Do your engineers know their quick hitches from their Direct Attachment Couplings?

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A quick-hitch is a latch device designed to facilitate the efficient connection and removal of attachments (such as buckets, grapples and rock breakers) to plant and equipment. It is often affixed to the end of the dipper arm of an excavator, as a means of enabling different types and sizes of excavator bucket (for example) to be changed at will.

According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures, 13% of all accidents investigated on excavators are attributed to the bucket detaching from a quick hitch and injuring a ground worker. These are mostly fatal or major injuries but it is likely there are many more dangerous bucket detachments which go unreported because no injury occurs. The HSE believe quick hitch failures are relatively common, although injuries are less so.

As a result of these facts and a number of recent fatalities, this is now a major topic for HSE enforcement on construction sites, reflecting the serious nature of their concerns. To ensure safety on site it is important those hiring excavators understand their obligations towards safety and have in place the systems and procedures required.

Quick hitches are not normally made by the excavator manufacturer although some are badged and sold by them for use with their equipment. Research conducted by the HSE some time ago identified 20 different manufacturers, most of whom had several different designs of QH with either manual, semi automatic or automatic functions. Due to this vast array of equipment and the variations in type and designs, any procedures in place must cater for all eventualities and this brings its own problems. It is unreasonable for the engineer in charge of the site to become an expert on all quick hitches yet they as the senior person on site are deemed responsible for safety.

Recent enforcement guidance from the HSE to their inspectors outlines the standard expected for safety on site, which should be referred to for full guidance. It is important any organisation using excavators as part of their work reviews their procedures and ensures systems are in place to manage the risk to which staffs are exposed. Risk assessments and safe systems of work must be in place and if you employ more than five people these have to be written.

So what should you consider when setting up procedures to manage staff safety and satisfy the HSE should they visit?

As outlined in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the first objective must be to eliminate risk where reasonably practicable. In such circumstances this would involve the replacement of quick hitches with ‘Direct Attachment Connections’ but this may not be reasonably practicable as an excavator operator may change the bucket on his excavator up to 30 times a day to maximise the machine productivity. Despite this inconvenience, this is the approach being taken by at least one major plant hire company due to their concerns about the viability of managing quick hitch safety on site.

If the hazard cannot be eliminated it should be substituted with something less hazardous. All quick hitches carry a risk of detachment so achieving this is difficult although in some cases a fully automatic hitch could prove easier to manage than a manual or semi automatic version. Where manual intervention is required there is a risk of retaining pins being missed, put in to wrong holes or just being left off for expediency but automatic hitches must be properly maintained and used in accordance with manufacturers instructions for safe operation.

Realistically, most ground investigation companies do not control their own excavator fleet and are governed by the equipment they can get hold of local to the site and at short notice, so demanding direct connections or fully automatic hitches may not be a realistic option. In such cases the obligation will be on the ground investigation company to ensure they have suitable safe systems of work in place to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of staff on site no matter what equipment turns up on site.

Placing the emphasis on the receiving engineer on site may cause delays and encourage uncontrolled risks to be taken in an effort to get the job done. A better approach would be to consider safety at the moment of hire where the following items can be checked and discussed with the provider.

If you are hiring an excavator with driver for use on site, you must ensure the contractor has adequate public liability insurance. Your public liability insurers may stipulate a required level of cover which will typically be in the range of £1m to £2m.

If you are hiring plant and driver from a larger plant hire company, they should be able to provide you with a written risk assessment covering the risk to site staff. This must cover the risk from bucket detachment as a result of quick hitch failures and operators must be in possession of a CPCS or CSCS card. These do ensure competence with a quick hitch so should be supplemented with evidence of training in the particular type of hitch in use.

Realistically, many of the excavators you hire will be provided by small companies. Where the number of employees is less than five the assessment does not, by law, need to be recorded so in such cases you should ensure you have a risk assessment which covers such eventualities and drivers and hirers should then work to these. The risk assessments must consider the competency of excavator drivers and their understanding of quick hitches and how this should be demonstrated on site.

Any safe system of work and risk assessment, either from the plant hirer or your own, must include an outline of how staff are instructed and trained to remain clear of the excavator bucket while in use and where to stand. This is the primary method of risk management and makes sure that if the bucket becomes detached, there is no risk of injury.

Clear evidence of equipment maintenance in line with manufacturer guidance must be seen. In addition to the regular service and daily maintenance checks required for excavators, quick hitches should have a thorough examination and inspection at six monthly intervals as they are classified as lifting accessories under the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER).

None of these requirements should pose any problem to responsible equipment hirers and an inability or reluctance to provide such information should ring alarm bells. When you don’t check what you are hiring or have not clarified the competency of the sub contract staff, you are bringing uncontrolled risks into your organisation. In a dynamic environment these will combine with other causal factors such as commercial requirements and client deadlines, leading to a high likelihood of accidents.

The HSE have provided their inspectors with guidance on appropriate penalties for companies in breach of statutory duties. Where ground workers are required to work under buckets fitted with a quick hitch, a prohibition notice will be issued where all work must stop until the matter is rectified and this could lead to possible prosecution. Where there is no risk assessment referring to the risk of bucket detachment, an improvement notice would be considered which will require the organisation to implement systems and procedures within a fixed time period. Where site managers are not aware of the safety requirements of the quick hitches in use, an improvement notice will be applied and where the operator is unaware, a prohibition notice will be given.

Any prosecution, prohibition notice or improvement notice applied by the HSE will generally need to be stated when clients ask you to demonstrate your health and safety record. As a key requirement of the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2007(CDM), where competency and your ability to demonstrate you can do the work safely is key, any such blemish could be the difference between being awarded a contract or not.


HSE document (SIM 02/2007/01 Version 2)

The HSE Safety Alert can be found at – www.hse.gov.uk/construction/quickhitch.htm