Zoning in on site safety09 January 2023

People and plant working together on site present a potentially fatal interface. Might zonal working be the answer?

Being near to active plant equipment is one of the biggest hazards the construction industry faces and this is no different in the highways sector. Flannery Plant Hire, for example, points to the number of people killed or seriously injured each year, due to being struck by moving machinery – something that is a major concern for the HSE (www.is.gd/exanej): “In Great Britain, there are 25 fatal injuries each year on average, and hundreds of non-fatal injuries, to workers as a result of being struck by moving vehicles at the workplace,” says the HSE. Restricted operator visibility is often identified as a contributing factor.

Clare Brown, senior health & safety advisor for BAM Nuttall, one of Europe’s largest construction companies, pinpoints the main issue: “One of the biggest hazards you will face [on site] is being near to active plant equipment. This is known as the ‘people-plant interface’. Minimising and controlling that is of absolute importance – which is why BAM Nuttall’s safety leadership team developed a zonal working system, initially for our rail business.”

Now, in a bid to promote greatly increased safety and visibility on site, National Highways – working with supply chain partners Flannery Plant Hire and BAM Nuttall – has delivered a new health and safety initiative designed to offer realistic training that gives project managers more confidence and know-how when going out on site.


The partners identified key behavioural factors that often contribute to people-plant interface incidents that occur on site. This led to the development of a standard they believe can be used by all to assist in producing a simple and effective safe system of working, in order to mitigate the many risks associated with that interface: namely discrete working zones across sites, aimed at keeping workers and others safe and away from machinery in operation.

By using the controlled facilities available at the Operator Skills Hub at Flannery’s Birmingham depot (pictured above), and the experience of plant instructors, construction managers and safety professionals across both Flannery and BAM Nuttall, a simplistic approach to segregation, and the control of people and plant on live construction sites, emerged. ‘Step up for Safety’ took place in September this year, with around 50 National Highways staff involved. During the training, delivered at the Flannery skills hub, BAM Nuttall shared details of the zonal working standard.

Zonal working identifies three colour-coded types of zone on site:

  • Normal (the default zone) – identified by blue signage. “This is where exclusions or restrictions are not in place,” states Derek Mickleburgh, works superintendent at BAM Nuttall. “Normal site restrictions, such as mandatory PPE, still apply in the normal zone and you should, of course, remain vigilant to your surroundings, as always.”
  • Restricted (only authorised personnel) – identified by yellow signage and restricted for entry only by personnel authorised by the zone controller. “Restricted zones are any areas requiring personnel to undertake work related to tasks in a site environment,” says Mickleburgh. “Those entering must be briefed and competent for the task they are to undertake, have an authorised and safe system of work, and all of the resources they will require once they are inside the restricted zone itself. When we are setting up zonal working, we treat each restricted zone on an individual basis, as hazard and training requirements may vary. Some of the tasks being undertaken in this zone might include scaffolding installation, facing concrete, high-pressure water jetting and loading or unloading an excavator or item of plant.”
  • Exclusion (plant in operation, so no personnel allowed) – identified by red signage. Nobody is permitted to enter these zones for any reason. “These are areas where plant and equipment will be operating, and there will be few controls in place to prevent interface with personnel,” he cautions. “Typical red zones include haul roads, the slew radius of an excavator or crane, and areas below overhead operations and even some demolition tasks.”


To make the zones instantly recognisable, BAM Nuttall has employed nationally recognised signage, which aligns with the Health & Safety (Safety signs signals) Regulations 1996. “Effectively, these define the required behaviour on site, in order to ensure safe practice is being observed,” says BAM Nuttall’s Clare Brown. “First are the ‘prohibition signs’ – that is, ‘Do not do’ – which forbid certain behaviour, such as smoking. Then come ‘warning signs’ (‘Caution, Danger’), indicating a specific course of action is to be followed – for example, alerting those on site of dangers from high voltage. Finally, there are the ‘mandatory signs’ (‘You Must Do’), calling for a certain course of action to be followed, such as the wearing of safety helmets.”

One of the main ‘selling points’ behind zonal working that she identifies is how the system delivers a “simple and straightforward way of operating”. This is fully endorsed by Jason Hones, regional delivery director for Midlands within National Highways’ major projects. “The beauty of zonal working lies in its simplicity,” he says. “Here, at National Highways, we’d like to see this way of working utilised across all of our sites.”

Indeed, Brown believes there is no reason why zonal working shouldn’t become widespread wherever plant and machinery is operating throughout industry. “Cabs are, for perfectly sound reasons, so loaded with technology alerts now – such as seat belt and reversing alarms, and excavator arm over-reach – that operators are having to react to these constantly. Taking away the ‘people-plant’ issue by introducing zonal working means there is one less thing for them to worry about. After all, in simple terms, they just want to get on with digging a hole and getting the job done!”

One key aspect of zonal working that Mickleburgh singles out is the absence of the word ‘safe’. “We purposely didn’t name those zones as safe, as no zone can be guaranteed risk-free.” Getting as close to that point, however, is the principle that informs everything.

As Doug Mills, highways director, BAM Nuttall, so tellingly comments: “We all deserve to go home at night to our families just as healthy as when we went to work in the morning.”

Brian Wall

Related Companies
BAM Nuttall Ltd
Flannery Plant Hire Ltd

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