To step or not to step – that is the question: Sewer manhole step iron debate
Regardless of where you are in the world, there is likely a healthy debate on the need for manhole step irons. There are many opinions from design engineers, construction teams and maintenance teams about the usefulness of manhole step irons.
What are manhole step irons?
Step irons are installed in manholes to facilitate access to maintenance workers and/or aid self-rescue in the case of accidental entry into the sewer network. They are usually made of metal or plastic and are installed in manholes in a vertical alignment (think of a ladder) to allow people to move from the bottom of the manhole to the top of the manhole.
Confined space entry manhole
What is the debate about?
Originally, step irons were installed in manholes almost without exception. But with the ever-increasing focus on safety in the civil infrastructure industry, there are questions being posed about the need for manhole steps irons. The anti-step iron argument comes from the drive to use confined spaces equipment for entry into the sewer network, primarily a harness and tripod set up over the manhole that negates the use of step irons, in fact, they can sometimes get in the way of ease of entry/egress.
In regions that enforce confine space entry practices, entry to the sewer network is prohibited without the necessary training or equipment. So removing the need for manhole step irons has a case, especially when you consider the likelihood of associated ragging, corrosion and maintenance. To this extent, some authorities have gone to the lengths of cutting out manhole step irons form existing infrastructure.
The argument for keeping manhole step irons can be strongest in regions where manhole step irons don’t pose a significant maintenance burden, confined spaces practice is not as enforced, and/or illegal access to the sewer network is possible. The argument of self-rescue is a common reason for continuing to install the step irons. Similar to the ladders that you see installed on the edges of non-swimming water bodies, asset owners are obliged (sometimes legally) to provide a way for people to self-rescue in the event of an accident.
In summary, there is no set way to do things. The decision on whether to step iron or not should take into consideration a number of factors, not least of which a rigorous risk assessment to understand your options.
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Has your organisation taken a position on new manhole designs, or feel free to share your personal thoughts – I would love to hear your feedback.
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Manhole steps are required for ease of access for maintenance and also for inspection purposes, both of which help to extend the life of the infrastructure assets. For workers undertaking the work, confined space entry training would likely be mandatory and would be also be enforced as part of the job function.