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Seeing the Big Picture: Plant professionals can’t afford to ignore safety


Most people who spend their working lives in the plant environment probably figure they could retire early if they just had a dollar for every time they’ve heard one or more of the following:

  • "Safety is our number-one concern";
  • "We’re striving for a zero-lost-time injury record this year";
  • "You can’t push productivity while ignoring safety"; or
  • "We’re looking to build a comprehensive safety culture."

Cliches about plant safety, however, only serve to underline the obvious. Of course facilities want to maximize uptime while at the same time eliminating or seriously reducing injuries. Of course employers want everyone — from those in the management boardrooms to tradespeople on the shop floor — to be in agreement about working safely throughout a facility. And of course it makes sense from a corporate-philosophy standpoint — both internally and from a sales and public-relations perspective — to encourage a safe workplace.

Saying something and actually doing it, though, are two very different matters. When it comes to plant safety, it’s things like the actual implementation of a defined culture and resolving the high-uptime/low-injury dilemma that are hard to do. Clearly, folks with management roles in plant engineering, operations and maintenance bear a good deal of the responsibility when it comes to achieving the goals set forward by the standard safety adages.

Motivated by high-profile advocates like reliability-centred maintenance guru John Moubray, plant professionals are increasingly focusing their attention on the "human" side of large-scale plant disasters, and smaller-scale (but no less important) preventable injuries on the shop floor. And from the overall corporate-philosophy perspective, CEOs and boards of directors are continually espousing plant safety as a long-term return on investment — increased spending on safety training, certification and inspection now means big savings later, especially if these expenditures are compared with due diligence in the case of accidents that do occur.

As companies hone their occupational health and safety (OH&S) strategies and work to roll them out onto the shop floor, plant engineering/operations/maintenance professionals serve key roles in many areas, including the following:

  • Monitoring and maintaining equipment and facilities at safe levels while ensuring production targets are met;
  • Securing and complying with Ministry of Labour inspections;
  • Handling the legislative and practical aspects of equipment re-design;
  • Serving on a company’s Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC), usually as a legislatively-required representative of management;
  • Transmitting corporate philosophy on safety to shop-floor personnel through various forms of communication — written, oral presentations, leading by example — and providing outside training where necessary; and
  • Working with industrial hygienists or other in-plant safety personnel to secure and implement appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

Plant professionals are also taking an increased role in safety for strictly legal reasons. In Ontario, for example, legislation that supports the requirement for a pre-development review (PDR) to be conducted on significant changes to a plant’s physical structure or important equipment extends liability to owners and/or lessees of buildings and equipment — as opposed to their manufacturers or vendors — which in many cases can extend further to the plant professionals themselves. In all cases, unfamiliarity with the appropriate legislation is not a sufficient defence against litigation.

Outside of the pragmatic, equipment-and-engineering-based requirements of safety, there is the "softer" side of safety to consider, as engineering, maintenance and operations professionals are being called on in greater numbers to help transmit company-wide initiatives, often under the banner of "behaviour-based safety" (BBS). Based on research beginning in the 1930s, BBS on a corporate level holds that through rewarding (or "positively reinforcing") a desired set of safe behaviours, a company can encourage these practices in a lasting way. And as companies try in different ways to shape the safe-practices behaviour of their employees, it’s only logical that plant professionals should be called on to help spread the word. (For more on BBS in the plant environment, see "It’s all in your head" by Scott Bury).

All of these safety responsibilities can seem pretty daunting — especially since professionals who read PEM have a host of primary operations and maintenance goals in the forefront of their working lives.

So how do you address them? In the PEM Special Report on plant safety that follows, we’ll look at both the equipment/operations and behaviour-based approaches to safety in greater depth. But as an introduction to these topics, we asked a handful of practitioners about how they see the role of the plant professional in the overall safety initiatives of companies.

Michelle Gault, editor of Canadian Occupational Safety (COS) magazine — a sister publication of PEM and one devoted to professionals like occupational hygienists and safety managers/co-ordinators who work specifically in OH&S in a wide range of occupational settings — comes into contact with the major issues of workplace safety on a daily basis. Gault says that the move towards corporate-wide safety initiatives is increasingly focusing on the potential liability of those responsible for process and machinery. "When safety professionals try to ‘sell’ CEOs and heads of companies on safe-workplace initiatives, they are also selling them on the long-term benefits," she says. "And for people concerned with maintaining production levels, this can mean comparing the potential cost of accidents with whatever you are spending on inspection or training. One big lawsuit can wipe out the gains brought about by a whole lot of production uptime."

Gault also says that the maintenance/operations professional needs to be aware that there are some pretty powerful forces opposing a company’s attempts to create a safe workplace. "It’s very rare that someone willingly works unsafely and just blindly disregards regulations," she says. "But given the repetition of a lot of jobs on the production side of things, and the fact that people are often attempting to perform many tasks at once, safety concerns are often simply overlooked. One of the keys for shop-floor managers is finding ways to remind people continually of their responsibilities."

Mike Jessome, maintenance manager at the Brantford, Ontario-based automotive-parts manufacturer Westcast Industries, emphasizes the role of the maintenance and operations manager in ensuring the proper safety training for employees. "Educating people is key — but it can also be one of the hardest things to do, especially when you are talking about a tradesperson with 20 years experience and set way of doing things" says Jessome. "But if you do not provide the appropriate training, the consequences can be huge in terms of a whole range of things — personal injury, legal liability and lost production."

Jessome also stresses two other themes commonly heard in the pages of PEM — communication and data collection — when it comes to changing a safety culture from the maintenance/operations side of things. "Obviously, it’s not a change that happens overnight," he says. "But the biggest challenge is just to make people aware of their individual responsibilities and to get them to start thinking as a group about how they want to create a safer workplace. And when you are able to track accidents — just like you can keep track of any industrial process — you are better able to find out how to reduce them."

As the people responsible for monitoring and maintaining equipment and processes in plants, maintenance/operations professionals have a prime opportunity to improve a company’s safety record. Gino Palarchio, one of the people at the heart of the joint initiative between CMMS software developer Ivara and steel-making giant Dofasco (for which he and the two companies won 1999 Awards for Maintenance Excellence in 1999 for best-maintained large plant and best technical innovation), says that data-collection within the RCM methodology is a big part of ensuring safety in any plant. "Safety plays a big part within most failure-mode-analysis tools," he says. "If you are taking a pro-active approach to equipment, you are necessarily looking at maintaining it well before any personal safety issues would arise."

Palarchio adds that in the event of any unforeseen or unpreventable equipment failures that do cause injuries, the RCM methodology is one of the most due-diligent maintenance practices available. But he says that even though RCM can play a big part in overall safety, it’s something that — like any good comprehensive safety program — has to embraced by an entire company from top to bottom. "Typically, you cannot delegate safety," he says. "The ideal state is to completely eliminate all unsafe environments, and that means that employees at all levels have to feel that they play a part in the process, including pointing out flaws in design, re-engineering equipment and the like. It sounds like a cliche, but for all the emphasis on machinery and diagnostics in our profession, safety really is all about people."


Paul Challen is the former editor of
PEM Plant Engineering and Maintenance and a freelance writer based in Dundas, Ont.