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Working in proximity to plant hydraulic systems

Safety Alert
25 February 2020


In January 2020, a young worker at a demolition site was seriously injured while greasing an excavator attachment, resulting in the amputation of the left leg below the knee.

Legal duties

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA), a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) has the primary duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers and other persons are not exposed to health and safety risks arising from the business or undertaking.

This duty includes ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable:

  • the provision and maintenance of safe plant, and
  • the safe use, handling, storage and transport of plant.

The Work Health and Safety Regulations include specific duties for PCBUs involving the management or control of plant, including requirements to:

  • manage the health and safety risks associated with plant
  • prevent unauthorised alterations to or interference with plant
  • use plant only for the purpose for which it was designed unless the proposed use does not increase the risk to health or safety.

In order to manage risk, a duty holder must:

  • identify reasonably foreseeable hazards that could give rise to the risk
  • eliminate the risk so far as is reasonably practicable
  • if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, minimise the risk so far as is reasonably practicable by implementing control measures in accordance with the hierarchy of control
  • maintain the implemented control measure so that it remains effective
  • review, and if necessary revise, risk control measures so as to maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a work environment that is without risks to health and safety.

Safety issues

While working in proximity to potentially dangerous components of plant, workers should not rely on hydraulic systems to maintain those components in a safe position. There should be positive protection from gravitational hazards.

Serious crush injuries can result from normal movement of the hydraulic equipment, and when the hydraulic systems fail, falling loads or unexpected moving parts are extremely dangerous. Plant arms or equipment can cause injury through rapid or slow movement without the worker being aware of the danger.

Plant is a major cause of workplace death and injury in Australian workplaces. There are significant risks associated with using plant and severe injuries can result from the unsafe use of plant, including:

  • limbs amputated by unguarded moving parts
  • being crushed by mobile plant
  • sustaining fractures from falls while accessing, operating or maintaining plant
  • electric shock from plant that is not adequately protected or isolated
  • burns or scalds due to contact with hot surfaces, or exposure to flames or hot fluids.

Other risks include hearing loss due to noisy plant and musculoskeletal disorders caused by manually handling or operating plant that is poorly designed.

Risk control measures

PCBUs must ensure all plant is safe and inspected and maintained by a competent person in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations.

A safe system of work should be implemented to manage the risks associated with inspection and maintenance of plant. The manufacturer’s instructions should be included in a safe work procedure on how inspection and maintenance should be carried out. PCBUs must also provide information, training and instruction to a worker that is suitable and adequate to:

  • the nature of the work to be carried out by the worker
  • the nature of the risks associated with the work (at the time the information, training or instruction is provided)
  • the control measures implemented to deal with these risks.

When inspecting, maintaining or operating any plant that uses hydraulic power:

  • always read the instructions provided by the manufacturer and follow all safety directions
  • never place yourself or others in a position where you could be crushed in the event of hydraulics failure or inadvertent operation of the hydraulics
  • carry out inspection/maintenance with the attachment lowered
  • use manufacturers lock pins or engineered designed stands/props to support the attachment.
  • if a back-up safety system is provided on the plant, ensure it has been correctly installed and always in use before entering a high-risk zone
  • if a safety system is not provided on the plant, make sure you use another system that is specified by the manufacturer and is load rated and has adequate strength to safely withstand any loads that could be applied to it
  • ensure workers working on, near or under hydraulics are adequately trained and supervised.

SafeWork SA would like to thank WorkSafe QLD for the base source of information.

Compliance focus

Construction continues to be one of the most hazardous industries, exposing workers to a variety of hazards and risks, resulting in unacceptably high levels of injuries and fatalities.

In response to this, SafeWork SA’s inspectors are currently undertaking compliance audits on Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) for high risk construction work (HRCW).

The WHS Regulations prescribe 18 specific activities as HRCW, due to the significant potential for serious harm that is often associated with those activities.

One of these prescribed activities is work that is carried out in an area at a workplace in which there is any movement of powered mobile plant, for example, excavators.

SWMS are a key strategy relied upon to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities within the construction industry.

More information

How to manage work health and safety risks Code of Practice 2019

Managing the risks of plant in the workplace Code of Practice 2019

Hydraulic hose fittings and connections

Hydraulic fluid on earth moving equipment

Safe Work Method Statements for High Risk Construction Work 

WorkSafe QLD: Hydraulics safety