Engineering Managers: Why is it so difficult to get control of machinery safety?

Posted By: Warren Spiers avatar

Published to Machine Safety on Jun 09, 2016

John is an Engineering Manager. John, like most engineering managers, has huge responsibilities and not enough time or resources. He is stuck in the middle between the demands of PRODUCTION and those of SAFETY. If you’re like John, we know you have a lot on your plate.

John is responsible for a lot of stuff, that has no direct relation to production but the ‘production is king’ voice seems louder and more immediate than any others, so always seems to take precedence. John is responsible for ensuring that machines are, and continue to be, safe to operate. He relies heavily on his team of engineers to keep him well informed, therefore the competence of John’s engineers is crucial. On the other hand, John doesn’t need them to be dedicated safety engineers.

It’s a heavy load for anyone’s shoulders, but we know that John will do his very best to maintain the equipment day to day and he is the best placed person for identifying any deterioration that results in risk to people using a machine.

Sounds easy? No – we know it’s not.

The main reason for difficulty is that everything is in a continuous state of change:

  • Production requirements change, machines change, new machines are ‘dropped’ on you from nowhere, and there may be missed issues in the pre-delivery checks which are now your responsibility.
  • Management changes, so systems of work change. On top of this there are changes in the law, EN standards and best practice.

Unless John’s engineers are familiar with any of the above (as well as the machine itself), John can’t discriminate between changes and/ or deterioration which introduce risk and those that don’t.

This is because John’s engineers are unable to identify hazards in a clear and consistent way.

“Identifying hazards… that’s easy!”

It should be easy, but often it is hard to see the wood for trees and remain independent when so many characters are pulling your strings. Often your engineers become numb to the hazards around them in order to rationalise their predicament.

“Surely, if this wasn’t safe enough to operate it wouldn’t be here?!”

Inspection for hazards is not terribly interesting, and often when being completed in parallel with other activities can be easily over-looked. We understand it’s a laborious job where a small oversight could potentially lead to an accident.

Unfortunately it is a necessary evil. The Engineering Manager cannot prioritise resources and demonstrate his or her duties, unless those actions are ranked in order of risk, and the risk is unknown unless the hazard has been spotted in the first place.

  • Now that John knows there is an issue, what should he do about it?

  • Perhaps he can get someone to fix it for him during the weekend?

  • How does John know if the people fixing it, are working to current best practice?

  • What evidence will he have to back this up? Perhaps a CE mark somewhere will give him the confidence to know its right?

It is an unfortunate truth that CE marking does not guarantee that something is right and PUWER requires that John checks for ‘obvious faults’ in a CE Marked piece of work equipment…. So, we are back to John inspecting his work equipment… and time is up! The machine needs to run!

We have helped managers like John, to go from a difficult starting point to a machine safety guru, by visiting his site and identifying all his machinery problems and what he should do about them.

We also helped him to check the quality and suitability of the corrective actions proposed by his team including a sign off which gave him the confidence that things were going well. It still not a perfect world, and some risk may return over time, which will need to be addressed in the future.

However, he has been able to paint a clear picture to senior management who must now decide on the next steps.

We are guessing he can sleep well in his bed at night knowing he is top of his game!

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