Changing maintenance safety for the better09 July 2014

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that some 25–30% of work-based fatalities in manufacturing industry (which for the last five years has recorded around 30 deaths annually) are related to maintenance activity.

That is despite the fact that you won't find many factories or plants where, on arrival, you aren't told that safety is their number one priority. Visit the bigger sites and you're also likely to be sat down in front of a health and safety video, before you're allowed anywhere near the action.

So, why the painful statistics? The clue may well be in the nature of those videos. Many might just as reasonably be shown to visitors to a warehouse. Few tell the viewer much, if anything, about the real hazards they're likely to encounter on site, or what to watch out for. And that's surely symptomatic of a culture that's more concerned about the window dressing than the safety of people for whom the company has a duty of care.

As HSE (Health and Safety Executive) chair Judith Hackitt said at a recent conference supported by IPlantE (Institute of Plant Engineers) and BES (Bureau of Engineer Surveyors), too many companies stick with the simple hazard-spotting stuff that anyone can do. Ergo, too few dig down into the real issues – and not only those associated with production, but also self-evidently dangerous plant and factory maintenance.

"That's why, when I look at the fatality reports that cross my desk, I have yet to see one that's made me think, 'Well that's different'," she said. "They're all the same accidents simply repeating themselves, because people just aren't tackling the difficult stuff."

What does she mean by 'difficult'? We should all know the answer to that one, and it's not the 'slips and trips' hazards that seem to be the meat and drink of so many so-called health and safety professionals, who just don't get it.

No, she's referring to the risks that present themselves to operatives working on the shopfloor, around plant and machinery. And, yes, they are relatively difficult to spot – unless, of course, you're the engineer or technician who understands that machine and knows what the job entails. For them, with appropriate training, it's easy to see what's acceptable risk and what's not – and the best measures to ensure mitigation.

That's why Hackitt and others are calling for plant and factory health and safety to become the responsibility of production and maintenance engineers and their managers. Just another part of the day job. Making that sea change also brings with it the obvious and very important benefit of embedding health and safety management deep into the culture of the organisation itself – with the employees, not consultants.

And precisely the same applies to outsourced maintenance providers. Make no mistake, when they're on your plant, these are your people, too.

Brian Tinham BSc CEng MInstMC FSOE FIPlantE FIRTE, Editor

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