HSE and local authorities are caused by manual handling - the transporting or supporting of loads by hand or by bodily force.

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