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Health & Safety in the 21st Century

From candid accounts of the human cost of industrial accidents to the moral obligation of keeping employees and visitors safe and healthy on site, the Health & Safety in the 21st Century seminar highlighted the significance of operating within recognised standards and warned of the catastrophic implications of flouting legislative responsibilities.

Held on 22nd January and jointly organised by the Cast Metals Federation (CMF), Confederation of British Metalforming (CBM) and the SHIFT initiative, the event attracted an impressive level of attendance from companies in the heavy industries sectors in the UK, keen to continue to commit to H&S and hear the latest advice on how to protect our greatest assets – our people.

Combining the expertise of those working in the metals sector in the UK, CMF and CBM brought together expert speakers and supporting supply companies to showcase the advice and tools available to improve H&S records and keep our people safe and healthy at work from both a physical and mental perspective.

Opening the event, CBM president Steve Morley, told delegates: “I have been involved in industry for over forty years and health and safety hasn’t had the focus that it has today. Previously it was considered a necessary evil, but the mindset has changed, rightly so. We must take care of our people. The ‘that’s not my job’ attitude isn’t good enough – it is everybody’s job.”

Health and safety officer at CMF, Richard Heath, explained the principle behind the seminar. “The work we do may not always be visible to the naked eye, but it is important.

“CMF members work with molten metals, CBM members work with white metals and use huge presses.

“The cornerstone of what we do remains our highly trained and knowledgeable, skilled people. However, to thrive as businesses we have to improve and take care of our greatest assets to retain our current workforce and attract the next generations of them.”

Priorities

Head of manufacturing and utilities unit at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Dr John Rowe, questioned if companies were prioritising the right things.

He said: “We tend to prioritise the thing in front of us shouting for attention.”

He warned that by operating in a high risk sector, companies would be under greater scrutiny. “The HSE is championing the need for prevention and is a risk-based regulator. The industries represented at this event are classed as high risk industries, thus they attract our attention in terms of regulating.”

He went on to discuss some of the HSE campaigns established to assist industry such as the Helping Great Britain Work Well campaign.

He said: “We have a world-class health and safety system in the UK – we should pat ourselves on the back. We have class leading performance in terms of fatal injuries compared to most of Europe, which we should celebrate, but we certainly should not be complacent.”

Drilling down into the details he explained: “1.3m people are suffering from work related illnesses, there are 13,000 deaths a year from past exposure to hazardous substances etc. and there are 15.4m working days lost because of work-related stress. We need to tackle all of this.

“We have three main strengths – the SHIFT initiative is excellent and well regarded with tangible results; the CMF and CBM partnership works well in sharing good practice; and we are starting to address work-related stress and mental health.”

He said that ill health remains a stubborn issue but with traditional industries starting to talk about matters such as stress, times are changing which would be to the benefit of everyone. He also touched on the latest news that all welding fume is carcinogenic, highlighting that there was always something new to be concerned about. “Where do you put your time and effort? Ill health statistics dwarf fatal injuries! But you must be mindful that you are exposed to risk,” he said. “We need to learn from other’s mistakes.”

He explained how industry could work together to help Great Britain work well: make a public commitment; make health a priority; innovate to control welding fume; be pro-active on work related stress; give consideration to the behaviours a company’s culture is driving – get the workforce involved in the decision making process to improve behaviours.

Considering the changes with regards welding fumes and carcinogenic issues he explained that from January 2020 the HSE would bring enforcement procedures in to play. “In terms of welding, inspectors normally accept general ventilation but will now need LEV and RPE. Although used to working within good ventilation etc. in our industry, we will still need to make big changes.”

Shaken but not stirred

In his usual charismatic style, Rowe’s HSE colleague Peter Kelly gave an energetic and entertaining presentation that considered how the pressures of everyday life in today’s world can affect our health. He said that at least the immense expectations placed upon society was now being recognised and widely referenced. “Recent James Bond movies have incorporated mental health issues – who would have thought that a few years ago?”

He pointed to the “pressure pot” of needing people to be available at all times as unmanageable long-term. Holding up his mobile phone he said: “These devices have become a burden. If you send an email at 5am because you consider it important it reduces your workload, but it passes it on to someone else – giving them added weight! When you took the job, did you sign up to work 24/7?

“The phone is designed on a principle that it is technology you can control – it’s called an ‘off’ switch.

Do something revolutionary on the weekend – spend it with your family.”

He said the culture of being on-point all the time had been accepted as something everyone does. “We’ve accepted pressure as the new norm and we shouldn’t – look at a blown out tyre! There’s only so much pressure you can pile on something. The system fails the individual.

“This 24/7 pressure is the single biggest occupational health issue of our generation – 15.4m working days lost because of stress – the largest it has ever been, we have to manage this – people are not weak, it is the system.

“If you’re under pressure, you are going to take shortcuts and make mistakes with serious consequences. It’s not just what people are experiencing in their head, it’s the accidents and ill health they relate to.”

He said societal attitudes needed to change. “Let’s face it, you get RSI from squeezing a stress ball too often! Stroking a cat and walking a dog helps relax people, but that means you have to change your habits, what if we instead change the narrative?

“Remember, you don’t have a business without healthy people so control how you use technology – stress lies in not controlling it.”

Simple ‘quiet’ steps

Looking specifically at noise and vibration, the HSE’s Andrew Hounslea studied the exposure limits for various power tools and looked at some case studies.

He said despite all the tools to aid exposure the best solution was to eliminate the risk. “Ideally can you replace noisy processes? Can you avoid work exposing people to HAV? If not, can you substitute or reduce the amount of time people are exposed to the risk?”

He explained that there were common noise solutions, but that acoustics hasn’t changed in fifty to sixty years so if it worked then it will now.

He said that simple steps also provided assistance. “The biggest source of vibration in an angel grinder is the disc being out of bounds – so be sure to replace discs and maintain them well. If you catch hand arm vibration (HAV) early, you can probably manage it. By looking at time limits and job rotation, improvements can be made. Also a company can ‘buy quiet’. Ask how noisy equipment is rather than the more usual productivity questions. If everyone does this, manufacturers will concentrate on that aspect at the design phase. Often, wearing ear protection does not reduce noise exposure, sometimes ‘buying quiet’ is the only option, so ask if a machine or tool meets your noise requirements in the manner in which you are going to use it? Ask how you can control residual risk.”

However, he reminded delegates that noise protection was an interim measure whilst companies work to reduce and ultimately eliminate noise.

“Some items are not used correctly, people need to realise that roll up earplugs should not be visible when looking at someone straight on – that’s how deep they need to be, but they don’t suit all ears. The answer for a company is to offer a range of protection to its employees and visitors. Also, anti-vibration gloves should not be relied on to control vibration risks, they will keep operators warm and dry, but they won’t reduce vibration exposure.

“Over protection is a big issue, generally it creates more problems than it solves. If your ears are protected but you can’t hear the forklift truck coming because your hearing protection is too robust, that’s a problem in itself.”

Getting the house in order

Picking up on a similar theme, Richard Denton of H&S company Southalls Ltd said slips, trips and falls were one of the most common causes of accidents in the workplace and were generally due to poor housekeeping. He explained that almost one million working days were lost to slips, trips and falls in the UK annually.

“The cost to a company is significant,” he said. “Bad publicity, reduced productivity, lower morale, lost working days, increased costs – agency worker, training agency staff etc. It makes much more sense to have a ‘clean as you go’ policy.

Taking the strain

Looking at the details of musculoskeletal disorders, Glen Musgrove, safety advisor at MOHS Workplace Health, explained the tremendous strain placed on the body for everyday tasks. “Lifting just one kilogram puts ten kilogram of pressure on you lower back, if you lean forward that increases to 20, twist and you can double it, then if you lift above the shoulder or bend, it further increases. So you see, it is not the large loads that are the problem, but how you are moving loads,” he warned.

He said it was best to talk to an occupational health company, as they recognise things a company might not and can offer advice and support, they also have access to further advice.

He also said that movement was fundamental. “You need to keep moving – the best position is the next one and stop listening to people who say: ‘do not move the chair’, you need to be adjusting it and shifting your position rather than staying in the one position. It is particularly useful to have kit that moves with you.”

He explained that the best course of action was to eliminate the hazard or reduce it, or prevent contact by automating. “Companies should also put in place safe systems of work and tell people to move. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the last resort. If you’ve given someone something dangerous to do, you better have top drawer PPE – if you’re giving someone PPE, you must have failed to make what they are doing safe, so make sure the PPE is the best it can be.”

Luck or choice?

Perhaps the most poignant presentation of the day was the real-life, and very personal, presentation from Paul Mahoney. Speaking about everything in life, he questioned: “Is it luck or choice?” The answer: “It’s down to us.” By use of film and popular culture analogies, he explained how we make assumptions all day that we are going to be okay. Also, we have a culture of adopting the classic ‘Black Adder’ General Melchett attitude of pooh-poohing things.

Despite our best efforts, Mahoney explained that we can’t always convince people that safety is in their interests.

“It’s about perceptions – how you see the world,” he said. “Perceptions lead to opinions. Each and every shift will have its own way of doing stuff because we have different cultures and life experiences.

“It’s about ‘getting the job done’, we are all keen to keep productivity up and get the job done. Just ask Diego Maradona about the 1986 World Cup – he got the ball in the back of the net, so he got the job done.

He said complacency needed to be eradicated. “Remember kill a monster when it is small – that’s the best way. Our facilities are full of little monsters, things that we ignore, bad housekeeping etc. We need to educate. We don’t always see things as they are – fish are the last to recognise water because that’s their environment, we have to see things with fresh eyes.”

Mahoney knows this only too well, because everything changed for him on an ordinary day, an ordinary shift and with an ordinary order to get out the door. There was a blockage in a machine, the machine was shut down and he went to clear it. What happened next was what he refers to as “a convergence of circumstances” tinged with some complacency. He explained the ensuing nightmare. A signal was misunderstood, the machine was re-activated, and Mahoney lost his arm and received the dubious label of becoming the first amputee to have his arm reattached above the elbow following a hellish situation on the shopfloor, journey in an air ambulance, ground-breaking surgery and despair for all concerned – himself, his family, his friends and his workmates. Why? Because he and his colleagues – who he refers to as “the A team” because they were the shift with the highest productivity – took things for granted.

“It was a convergence of circumstances – the perfect storm,” he tells an audience that is no longer giggling at his amusing presentation but who are now fully aware that the man giving the presentation had his life changed forever in a matter of seconds. “We had over confidence and trust in the machine, the people, the system, and our communication procedures.”

Rather than play the ‘blame game’ Mahoney is keen that others learn by those mistakes made by him and his colleagues some years ago. “We are all to blame,” he recollects. “You become complacent because you learn the quirks and the noises of the machines. It’s okay to be nervous of something. The butterflies in your tummy keep you on your toes and get you home every day, so you need to slow down and take a step back.”

He spoke about the “ripple effect” for his family, friends and colleagues and how a desire to keep the job going and get things up and running quickly had catastrophic effects. “I should have stuck my head above the parapet and I didn’t, and for that inaction, I’ve paid the price. Don’t let that happen in your workforce. Hindsight is a wonderful, thing they say.”

Quoting Alexander the Great he said: “Upon the conduct of EACH depends the fate of ALL.”

He closed by reminding everyone to think about who is waiting for them at home. “We need to be safer and you can make a difference, the time to do it is now,” he enthused.

A successful discussion

The event included a table-top exhibition and plenty of networking opportunities to access even more information from those taking part. The level of engagement was evident in the number of detailed questions following the presentations. There were of course, common threads throughout the day –elimination of hazards, alternatively reduction of hazards, increased automation to prevent contact with hazardous situations, safe systems of work, a culture of inclusion and an open approach to mindfulness. Perhaps the most positive message was that a large number of people took part, highlighting the acceptance that there is still plenty to be done to foster a safe and healthy working environment in industries where just providing PPE isn’t good enough.

It is hoped that the event will become a regular feature for CMF and CBM. For more details visit: www.castmetalsfederation.com