THEMES – HEALTH & SAFETY
Serious accidents are rarer today in manufacturing but ill health and safety breaches still cost firms dearly. Ben Hargreaves looks at how improvements to health and safety culture can boost productivity
Autumn 2016 saw the Health and Safety Executive writing the kind of headlines it hopes will one day be a thing of the past.
In October, a chemicals company was sentenced and fined £3 million for an incident in which a worker was killed and another left with “life-changing” injuries at a plant in Grimsby following the release of a toxic vapour cloud. And in November, Oldham manufacturer R Tindall Fabricators was prosecuted after a worker was crushed under metal pipework while stacking a forklift and died.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found there was no risk assessment, or documented system for moving and stacking pipework or items around the site, and that the method of packing bundles had changed without being documented. If these safeguards had been in place the worker would not have been exposed to such dangers, the HSE investigation found.
Happily, the recent trend in manufacturing is that these types of fatal incident are becoming rarer. “Injury and ill health rates are improving, says Giles Hyder, head of general manufacturing and musculoskeletal disorder olicy at the HSE. Hyder says that over the past decade, injury rates in manufacturing have come down by about 40 per cent. Ill health rates in the sector have come down by 25 per cent. And ill health due to musculoskeletal disorders has come down by about 30 per cent. “In terms of fatalities,” he adds, “there has been a drop in the last five years of about 25 per cent.”
MILLIONS OF WORKING DAYS LOST
For the HSE, one fatality is a fatality too many, however. Millions of working days are lost to injury and ill health in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, so addressing problems effectively could provide a much-needed productivity boost. Musculoskeletal issues are prevalent, closely followed by stress-related absences. Also of particular concern are “long latency” illnesses caused by exposure to substances.
“There are incubation periods of up to 30 years for some illnesses, so they hit when people have left their employers,” explains Hyder. The HSE sees this as an area where a “push” in terms of health and safety regulation is required, because the problem isn’t staring engineering employers in the face.
Respirable crystalline silica is an issue because it causes silicosis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other lung diseases are also prevalent, as is occupational asthma – the HSE is targeting the woodworking industry in an effort to prevent this. It is also looking at flour dust in grain mills and its impact on health. Welding fumes and metalworking fluids can also cause health problems.
There is a still a significant number of injuries and fatalities caused by – as in the case of R Tindall – movement of heavy loads and workplace transport. “Manufacturers must ensure they have a proper health and safety policy in place – you would be surprised by those who don’t,” says Julia Fitzsimmons, partner at Midlands law firm FBC Manby Bowdler. She adds that manufacturers must also ensure staff are properly trained in health and safety and that new employees receive a health and safety induction. “Health and safety has to be part of the culture. And if there are breaches of policy, they need to be taken seriously.”
Automotive manufacturing and logistics firm Unipart won the latest in a string of awards from the British Safety Council for its health and safety culture in October 2016. Unipart aspires to be one of the safest companies in the world and sets challenging safety objectives, using problem-solving tools and techniques to manage safety. It also has risk assessed and safe systems of work that are fully documented within standard operating procedures, as part of a process of continuous improvement, known as the Unipart Way.
“Our accredited Team Leaders will have met stringent assessment criteria, that ensures they are able to manage health and safety in their area, holding competent skills in risk assessment, accident investigation and emergency management, as well as how to communicate and engage individuals to use The Unipart Way to identify and make safety improvements,” says Unipart spokesperson Emma Gascoigne. Crucial to the company’s approach is that areas where accidents might happen – ‘near miss situations’ – are thoroughly documented by employees. “It is essential for organisations to promote a culture where near misses are reported,” adds Gascoigne.
While it is good that Unipart’s efforts in terms of accident prevention are recognised, Gascoigne also says that offering an employee assistance programme reduces workplace absences and that increasing employees’ psychological well-being is associated with an eight per cent increase in productivity. “We are investing in staff capability to promote wellbeing, for example by starting to roll out mental health awareness training, and providing additional training to line managers in identifying and addressing pressure within their team members. We monitor ill health and provide health promotion and interventions to support ill health,” she says.
Technology is also constantly reviewed to reduce risks within Unipart operations. This includes monitoring the daily safety of automation and machinery through comprehensive planned preventative maintenance programmes.
“The Unipart Way ensures we regularly inspect and undertake safety checks, and have very visible information available to all on these checks and on everyone’s competency levels.”
Terry Woolmer, head of health and safety policy at anufacturers’ organisation the EEF, says new European legislation on exposure to electromagnetic fields came into force in April 2016 and will affect manufacturers’ future health and safety policies. He adds that all European health and safety legislation is currently being reviewed in Brussels. Modifications may be made as a result of Brexit, but the less disruption for engineering employers, the better, says. “We would prefer to see legislation ‘grandfathered’ across when we leave Europe. Because companies are using existing procedures, it would be very disruptive to have to adopt something completely new on the day of Brexit.”
But he stresses, nonetheless, that there are aspects of European legislation that could do with an overhaul. Woolmer concludes: “We are still advocating a review process. We recognise that there are modifications that could be made – and certain things we could get rid of.”
2017 AND HEALTH AND SAFETY RULES
2017 will mean questions on Brexit, and what it means for occupational health and safety. Derived from EU Directives, most UK health and safety law has been in place for many years, and is embedded in company investment decisions, policies, management systems, safe systems of work, and working practices.
There will be in due course be opportunities to repeal certain areas of regulation, without reducing levels of employee protection. Some candidates for repeal include the Artificial Optical Radiation and Electro Magnetic Fields Directives, and eyesight testing for employees using display screen equipment.
In the area of product safety, such as the Machinery Directive, the story is a little different. Export of goods from the UK are subject to rules around product directives and product standards, many of which will have been established jointly by the EU and by CEN & CENELEC, though national standards-making bodies, such as BSI.
Post-Brexit, companies that wish to continue trading in the EU (using CE marking) will want to continue meeting EU product safety directives and the product standards which are mutually recognised across Europe.
Turning to the future, new and emerging technologies that could impact on health and safety policy include nanomaterials and collaborative robots. For nanomaterials the EU and the UK need to decide which legal frameworks are appropriate for protecting workers. It would make sense for the EU to use the existing Chemical Agents Directive (COSHH in the UK), but there is a danger that adoption of the precautionary principle for nanomaterials in the EU might lead to rather more prescriptive requirements.
In terms of automation such as co-bots, man-machine interaction is nothing new. However, it is now becoming commonplace and complex, as robots are operating in segregated areas less and less, but rather working in tandem with humans.
What will this mean in terms of safeguarding standards? This question still needs to be fully addressed.