Unsafe maintenance14 June 2014

Sadly, maintenance engineers and technicians are still being seriously injured and even killed as they carry out their tasks. Brian Tinham asks HSE chair Judith Hackitt, why?

To the uninitiated, maintenance – whether of factory machinery or process plant – is right up there among the most tightly regulated of activities. Surely it has to be, given the clear risks associated with powerful and potentially very dangerous equipment? So, why are so many serious injuries and indeed fatalities associated with maintenance?

To Judith Hackitt CBE, chair of the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), the answer is clear. "Fundamentally, it happens because maintenance operations are non-routine," she says. Given that a substantial proportion of maintenance activity is scheduled, preventive work, at first blush that sounds implausible. So, what does she mean?

"Maintenance means a plant or factory not producing: it has stopped doing what it normally does while equipment is maintained or fixed," she explains. "Whether the maintenance is routine or unplanned, [shopfloor workers] are not performing their routine activities." Just as important, she adds, factory managers like to see machines running. "So not only is maintenance non-routine, but also the pressure is on to get the shopfloor back to production."

And the unintended consequence of those two factors, she says, is that neither enough time nor enough effort are put into planning maintenance activities or considering the best and safest methods and sequences to execute them. "Risk is often not controlled in the same way as it is with normal production – and that's especially, but not only, the case in the event of breakdowns."

For Hackitt, what's missing is good, risk-aware engineering practice applied universally, including to maintenance activities. "I think a lot of attention is given to considering what may be small, everyday risks associated with any production process. We all see people spotting hazards around slips and trips, don't we? But you're much less likely to see them watching maintenance being carried out and thinking about risks and their mitigation."

That is as dangerous as it is tragic and unforgiveable – particularly in view of the often very basic equipment and systems that could make all the difference. She points to simple lock-out equipment, Castell key arrangements and the like, designed to prevent access to powered machinery and to stop inadvertent start-ups while maintenance engineers and others are in danger zones.

"On many plant visits I see those good practices in place, but in others I'm still disappointed to find them absent. I simply don't understand why so many [factory managers] haven't invested in such basic kit."

Hackitt concedes that one of the reasons may be misconceptions. "People believe that even such simple equipment will slow them down. It will somehow get in the way of normal operations. But, if it's properly designed, it certainly won't. And it could save lives."

So, what can be done? "Managers' roles are very clear," insists Hackitt. "They are to identify and manage risks in their workplaces. That includes the biggest risks, whether they are present all the time or are specific to certain operations. I see too many managers paying attention to smaller risks, including slips and trips, but failing to consider less likely, but potentially bigger risks, such as those associated with intermittent or periodic maintenance, which may be different to normal operations."

But she also cites another issue: engineering competence. "Just because people work with equipment every day, this does not mean that, when it needs to be taken apart, they have the right competencies."

Managers may need to bring in other, skilled people who may be less familiar with the factory floor arrangements. The solution, asserts Hackitt, is better planning so that risk assessments are completed well ahead of maintenance tasks becoming necessary, method statements are properly documented and available, and managers know the competencies they require.

As for embedding such thinking into an organisation's culture, at the macro level Hackitt suggests starting by examining the pecking order maintenance enjoys, not only in the plant, but also the business. "In some workplaces, and especially where maintenance is contracted out, these people may not be thought of as part of the organisation in the same way as, say, production. It's 'us and them'. That's completely wrong, but there are still remnants of that culture and it adds to the risk potential."

Meanwhile, at a micro level, she asserts that, beyond proper planning, good risk management includes careful attention to handovers.

"One of the common modes of failure and causes of injury is when handovers are not completed properly and equipment is restarted while people are still working on it. There have been several such incidents since I've been in this role and reports of maintenance technicians trapped in live equipment don't make for comfortable reading."

Judith Hackitt is the keynote speaker at the WM Factory Health & Maintenance Conference 2014 on 5 June. www.maintenance-conference.co.uk/bookings

Brian Tinham

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