Maintenance is an important function in any manufacturing plant, ensuring equipment works as expected without any failure, thus improving overall plant performance. Maintenance technicians are obligated to make the work environment safe, but they face many challenges in performing their duties.
Hazards for maintenance technicians
Maintenance technicians work with complex machinery that unfortunately has the potential to fail. The risk of injury and accidents is high when technicians work in such an environment. The safety risks they face can be divided broadly into two categories – accidents and long-term health problems.
Accidents. Accidents broadly represent events that cause immediate, physical injury or harm to the maintenance technician. The nature of accidents could be acute or catastrophic. Some accidents have the potential to be life-threatening, and some could require hospitalization for many days. Some of the common ways accidents occur (though, not an exhaustive list) are:
• Explosions and fire
• Technician falling from a height
• Objects falling on the technician
• Impact with sharp objects
• Inhaling toxic fumes
• Loud noise impacting hearing
• Skin contact with toxic substances
• Radiation exposure
These accidents have an instant impact and often require hospitalization.
Long-term health problems. Maintenance technicians have to perform repeated tasks throughout their careers. This grueling work can have long-term effects on the health of the technician. They can experience musculoskeletal disorders, like tennis elbow. Maintenance technicians have to reach remote positions in the machines. This forces them to adopt an uncomfortable position and posture to reach remote and inaccessible areas in the plant.
These tasks may lead to sustained injuries in different body parts. The trouble with such problems is that they may not manifest until a later stage of life, not immediately. The treatment is often difficult and costly for the technician, and there also is a risk of long-term mental strain on maintenance technicians. Again, this cannot be detected immediately and may only manifest with time.
A safe work environment
Maintenance technicians are commonly involved when there is a machinery failure. When they have to work in a hazardous environment, there is a high likelihood that they cannot complete their tasks, and this will mean that the operation is compromised and production may be delayed for longer. The cost of such a maintenance disaster could be heavy.
The productivity loss of prolonged downtime is significant for the operation. In addition to that, the plant and equipment will incur loss and damage. Rectifying these damages requires additional capital investment. Hazardous work environments can cause physical harm to operators, maintenance technicians, and other stakeholders. The plant management will have to pay restitution to individuals an others who may be injured or harmed.
Operators and maintenance techs that suffered the accident will be out of the workforce for a few days, requiring replacements in order for regular operations to resume. A plant with a record as a dangerous workplace could find it difficult to hire new employees. They rarely want to work in an unsafe environment.
Having an unsafe environment has many direct and indirect costs to the factory and its stakeholders.
In order to reduce costs and improve the overall safe work environment, we recommend implementing the following five steps:
1. Training. The majority of maintenance problems occur due to the mistakes of technicians. Inexperienced technicians performing maintenance activities could lead to mistakes. It’s highly recommended to employ maintenance technicians who have the sound technical knowledge and hands-on experience.
Without technical knowledge maintenance technicians inadvertently cause mistakes that could lead to disasters. Hands-on training is necessary so that technicians do not stumble while handling machinery in the workplace. Virtual simulations can also be employed to train maintenance technicians - recently employed or long-term employees.
2. SOP and checklists. Errors occur when technicians perform their tasks according to their own styles. This introduces variability in processes, but it can be minimized by having standard ways of performing tasks.
Each maintenance activity should have a standard operating procedure (SOP). Experienced technicians along with the support from OEMs should create SOPs for each maintenance activity. This will ensure that all maintenance technicians have a standard way of performing maintenance tasks. If technicians follow the SOPs, there is an extremely remote chance of faults during maintenance procedures.
You can also use a checklist to ensure that the SOPs are strictly followed.
3. OSHA. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a regulatory agency operating under the Department of Labor. It establishes safety standards and practices to be followed for every industry, ranging from recommendations for protective gear to be used to elaborate protocols for managing particular tasks and equipment.
Access the relevant guidelines from OSHA and implement them in your manufacturing facility. This will significantly reduce the risk to maintenance technicians performing their duties.
4. Maintenance scheduling and prediction. When machines break down and technicians have to perform reactive maintenance on it, the chance of dangerous accidents occurring is very high. Performing regular maintenance \ reduces the chances of such a failure. If the machine does not break down, maintenance technicians only have to perform regular upkeep for scheduled maintenance – which will minimize the dangers technicians face.
Predictive maintenance also can be implemented to improve the safety of equipment on plant premises.
5. Emergency protocols. Even with all precautionary measures, there is a chance of hazards occurring while performing maintenance. There should be emergency protocols in place to be performed in such emergencies.
Emergencies include natural disasters, fire hazards, chemical leakage, electrocutions, etc. In short, any incident that could cause damage to people, property, or equipment can be counted as an emergency. The emergency protocols should cover the steps to be taken by various stakeholders in different crisis scenarios. “Help yourself before helping others” is a protocol that applies in every scenario. You should create further protocols for all foreseeable scenarios. Also, train maintenance technicians with these protocols and help them to retain the steps in the protocol.
Never compromise safety
The safety of people, property, and equipment is a high priority in a manufacturing facility. Maintenance technicians work to ensure all equipment is operating in ideal conditions, to reduce the chances of failure. Ensuring the safety of maintenance technicians while they perform their duties is equally important.
Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy-to-use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.