Danger Zone

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Are you 'walking the talk' or 'stumbling the mumble' on plant safety? Rick Pendrous reports on Food Manufacture's recent safety forum

Most safety managers must feel particularly unloved. While their boards may consider them insurance against adverse publicity resulting from serious on-site accidents, operations managers often see them as a barrier to targets being met when essential safety work stops production. And those on the shop floor can resent them for preventing those little short cuts being taken.

Things are likely to be even worse if they're working for smaller firms where they have to wear numerous hats. This not only limits the time they can devote to their safety function, but may at times present them with conflicts of interest that have to be balanced.

So it was refreshing to hear at Food Manufacture's safety forum held in Warrington that a completely new top-down safety culture is beginning to emerge in some big name companies such as Rank Hovis. For real improvements in safety to be made, there must be a real commitment to it from the chief executive down, claim experts in the field.

Oh, and it also helps if you've got a few 'champions' who are so passionate about safety that they are willing to put their necks on the line in pursuit of doing the right thing.

Once you start to look at everything through safety spectacles, it's amazing how differently the world appears. And, if managed properly, a form of 'viral marketing' can help to spread the word so that everyone begins to accept responsibility for safety -- for themselves and for others.

The safety forum, organised and chaired by Mark Colvin of consultancy Suiko-WCS, also proved that a safe plant doesn't have to cost you money. In fact, by involving staff from different functions and at different levels when specifying new plant, it is even possible to save unnecessary expenditure at a later stage. But to create a safer working environment it is essential to have the right framework; provide the right tools; and instill the right behaviour, says Colvin. At the moment that often isn't the case.

Poor access for maintenance is a recurring problem. Were those responsible for keeping equipment running and safety personnel to be involved during the specification of kit, the installation of costly access panels at a later stage could, for example, sometimes be avoided.

Richard Pettifor, general manager for engineering with equipment supplier APV, would like to see far greater collaboration with end users in developing designs and processes that are safer to operate. "Equipment is rarely used in a standard way," he says. "It is used in existing buildings with space constraints."

Safe plants are generally efficient ones too, adds Colvin. A clean and well organised workplace means that equipment is generally better maintained, with tools and spare parts easier to find. And where the workplace is cleaner, there is less opportunity for people to slip or trip, which account for so many accidents in the food and drink sector.

"Safety doesn't cost money, it's about being effective and efficient," agrees David Crain, site manager for RHL's Trafford Park factory, who has just taken on responsibility for co-ordinating safety across the company's nine other facilities. He is an advocate of creating a safety culture with risk assessment at its core.

Crain cites examples of simple but effective safety improvements introduced at Trafford Park. These include the enforcement of speed limits for traffic in the transport yard and the wearing of 'high vis' jackets so that individuals can be seen when the lighting is poor.

Enforcement is assisted by CCTV; and this led workers to come up with the idea of putting together a safety guidance DVD for new staff and contractors on site.

A widespread problem in many food and drink manufacturing plants is wet and slippery floors. It may not be possible to eradicate these, but much more could be done to mitigate the risks by ensuring that equipment and their surroundings are properly cleaned -- perhaps getting plant operators involved in front-line maintenance.

The specification of slip-resistant flooring will help, as will the provision of the correct footwear for the environment. Free advice is available in this area from the Health and Safety Executive as well as suppliers of personal protective equipment such as Arco.

"Not only is [a messy working environment] an accident waiting to happen," says Colvin, "it is a breakdown waiting to happen." And minor accidents can lead to more serious ones.

After all, most fatal injuries, including falls from height, start with a slip or trip. "There's a continuum from hazard to fatality," says Crain. And maintenance is one potential source of serious accidents, he warns. Checking that machinery is completely locked off before carrying out maintenance will further reduce accidents: "If I've got one message about maintenance it's isolation: switched off is not locked off." FM

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