Pick a show at random and you will see, in the days preceding it, hundreds of companies preparing for their particular task within the exhibition hall or event centre, all with a common aim – to build the best event they can - but in my experience there is a real lack of clear communication and coordination that compromises safety and raises the risk of a serious accident.

The first morning of any show, all of the trades converge on a site and set about their business. They might be carpet contractors laying out floor carpet and forming gangways, shell scheme contractors laying out and building stands, electricians laying cables on the floor, venue riggers flying lighting rigs and banners, and space only contractors bringing in all of their building materials to construct their stands.

Ray Myles, MD CEVA Showfreight

The industry still permits contractors (official and otherwise) to plan their own work, with little or no regard for the effect their work has on others. It’s not unusual to see a shell scheme stand, for example, constructed directly in front of a main vehicle entrance door or the only freight access door, on the first day of build without being challenged!

At this point the logistics contractor’s plans for a safe and managed lifting operation all go out of the window! It’s an all too common experience and logistics companies have no control over who enters the halls and when (with very few exceptions). In these circumstances, forktrucks have to deal with all the obstacles presented to them, and are expected to do so without causing injury to others or any property damage.

I believe there is still a great deal of questionable practice accepted by the industry that is rarely challenged. For example, space only contractors may be allowed to bring in all their building materials for the build period, and have them placed around their stand with complete disregard for access and safety. This practice places a significant safety risk with the logistics contractor by not only reducing visibility for pedestrians weaving in and out of the obstacles, but this dramatically reduces the visibility of a forktruck drivers peering through the mast and over the load, whilst having to look out for pedestrians and simultaneously watch where they are travelling.

In an ideal world, gangways would all be 3-4 meters wide, but this is rare. When gangways fill up with freight and building materials, they quickly become gridlocked. The safety risk then increases for everyone working in the halls, as forktrucks are forced to carry heavy and large freight at height, over building materials that are blocking access gangways and stands.

Many of the problems logistics contractors face regarding the control of workplace transport are simply a result of slow and incremental changes to working practices, and I would welcome the HSE to draw up an ACOP outlining a safe exhibition build and breakdown!

The recently revised Construction DM regulations caused something of a stir, but have been ultimately embraced by the industry. However, we should not lose focus of how the construction industry operate building sites compared to exhibition venues. On a traditional construction site, the hierarchy allows for total control of the trades delivery of materials in a ‘just in time’ sequenced delivery schedule. This in turn allows all transport movements to be fully controlled, and the site to remain clear of obstructions, with a safe separation of pedestrians and vehicles/materials handling equipment (MHE). We are not comparing apples with apples!

Modern construction sites are well managed under the Health & Safety At Work Act (HASAWA) and controlled access is a major priority. All pedestrians are site inducted and generally receive a good H&S grounding before they are given a pass allowing them access. Vehicles are managed from the time they arrive at the gate to the time they exit, with clear responsibility lines. Vehicle movement is controlled by designated roadways and unloading areas, and manoeuvres are always controlled or supervised by a banksman or competent person.

Exhibition Halls have, at best, just a few of these important controls in place, and without them the best that can be achieved remains limited to a common sense approach. However a common sense approach will fall painfully short of the requirements and application of the CDM regulations as they were intended.

In my view there are a few simple (on the face of it) steps that organisers and venues can take to improve the situation. This isn’t an exhaustive list or a prescriptive one, but any of the measures below taken individually would still contribute to a significantly safer working environment. Taken together they could make a colossal difference.

  • A single body responsible for scheduling in vehicles – avoiding the random, uncontrolled approach to vehicle arrival.
    No more loose materials on vehicles that are only able to be unloaded by hand – they cause unnecessary delays for others, clogging the unloading areas and causing workplace transport bottlenecks and blockages.
  • Building materials should be delivered using the just in time method, and not in one consignment on the first day, blocking gangways.
  • Shell scheme stands in entrance and access areas should be scheduled to be built after any logistics requirements for access,egress and large freight arrivals have been satisfied.
  • Lighting rigs and advertising banners to be erected towards the end of the build phase to avoid causing additional obstacles for forktruck passage and crane work.
  • More care over the rigging of catenary wires at roof height, which can be impossible to spot from the ground, posing a significant risk to workers in halls. If they are caught by a crane they can snap and cause severe injury to anyone working in their path of their fall.
  • Ensuring floor ducting covers are not left exposed and loose electrical cables are not permitted on the floor, avoiding tipping hazards for forktrucks.
  • Gangways to be kept clear of waste material and equipment at all times.

Part of the organiser’s objective at any show is to maximise the floor space yield and, by extension, ROI. In a pressured sales atmosphere, sales teams may sell space without sufficient consideration for the commodity being exhibited, or the complexity of the stand. I believe there needs to be more focus on how an individual sale might affect the entire event and the plans of contractors. This would help solve common problems like gangways that do not align with vehicle entrance doors, or large and complex exhibits, requiring heavy lifting equipment, being sited under low ceilings or other obstructions in the hall.

Logistics is an industry sector that is based around meticulous and detailed planning, but all the planning in the world won’t help us if we cannot cascade that information out to other contractors and vice versa. There is a golden opportunity for organisers to build safety by design and safety by default into their events, by acting as the planning coordinators for their events. If organiser and sales teams are trained to spot potential issues at booking stage, then the right space can be allocated to the right exhibitors without restricting their choice of location. With the space planned out (with 3 metre wide gangways), the organisers might then be able to create a staggered build schedule, with specific timeslots for each phase of the build, giving contractors the space and access they need to complete their role safely and quickly.

The exhibition industry has an enviable safety record given its sometimes chaotic appearance before a show opens. Up until now we have tolerated an industry wide acceptance to go with the flow and carry on as normal, but by doing this we are not diminishing the potential for serious accidents.

Whilst the exhibition industry tries to mirror the safety practices found on modern large construction sites, we will never reach the same degree of rigour until it is recognised that the collective control of contractors is priority this rests on effective and timely communication.
Whilst the suggested solutions mentioned above are far from exhaustive, if implemented they could have significant and immediate benefits, including:

  • Bringing efficiency to the exhibition delivery in terms of reducing congestion and reducing risk in and around halls.
  • Enabling risks to be managed more effectively
  • Reducing the potential for accidents
  • Promoting safety awareness
  • Reducing stress in the workplace

As an industry, and through our associations, we need to continue to push towards safer working environments, and I believe an important part of that process is improving the cooperation, coordination and planning of the build phase.

The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ESSA, its members, board or staff. Our members represent a broad range of views within the event industry, and we have provided this section of the website for their opinions to be openly heard and discussed.

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