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Health and safety: Acceptable hazard?

fps sl.2 approved

Should the risks associated with sonic logging be accepted when checking pile integrity or should we be pushing to get alternatives validated? The Federation of Piling Specialists believes more research will lead to better safety.

Pile integrity testing is an essential process and, despite some safety concerns, the use of cross-hole sonic logging in large diameter rotary bored piles is well established in the UK. Alternative methods of “seeing into” completed piles, such as dynamic testing and thermal integrity profiling (TIP testing), exist but each has its limitations.

Whichever approach is taken, these indirect tests measure a parameter such as the time taken for sonic waves to pass across a pile section, or the changing thermal profile within the concrete of a pile as it cures. Such test methods do not definitively identify features or defects in a pile and evaluation of the results requires experience and engineering judgment when results are complicated or inconclusive.

Sonic logging retains a highly undesirable downside in terms of safety and this downside requires urgent attention from specifiers, practitioners and operational businesses in order to render the practise safe. The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) believes that these safety improvements are essential but is call for its members to accelerate validation of alternative testing methods.

Sonic safety

Sonic logging requires the installation of four or more full length steel tubes in the pile and these tubes are usually fixed to the reinforcement cage. Many bearing pile schemes involve long, bored piles dictating cages of two or three sections or more. The assembly of these cages requires the bottom section to be suspended in the pile or in a “rat hole”. The next section is then lifted into place and spliced. The new whole is then lowered into the bore, suspended and the process repeated for the next section of cage.

Piling contractors and reinforcement suppliers have made great strides in developing innovative, safe and simple to use splicing systems. These have in many situations eliminated the need for hands and arms to be inserted into the cage to attach bolted clips and fixing brackets.

Sonic logging tubes, however, still present a major hazard.

The tubes sit within the reinforcement cage, rigidly attached to the inside of the bars or the cage helical or bands. This is essential as logging is sensitive to accuracy of positioning and divergence or convergence of adjacent tubes. The telescopic tubes are held up above the splice with ties until released, when they are free to slide down a given distance in order to enable jointing of the tubes. The tubes are usually a screw fit to be watertight and to bar the entry of grout and concrete. Some tubes are still sealed by wrapping with adhesive tape which further increases the risk prolonging the time operatives have to have their hands inside the cage.

At any time after release, a momentarily jammed tube can free itself and fall. A 60kg tube falling say 1m under gravity can cause serious injuries. A team concentrating on one jammed tube amongst 20 plus spliced cage bars, can take their eyes off the alignment of another tube. Fixing brackets for the tube can spring off the more flexible cage and fall from height. There are far too many cases of tubes subjected to unexpected loads during handling, or transportation, catching on other parts of the cage or on the ground. These then can fall out of the cage during the lift. Some records describe tubes falling from the upper section all the way down the pile bore.

Piling contractors and reinforcement fabricators have worked hard to mitigate the risks; stirrup bars and impact blocks are welded into cages to act as stops for sliding tubes, different ways of screwing the tubes together have been tested. However the fundamental risk has not been able to be removed.

Over the years operatives have lost fingers and thumbs in the course of this operation. People have suffered hand injuries when using stilsons to tighten tubes whilst keeping their hands out of the cage. In one case the top cage section slipped unexpectedly and knocked the stilsons downwards at speed, pulling the users hands into the cage.

Serious injuries

One FPS member reported three serious injuries and 39 hazards, near misses and safety observations related to sonic tubes in the past six years. Another recalled four serious hand injuries from three linked projects, including a lost finger and broken bones.

So is this simply a matter for the piling contractors, cage designers and fabricators? The FPS believes it is a problem that the whole industry must take responsibility for.

Ultimately a “flexible” reinforcement cage is incompatible with rigid tubes attached within it that require operatives to use their hands to join them. Tubes attached to dummy cages inserted after the main cage have been tried but the need to join tubes still remains.

The requirement to align multiple cage bars, any of which can catch on each other requires concentration from operatives. They cannot watch, say, 20 plus bars and four tubes at the same time. There is plenty of opportunity for spacer bars and temporary brackets to come loose and fall. The whole process is unforgiving of any momentary lack of attention at any stage.

Work is being undertaken in finding and developing quick, push-fit couplers for sonic tubes. These however are bulky and when combined with the bracketry, hoops and multiple bars in heavy cages, could generate a problem for concrete flow around and through cages thereby increasing the risk of generating the very defects that the testing is being employed to check for.

Validation research

When the place of sonic logging as a first choice is questioned, the reasonable response from specifiers and validators is to cite insufficient correlation between sonic logging results and alternative methods of testing.

To overcome this, a concerted effort is needed to review the way confidence in the integrity of large diameter, deep piles is assessed. Urgent correlation of TIP testing results and sonic testing logging results is one way gain confidence in an alternative testing method that removes the hazard of installing sonic logging tubes; but any change in integrity testing approaches must involve the specifiers and be supported by the FPS members. In this way we can fulfil the primary approach of safety management in removing a hazard while maintaining the high quality standards.

  • John Chick is business leader for geotechnics at Expanded Geotechnical

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