MRO Magazine

Everyday Hazards: The diversity of a maintainer's job leaves them open to safety risks


Industry

March 23, 2011
By PEM Magazine

Maintenance is critical to ensuring continuous productivity, quality and competitiveness — but it also contributes significantly to occupational health and safety. Maintenance influences the safety and health of workers in two ways. First, correctly planning and carrying out regular maintenance is essential to keeping both machines and the work environment safe and reliable. Second, maintenance itself has to be performed in a safe way, with appropriate protection of maintenance workers and others present in the workplace.

Two different types of maintenance can be distinguished:

• Corrective maintenance is carried out after fault recognition and intended to put an item into a state in which it can perform a required function. In this case, maintenance actions are intended to restore a system from a failed state to a working state. This involves, for example, repair or replacement of failed components. This type of maintenance is also known as reactive maintenance because the action is initiated when there is an unscheduled event of equipment failure.

• Preventive maintenance is carried out at predetermined intervals or according to prescribed criteria intended to reduce the probability of failure or the degradation of the functioning of an item. In this case, actions are scheduled, proactive and intended to control the deterioration process leading to failure of a system.

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A third type of maintenance can also be added to this list. This concerns large-scale maintenance, or shutdowns, and includes modification, rebuilding, modernization or renovation of the equipment or system. This type of maintenance is carried out to allow an item to accomplish new or additional functions, or the same function in better conditions.

Workers in All Sectors
It is difficult to obtain statistics on the employment of maintenance workers for various reasons:

• Maintenance does not correspond to just one occupation but to several. Mechanics, electricians, car mechanics, electronics engineers, supervisors and other workers might perform maintenance tasks as a part of their job.

• Maintenance concerns all sectors. The type of maintenance will be different depending on the sector.

• Maintenance is a role that can be assumed by different operators in a principal or subsidiary way. Maintenance organizations are various and have undergone profound modifications (such as total productive maintenance; autonomous maintenance; shared, integrated or specialized maintenance; subcontracting maintenance; and remote maintenance) leading, for example, to the allocation of maintenance tasks to production operators. Thus, a specialized operator, a user or an operator external to the company owning the items being maintained may carry out maintenance operations.

Subcontracting: An Aggravating Factor
Because maintenance is a transverse activity that concerns nearly all employment sectors — from schools and hospitals to industrial manufacturing facilities — it is very difficult to evaluate the number of maintenance companies.

Maintenance is an often-subcontracted function in industry. Many industrial companies have decided to focus on their core business and have outsourced some functions or departments that were previously integrated into their structure. The aim of transferring activities to external companies can be ‘to set up a small network of interdependent companies that will make production, maintenance and services more flexible’ and consequently to reduce costs; in our case, maintenance costs.

Additionally, subcontracting is often considered an aggravating factor in terms of health and safety. Working away from one’s usual place of work or frequently changing working environments may create additional hazards, as employees have to adapt, and frequent travel from one place to another subjects them to road-related risks.

Workplace diversity may also increase health risks, as subcontractors are unable to manage their work environment like permanent employees. This can also lead many subcontracting companies to operate on multiple sites where the conditions in terms of work organization and time pressure are determined by the user company.

Overview of Risks
In recent years, maintenance has been the subject of fundamental change and is now more respected as an essential function within companies. However, maintenance-related risks sometimes receive limited attention and little research has been devoted to the impact of maintenance on the safety of those who work in maintenance. Maintenance tasks can be carried out in permanent installations (such as maintenance workshops) with appropriate machines and tools — but also where a breakdown occurs. In this latter case, incidents are more frequent because workers may use inappropriate or improvised equipment, or may be working under time pressure. Moreover, maintenance activities are rarely taken into account in the design of equipment.

Maintenance covers different conditions, including:

• working outdoors, exposed to changing climatic conditions (maintenance of radiotelephone antenna) or to vibrations, noise and chemical substances (such as the maintenance of roads, bridges, tunnels, rail tracks); and

• working indoors, exposed to high levels of noise in industrial facilities (repairing of machines, vehicles, etc.).

Thus, risks are related mainly to the environment where the work is carried out; machines and tools used; the type of energy used (such as electric, pneumatic or hydraulic); working conditions; and chemical/biological agents workers handle during the work.
In most cases there is a combination of risks.  p


© European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2011.