Maintenance is a high-risk activity because it often requires working alongside a running process and in close contact with machinery. During normal production operations, automation typically diminishes the likelihood of human error that can lead to accidents. However, in maintenance activities, contrary to normal operation, direct contact between the worker and machine cannot be reduced substantially, as maintenance is an activity where workers need to be in close contact with processes and machinery.
Maintenance often involves unusual work, non-routine tasks, and it is often performed in exceptional conditions, such as in confined spaces, for example. Maintenance operations typically include both disassembly and reassembly, often involving complicated machinery. This can be associated with a greater risk of human error, increasing the accident risk.
Working under time pressure is also typical for maintenance operations, especially when shutdowns or high-priority repairs are involved.
As a result, there is a high risk of accidents related to maintenance activities. Here are some of the most common:
• Crushing by moving machinery or unexpected machine start-up
• Falls from heights or accidents involving falling objects
• Electrocution, electrical shocks or burns
• Confined spaces resulting in asphyxiation
• Explosions and fire.
In order to mitigate the risk to maintenance personnel, there are five basic rules for safe maintenance.
1. Planning. Maintenance must start with proper planning. A risk assessment must be carried out and workers should be involved in this process. Issues to be covered at the planning stage are:
a) The scope of the task – what needs to be done, and how it will affect other workers and activities in the workplace.
b) Risk assessment – potential hazards have to be identified (e.g., dangerous substances, confined spaces, moving parts of machinery, chemical substances or dust in the air), and measures need to be developed to eliminate or minimize the risks.
c) Permits to work and lock-out systems.
d) The time and resources that the activity will require.
e) Communication between maintenance and production staff, and all other parties concerned.
f) Competence of the employees and adequate training.
Employers need to ensure that workers have the skills that they need to carry out the necessary tasks, are informed about safe work procedures, and know what to do when a situation exceeds their competence.
2. Making the workplace safe. The work area needs to be secured by preventing unauthorized access, by using barriers and signs, for example. The area also needs to be kept clean and safe, with power locked-out, moving parts of machinery secured, temporary ventilation installed, and safe routes established for workers to enter and exit the work area.
Warning cards should be attached to machinery, with the date and time of lock-out, as well as the name of the person authorized to remove the lock. This way, the safety of the worker performing the maintenance on the machine will not be jeopardized by another worker inadvertently starting it up.
If possible, guards should be designed so as to allow minor maintenance on the machines without removing them. If the guards must be removed or deactivated, then lock-out procedures should be followed. Maintenance workers must be trained on how, and under which conditions, safeguards may be removed.
3. Use of appropriate equipment. Workers involved in maintenance tasks should have the appropriate tools and equipment, which may be different from those that they normally use. Considering that they may be working in areas that are not designed to have people working in them, and that they may be exposed to a variety of hazards, they must also have appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
With respect to the equipment and tools to be used, employers should ensure that:
• the right tools and equipment for the job are available (together with instructions in using them, if required)
• they are in an appropriate condition
• they are suitable for the work environment (e.g., no sparking tools in flammable atmospheres), and
• they have an ergonomic design. All personal protective equipment must:
• be appropriate for the risks involved, without the equipment itself leading to any increased risk • correspond to existing conditions at the workplace
• take account of ergonomic requirements and the worker’s state of health
• fit the wearer correctly after any necessary adjustment.
4. Working as planned. Safe work procedures have to be communicated and understood by workers and supervisors, and applied correctly. The work should be monitored so that the agreed safe systems of work and jobsite rules are observed.
Maintenance is often carried out under pressure – for example, when a fault has brought the production process to a standstill. Safe procedures need to be followed, even when there is time pressure. Shortcuts could be very costly if they lead to accidents, injuries or damage to property.
Procedures need to be in place for unexpected events. Part of the safe system of work should be to stop work when faced with an unforeseen problem or a problem exceeding one’s own competence. It is very important to remember that exceeding the scope of one’s own skills and competence may result in accidents.
5. Final check. The maintenance process needs to end with checks to make sure that the task has been completed, that the machine under maintenance is in a safe condition, and that all waste material that has been generated during the maintenance process has been cleaned away. When all is checked and declared safe, then the task can be signed off, and supervisors and other workers can be notified.
This final step also involves completing a report, describing the work that has been performed and including comments on any difficulties that have been encountered, together with recommendations for improvement. Ideally, this should also be discussed at a staff meeting where the workers involved in the process – as well as those working around them – can comment on the maintenance activity and come up with suitable suggestions to improve the process.
Statistics shows that around 15% to 20% (depending on the province) of all accidents and 10% to 15% of all fatal accidents are related to maintenance operations. Maintenance workers, please be safe!
MRO Simon Fridlyand, P.Eng., heads SAFE Engineering, a company that specializes in industrial health and safety concerns. For more information, visit www.safeengineering.ca.