Current issues on the mind of those responsible for the health and safety of excavator operators.
Graham Black looks at current issues on the mind of those responsible for the health and safety of excavator operators.


The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published the results of its study into the inadvertent operation of excavator controls. During the course of this study the HSE interviewed a number of operators and the majority said that they had either done this themselves or had seen it happen on site, sometimes with horrific consequences.

For the individual, there are a number of simple actions that can be taken to minimise the risk. The first is to avoid loose clothing. For example, bulky high-visibility overcoats that can so easily catch on a joystick or tracking lever, particularly when twisting around in the cab or getting in and out of the machine. Apparently, fashion- and safety-conscious operators now wear tighter fitting and shorter high-vis bomber jackets.

Getting in and out of an excavator and the functionality of the safety lever mounted on the left-hand side of the seat also came in for a great deal of comment in the study. Clearly, this is an area to which manufacturers need to devote more design time, as no one had a good word to say about this subject. Surprisingly, there was general support among the operators interviewed for a second step to energise the hydraulics, for example the enable switch found on some JCB excavators.

The other side of this story is that the safety lever does offer a decent level of protection if it is used properly. Many incidents of inadvertent operation of the controls were down to the operators taking liberties with this most basic of safety steps.

The classic example of this is a small mini-excavator standing with its engine running and the safety bars engaged, when someone reaches in from ground level to operate a control and something unexpected happens. You would have thought in this day and age that no one would do such a thing, but just such a situation was at the centre of a recent HSE prosecution. A mini had been left with its upper-structure slewed to the rear and therefore the tracking levers worked counter-intuitively; the unfortunate labourer ran himself over.

Talking with ground workers was an action that also attracted much comment in the study, as it usually involves the operator leaning forwards and to one side, just the situation in which a beer belly or arm can inadvertently operate a joystick. And without wishing to discriminate against the larger operator, if ground workers see that an individual needs to squeeze himself into the cab of a small zero-tailswing mini-excavator, their best bet is to stand well clear.

Excavating a deep shaft or trench is a task that I suspect that the HSE will focus on in the future. This sometime involves the operator standing up in the cab and peering down into the hole while operating the controls, a recipe for disaster and one for which there doesn’t appear to be an easy remedy.

There are a number of practical medium-term suggestions contained in the report and the one that caught my attention was an extension of the auto-idle function that is found on many modern excavators. Why not incorporate a hydraulic cut-out into this function so that forced engine idle would also prevent the operation of any of the services, the system being re-energised by a button on the joystick?

The full report also provides a number of longer-term suggestions as to areas where manufacturers need to focus their attention, but such work can only be done at a European or global level. It is a comfort that the opinions of UK operators are being fed into the process. However, if manufacturers do not respond to such input, it is a worry that a solution will be imposed upon the excavator industry, for instance the overhead bar lock-out system used on skid-steer loaders.

HSE Report

The full report is entitled RR1000 Inadvertent operation of controls in excavator plant – insight, analysis and recommendations for prevention by design. It can be downloaded for free by searching for RR1000 within


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