Special Topics in Safety Management

Maintenance: Safety’s Secret Weapon

The work group at your facility best able to see safety problems coming may be your maintenance workers. But are you listening to them?

They work in quiet, cordoned off areas of your shop floor, or in an area of their own, separated from the hustle and bustle of production. Frequently, they work off-hours, and you don’t see them at all.

Other workers don’t give them a thought, as long as they do their jobs. But when it comes to safety, this quiet, seldom-seen crew could be the most effective weapon you’ve got. Who are they?

They’re your maintenance workers, of course.

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That’s the point made in a study of the role of maintenance in workplace safety, recently reported in BLR’s twice-monthly print newsletter, OSHA Compliance Advisor. The study, titled “How Preventive Maintenance Impacts Plant Safety,” was done by a team of engineers and researchers at the University of Alabama.

“Maintenance is definitely a major resource to abate safety problems,” the study reads. “Maintenance workers … can identify hazards, repair potential safety problems for other workers, and be advocates for increased safety. They can do this during repairs and especially during preventive maintenance.”

What gives maintenance workers these opportunities?

  • They possess special access to the facility’s critical equipment and can detect faults starting to happen that may not be apparent as the machine is operating. They can see bearings starting to show excess play, belts beginning to fray, parts wearing out of tolerance. That puts these workers in a position to make necessary repairs or to warn others before failure occurs.
  • To be able to work safely on the equipment, they know all the facility power and utility access points, and are in the best position to shut things down when they go awry. This makes these workers especially useful to your fire brigade or other emergency services.
  • Their timely repair of equipment prevents other workers from having to jury-rig replacement gear not designed for the operation for which it’s being used, and lacking safety features the equipment that’s down may have.
  • Longer term, they are excellent consultants to engineers designing new equipment, as their input can help avoid the pitfalls of the machines being replaced.

By the same token, poorly-trained and managed maintenance personnel can also be a danger to others. The Alabama study details a list of errors maintenance workers commit that result in injury or even death. These include:

  • Improperly identifying high and low pressure steam, compressed air, or sanitary lines
  • Not detecting or replacing worn or damaged parts, including belts and bearings
  • Failure to adjust and lubricate equipment on a scheduled basis
  • Over-oiling parts, resulting in oil being thrown on insulation, creating a fire hazard, or leaking onto the floor, creating a fall hazard.
  • Failing to replace machine guards
  • Failing to tag and/or lock out unsafe equipment

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And because they work on equipment with guards removed, or energy flowing unprotected, they may be an even greater danger to themselves. Some studies, says the Alabama team, actually show that maintenance personnel have the worst injury and accident records of any worker group. This can’t be proven, due to the way OSHA collects information—by SIC, not job title—but, says the study, “we hypothesize that maintenance workers are involved in accidents at a rate that exceeds any other plant job classification.”

Given their unique position, maintenance workers sit at a safety crossroads, where they can do great good or great harm. Tomorrow, let’s look at a company that took the right path to safety success.