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Taking to the air to prevent falls

Taking to the air to prevent falls


2024 RoSPA Fall Prevention Trophy finalist, Jacobs Field Services, is using drone technology to remove the need to work at height. Jane Warren reports on the company’s innovative work.

When Grace McCrickard, 24, started working for Jacobs Field Services Ltd in October last year [2023] as a quality control inspector, the electrical engineer was required to make regular assessments at height. This involved accessing scaffolding to complete quality checks, which includes work on nuclear power stations.

“I have never been a huge fan of heights so it was easy for nerves to get in the way,” she says of inspections that could require her to work up to 50 metres above the ground.

However, since early this year, Grace has been carrying out the same inspections from the safety of the ground by operating a drone as part of the company’s HSE evolution. This has significantly reduced the risk of her suffering a catastrophic fall from height.

“Carrying out inspections remotely from ground level is a lot more efficient and safer than carrying out inspections at height, especially on a nuclear site,” says Grace, who lives in Cumbria.

“Taking the human out of the equation improves safety aspects dramatically. The worst-case scenario is that you damage a drone, which is a hundred times better than any injury to a person.”

The benefits

The safety benefits of this innovative technological approach, which is being rolled out nationally and led by the Field Services HSE function, which is part of the global Jacobs organisation, are significant. The most common kind of fatal accidents to workers in the UK continue to be falls from height, accounting for 40 fatalities in 2022/23.

“Drones completely remove humans from the working at height risk,” says Chris Thompson, who has been Head of HSE since June 2021 at the company, which is changing its name to Enterprise Asset Solutions.

The business submission, led by Chris was a finalist for the RoSPA Fall Prevention Trophy in May 2024, and was commended for its innovative strategy designed to mitigate the risk of falls within the business.

“Within our work there are lots of working at height issues, from inspecting nuclear reactors to clearing guttering and checking rooftops,” says Chris.

“In the past, we would build a scaffold or use heavy plant with a platform. But using a drone for remote inspections completely removes the risks.”

He points out that scaffolders and drivers of heavy plant are not being put out of work, because inspectors do still need to ascend structures.

“Now we never send anyone up unnecessarily which has cut the risk of harm at height significantly,” points out Chris.

Embracing new ways of working

Jacobs currently employ three drone pilots, including Grace who in October 2018 became the youngest woman in the country to earn her Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Pilot Licence at the age of 18. A fourth is currently being trained.

“This was a big achievement of mine and something my grandad was always really proud of,” she says.

“I love the thrill of a challenge and have always been really interested in emerging new technology and in embracing new and efficient ways to carry out tasks.”

One recent job involved inspecting a chimney on a nuclear site which could not be accessed without scaffolding.

Says Grace: “The scaffolding would have taken months to be built just to carry out a simple inspection. Instead, I operated the UAV and carried out the inspection from a building rooftop nearby.”

The overall inspection took just 30 minutes of flight time, and all required data was achieved. A camera operator working alongside the drone operator ensures the highest quality inspection results for Jacobs, without causing any flight distractions.

“Not only did this save thousands of pounds in scaffolding and man-hours, but it also saved months of time, the task was carried out straight away, and I was not at risk of falling from the structure,” she adds.

Fall prevention is a current key campaign for RoSPA, and the Fall Prevention Trophy seeks to draw on best practice while showcasing innovative strategies.

Chris Thompson has been at the helm of this future-focused approach for the past year. “We were actively driving innovation across our 12 critical risks when RoSPA identified the need for a ‘falls prevention’ award. We had started the use of drones in the previous months, working in collaboration with Sellafield Ltd, one of our main clients.

“Sellafield were really open to change and removing risk, and with their support we put drones into the air - completely removing the risk of humans being at risk of falling.”

The learning-from-experience approach that Chris and his team employed, saw them overcome challenges including discoveries about individual drone suitability.

“A lot of our work takes place close to the sealine due to the location of nuclear facilities and wind farms, and we realised early on that a heavier drone was required. We quickly learned through trial and error what windspeed we could operate in, for example.

“We still have to do a risk assessment for the drone, and we also need to be mindful of the environmental impact.

“We looked at different drone capabilities - exploring camera angles, as well as how close the machines could get to nesting birds.


Benefits of Drones

  • Removes humans from working at height risk
  • Sustainability – tasks can be assessed quickly/minimal construction waste
  • Introduction of new skills and jobs
  • Less disruptive to wildlife
  • Reduced carbon footprint due to Mobile Elevating Work Platforms (MEWPS) not being required
  • Removes humans from hazardous areas
  • Excellent planning tool for work at height teams who can identify risks and requirements with safety and ease.

We are sending a machine up in the air, after all, so you do need to use long lenses, so you don’t scare the mother away from the nest.”

Looking to the future

Being an eye in the sky has proved to be of particular appeal to younger engineers and graduate engineers within the company.

“It’s an add on to being an engineer,” says Chris, “and means that they are getting paid to do something they love while staying safe. We are creating new opportunities for the next generation of the workforce and offering them the jobs of the future now.”

The company is now looking at having a voice in creating the next generations of drones, all with a view to increasing health and safety.

“We hope to share best practice more widely,” says Chris who points out that while other companies may be using drones, this is not usually from an HSE perspective.

Jacobs is also currently trialling the use of drones for worker safety and efficiency of operations with wind farms. “We believe that we can use drones to do integrity checks by taking a sample from the wings of a wind turbine without putting our workers at risk. We regularly service and maintain windfarms and that usually means a person going up on a crane or up a ladder to significant height.

“The very top of a windfarm is where the mechanics are. Using drones means we only need to send a human up there when we already know the right tool that they need to take with them,” he points out.

The use of drones has proved popular with the company’s 1,500-strong workforce. “I have not heard a single negative comment, which is overwhelming. A critical factor is always the financial support from our business leaders, in particular our Vice President Illy Andrews who has supported our HSE Evolution programme immensely. This showcases that health and safety is at the forefront of our business ethos, and as a leader in health and safety for the business I cannot ask for more commitment than that.

“It’s been seen as a real positive because our people understand drones are not taking people out of work but are instead keeping them safe.”
Find out more about the RoSPA Health and Safety Awards at:

Preventing falls is a key priority for RoSPA. See:

Jane Warren

Jane Warren is a highly experienced freelance journalist, feature writer and non-fiction author. She has written for the Daily Express newspaper for over thirty years.


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