Key measures can mitigate maintenance safety risks.
Rotorcraft operations must meet regulatory and occupational health requirements, but other factors also affect operational safety and efficiency, including work environment and location, tools and equipment, human factors, and technician training.
Work Environment and Location
Safety in the hangar or maintenance facility is critical to the overall success of any rotorcraft operation. The location and environment in which helicopter maintenance is performed can vary significantly depending on the work required and whether it occurs inside a hangar or outside on a helipad. For this reason, technicians need to consider their personal safety no matter the setting. Extensive maintenance or repairs typically take place in a hangar or sheltered environment, but in some operations, line maintenance may be required in remote locations in perilous weather with limited facilities.
The hazards involved in helicopter maintenance differ from those affecting other types of aircraft because of the various nonlinear shapes and heights of many rotorcraft components. Because helicopters require frequent servicing to maintain optimal operating conditions, technician exposure to safety risks, such as work at height, is far greater than in fixed-wing maintenance work.
Although helicopters tend to be smaller than many fixed-wing aircraft, the height of their rotor assemblies and mechanical parts still poses a significant risk of injury from a fall. The removal and replacement of a helicopter’s major components or assemblies can be precarious work, and the presence of rotating blades presents additional danger in terms of both access and maintenance.
To reach many helicopter parts, techs have to climb ladders or scaffolding—while carrying tools. After accessing the aircraft, the tech might still have to stretch to reach the component requiring attention. If part removal or exchange is necessary, the worker might have to handle heavy parts at awkward angles, further complicating the task and posing additional personal safety risks.
This brings up several safety challenges. Injury from falls is the most obvious and has been more prevalent in recent years, perhaps due to the ever-rising number of aircraft. Another outcome, dropping components or tools, not only can injure the worker but damage the aircraft or serviceable component, as well.
There’s also the possibility the tech might become distracted during the repair and leave a tool or component behind, creating additional risk to the aircraft and others who’ll be working on the helicopter or flying in it.
Fortunately, all of these safety risks can be mitigated with a few careful considerations.
Tools and Equipment
Using an appropriate ladder or maintenance stand improves both safety and efficiency. Maintenance stands that include a place for tools and trash make maintenance significantly safer and easier. If there’s less chance of falls and components are easily accessible, there’s lower risk of injury, damage, and distraction.
There are even ladders and stands that conform to the shape of a variety of aircraft, some of which move easily both indoors and out. Some are portable, and some fit in tight spaces. Maintenance stands and tools are also available that take technician comfort and efficiency into consideration, with padded platforms and handles.
Tool control is another issue that’s plagued aviation. It’s easy to forget or misplace a tool when working in an awkward or distracted environment. If the work is rushed or fatigue is a factor, the risk of error or injury increases. Misplaced tools can cause maintenance delays, and tools left in the aircraft can be dangerous.
There are several tool-control options out there, including high-tech toolboxes that electronically tag each tool and alert the tech when one is missing. Perhaps the simplest and most cost-effective form of tool control is shadowing the toolbox. With this practice, the tech returns the tools to the same location and outlines their shape in the toolbox, allowing him or her to see quickly whether anything is missing.
Human-factor issues such as fatigue and distraction can easily compromise maintenance quality and worker safety. Mechanics working long hours to meet deadlines sometimes have little time for rest. Interruptions by coworkers and others asking questions or looking for updates can further complicate matters. Fatigue and distraction can lead to mistakes, forgotten items, and poor decisions.
Major inspections can usually be planned with adequate time and staffing, but routine maintenance and out-of-service pressures often occur under less-flexible conditions. Safety policies that consider consecutive hours worked and scheduled update briefings can effectively mitigate such risks.
Work on helicopters can involve heavy maintenance and major inspections or regular, minor checks and repairs between flights. Whether the work is heavy or entails routine line maintenance, it’s important that techs are suitably equipped for all tasks.
Equally important is a thorough understanding of the helicopter being worked on and proficiency in the required tasks. New technology incorporated into the aircraft can make maintenance efficient only if the technician has a strong knowledge of these systems, so initial and recurrent aircraft-specific training is highly recommended. In some countries, including most in Europe, type ratings are required for technicians.
Most aircraft-specific courses are available through manufacturers; others are offered at HAI HELI-EXPO®. Tech training in human factors, safety management, and troubleshooting has also proven to be effective in mitigating operational safety risks.
Each helicopter operation is different, but a goal common to all is safe, efficient maintenance to keep the rotors turning.