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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

Safety from the ground up

The winner of the design category in this year’s Safeguard awards has found a simple solution to a problem that had defeated more than 1200 US patent applicants. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

Two-and-a-half years ago electricity distribution company Northpower was having two or three ladder-related incidents every month.

Not all of these involved falls, and there was only one case of serious injury, but general manager for contracting Lloyd Richards was concerned, and in February 2013 asked innovation and new technologies manager Goran Stojadinovic to look for a way to make things safer.

In the electricity industry it’s accepted practice to tie the ladder to the top of a power pole. This keeps the ladder in place while work is being done, but means it is unsecured during ascent and descent – a serious issue when working in windy conditions, on uneven ground, or where there is insufficient room to place the ladder at the correct angle.

Stojadinovic, who has a reputation as a talented inventor, knew a better system was badly needed, and began searching for a means of securing ladders that would be simple, practical, cost effective, and could be done without leaving the ground.

The design he came up with – winner of the SICK Best Use of Design to Eliminate or Isolate a Risk category in this year’s Safeguard health and safety awards – is an anchor system that has only five components, is extremely light and compact, and can be installed and disassembled in less than a minute. More importantly, it enables a ladder to be made secure before it is climbed, and to remain so for the whole time it is in use.

Stojadinovic, originally from Serbia, is a trained electrical engineer, and recently completed a Masters of Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland. Among his colleagues, however, he’s known for his ability to challenge current practice and come up with better ways of doing things.

“I’ve been inventing for some time,” he acknowledges. “But I can’t devise a solution unless I have full understanding of the root cause of the problem, so in this case I looked first at the history of the ladder, then at the nature of the accidents that were occurring, and at what devices were already available.”

Searching US patents records to see if there was a suitable product on the market, he was surprised to find some 1200 patent applications for ladder-securing devices. On investigation, however, he found that not one of them was suited to his needs.

“There was nothing practical,” he says, “Only one has been commercialised and it isn’t suitable for our industry because it is made of metal.

“The others were not successful because they were impractical, complicated, and in some cases, introduced an additional burden for users. So I started thinking outside of the box, looking for the simplest way to solve this.”

Using a problem-solving style based on Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats, Stojadinovic analysed the problem, and its potential solutions, from a series of different perspectives. After examining a number of options he settled on a system so straightforward that the New Zealand Patent Office did not initially believe it was a new idea.

Stojadinovic, however, was unperturbed by this reaction.

“The aim was not to make something that makes everybody say: Wow!” he says. “The point was to make something simple and cost effective that will save lives and save money.”

A patent was finally granted in December last year, once the office had satisfied itself that there was nothing similar on the market, but in the meantime Northpower had been conducting its own tests, using staff in Northland to prove the concept and to provide feedback. As the company’s general manager, strategic development and regulatory, Richard Pearce explains, this was a critical step in the process.

“We feared that if it was too complicated field staff wouldn’t embrace it, even if we made it mandatory,” he says. “In fact the feedback we’ve received has been extremely positive. They say it’s easy to use, and it makes them feel safe.”

More than that, no special skills or equipment are needed for set up, the system can be easily adapted for different types of power pole, and all components fit into a medium-sized carry bag.

Once on the job the ladder is placed on the ground and extended just far enough for a polyester sling to be looped around the top rung.

A tie-down strop with a lockable ratchet is attached to this sling and the ladder raised into position against the pole. On the ground a bolt or a pair of polyester slings are used to anchor the end of the strop to the pole, and the ratchet is tightened until the top of the ladder is held firmly against the pole top.

After being used successfully for an extended period by a couple of dozen North Island line crews, the anchor system is now being progressively implemented across the whole company.

This however will be only the first step on a much bigger journey, with plans underway to market the design commercially.

“Goran engaged [testing and certification company] SGS, and got some engineering analysis done by a company called MTL to make sure the anchor won’t compromise the integrity of different types of ladders,” Pearce says. “We’re just getting that finalised now, but the results have been very favourable so far, and it means that when it’s commercialised we’ll have documentation to support any enquiries we may have.”

Keen interest is expected from the electricity and telecommunications industries, but Pearce believes the design will be suitable for other sectors as well.

“We’re getting attention from a number of other types of industry,” he says. “After the Safeguard awards, for instance, we had an enquiry from the horticulture industry almost the next day.”

It’s a prospect that pleases Stojadinovic. Although delighted by the design’s success in the Safeguard awards, and its selection as a finalist in the recent EEA safety awards, it’s the prospect of preventing injuries that he finds most rewarding.

He is proud, too, of the way the company has fostered the design and development process.

“Northpower is fully supportive of innovations from staff,” he says. “Right from top management everyone is supportive of innovation and making a change. It’s really important, too, that I’ve had good teamwork, because you just can’t see all things from all angles.”

Even if you’re Goran Stojadinovic.

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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