The Fundamentals: Basic Safety Considerations

EP Editorial Staff | June 11, 2012


Whether it’s related to personnel or processes, safety is everyone’s concern.

We hate to say it: This article marks the last of several years’ worth of quarterly features written by Ray Atkins on “The Fundamentals” of maintenance and reliability. It’s been a good run. We wish Ray all the best as he takes off in another direction on the road of life. Those of us who have had the pleasure to work with him will greatly miss his wonderful writing skills and refreshing take on the basics of real-world plant operations. We think our readers will, too.

Having said this, the logical question presents itself: How safe can we make a process? And once a process has been rendered as safe as possible, what do we do? Sit around and high-five ourselves over the elimination of safety issues in the plant? Order jackets, ball caps and other safety awards to hand out to our teams? Perhaps we should put together a banquet or other type of meal to commemorate this milestone achievement? After all, once a process has been made safe, that’s as good as it can get, right?

No, that’s not as good as it can get. There are so many variables in any process—manufacturing or otherwise—that it is simply impossible to foresee all of the things that can go wrong. Have you ever been a member of an accident investigation team and made the observation that everything that could have possibly gone wrong did? That’s the way of process failure: If the series of events leading up to the mishap had been foreseen, they would have been prevented. So when it comes to safety, we are never finished tweaking the process. Sadly, we can never attain perfection. The best we can do is continue to get closer and closer to it. 

A tale of two facilities
When I was in high school, I took a part-time job at a local factory. I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and nearly everyone in the area worked at this plant because there were no other employment options. The product manufactured at that facility was fiberglass ladders for the telephone company. As far as the physical condition of the plant was concerned… let’s just say that it was one of the most appallingly unsafe places I had (and have) ever seen. The factory resembled something you might see in one of those sweatshop photos from the 1920s or ’30s. It looked like you would expect a fiberglass ladder factory to look if it had been built in the middle of a war zone. From start to finish, it was an OSHA nightmare

Job training was minimal. Official safety training was non-existent. The machines were in poor condition and not guarded to any meaningful extent. The floors were heaped with manufacturing materials, and the walkways were crisscrossed with cords, cables and wires. The building was poorly lit, unheated and uncooled. Strands of fiberglass drifted through the unfiltered air. Objects that should have been sharp were dull, and those that should have been dull were sharp and jagged. There was no lockout program in effect, and none of the breakers or controls were labeled or marked. Company-supplied PPE was not to be found: Most employees brought gloves, glasses and scarves from home. 

While this place seemed like a fatality waiting to happen, during the four years I worked there, not a single person got hurt. Not one cut hand, stubbed toe or mashed finger was reported, nor did anyone trip, slip or fall down a dark stairwell. No one’s clothing, hair or stray body parts were caught in moving machinery. Nobody was burned, poisoned, broken, maimed or killed. This safety performance could have been termed a miracle given the conditions present in the plant. (Or the lack of incidents could have been attributed to the best run of good luck in the annals of modern manufacturing.) In point of fact, it was neither. What kept us all safe was a thriving safety culture that was unlike any I had seen before or have witnessed since. 

Every member of the factory’s workforce had banded together in the absence of any management safety initiatives with the determination to take care of each other. They took pride in the fact that they all went home each day in the same condition in which they arrived. Thus, the veterans looked out for the new hires, and the new hires looked out for one another. Maintenance technicians kept a safety eye on production professionals and vice versa. Day-shift employees watched out for those on the night shift and vice versa. All employees kept their workstations clean and as free of clutter as the facility and management allowed. No one cut corners or tried to work faster than was safely possible. Workers at all levels helped each other with heavy burdens and difficult tasks—and people stepped in to stop colleagues who were attempting to commit unsafe acts. The bottom line of all of this was that no one got hurt. 

Conversely, many years later I worked at a different facility, one in which management did everything it could possibly do to engineer injuries out of the process and to educate employees to be cognizant of the fact that they were an important part of the safety equation. Upper management was safety-crazy, if there is such a thing, and each member of middle management and supervision took every possible opportunity to push this point of view down to the mill floor. All of the machines that could be guarded were at every employee interface, and those that couldn’t be made safe were isolated so that no employee would come to harm. Safety signage was ubiquitous, and gallons upon gallons of safety yellow paint had been used to mark all potentially hazardous areas. 

This safety-concious facility had the most stringent lockout policy I have ever encountered. Employees were regularly trained on all types of safety issues, as well as on the most efficient and safest ways to perform their individual jobs. There was an active safety committee, and even conditions with very low potential to cause injury were routinely identified and re-engineered. 

Despite all this emphasis on safety and the many precautions that were taken, rarely did a month go by without someone getting hurt. The problems at this facility seemed to be rooted in the general lack of ownership of the safety process by most of the site’s hourly employees: They seemed to feel that it was management’s responsibility to keep them safe, and no amount of education or empowerment could bring the majority of these employees into the safety process. They apparently didn’t think they had any responsibility for their own safety. As a result, people got hurt with great frequency.

The difference between these two plants could not be more extreme. In the first example, the management of the operation had abdicated all responsibility for the safety of its employees. The onus and burden for remaining whole and healthy was placed squarely on the shoulders of the workforce—which, in turn, recognized this fact and took the challenge seriously. 

In the second example, almost the opposite had occurred. In that plant, the workforce accepted very little, if any, responsibility for its safety. These employees ceded the responsibility of keeping their ranks safe and sound to management.

A combo approach
A certain level of process safety can be engineered into a manufacturing process, but 100% safety cannot. Similarly, responsible and safety-minded employees can have a great impact on a factory’s safety record, but if management doesn’t meet them halfway and give them something to work with, the piper ultimately will have to be paid. The following short list highlights some basic factors for employees at all levels in an organization to consider as they work together to achieve safe operations:

  • Machinery: The equipment in the process should be well-designed, in good condition and well-guarded, especially around pinch points and moving parts.
  • Inspections: Machinery and work processes should be inspected regularly. PM inspections should be designed to identify impending stress-related, catastrophic failures.
  • Maintenance: Never cut corners with maintenance, either with the quality of a repair, time necessary to perform the work or safety measures that must be put in place while the work is being performed. 
  • Safety Training: This type of training should be frequent and varied. The idea behind safety training is to change the mindset of the recipient. Employees must understand (believe) they can get hurt before they will begin to change their behaviors.
  • Job Training: The operation of most machinery is not an intuitive enterprise. Operators must be taught the basics, and then they must be allowed sufficient time to become fully skilled. It takes years to become a good driver, yet we expect our employees to become proficient in the operation of complicated, expensive and dangerous machinery in a bare fraction of that time. 
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): A management structure that skimps on the PPE is simply not serious about safety. Provide good quality equipment and plenty of it. Then enforce its use.
  • Lockout/Tagout: A safety culture cannot be established in an organization unless it has at its core an extensive and stringent lockout program.
  • Supervision: Very simply, a supervisor’s job is to supervise. Employees should perform their assigned tasks, and supervisors should watch them do it. This structure puts the supervisor in the position to spot a potential unsafe behavior or situation before a tragedy occurs.
  • Communication: Written and verbal communication is at the very heart of safety. When everyone is privy to all of the information necessary to maintain their own health and well-being, they are better equipped to foresee unintended consequences and make the correct choices.
  • Housekeeping: A clean plant has the potential to be an accident-free plant. A dirty plant is much more likely to do someone harm. A clean and orderly plant is a direct reflection of the mindset of the plant’s management. MT

Ray Atkins is a retired maintenance professional and award-winning author of fiction, based in Rome, GA. He spent his last five years in industry as a maintenance superintendent with Temple-Inland. Web: www.raymondlatkins.com; email: raymondlatkins@aol.com.



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