How to automate safely

Here's what you need to do to keep your people safe when integrating new automation technologies.

By Jonathan Jacobi, UL

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Workers’ health and safety is among many things to account for when making changes to manufacturing processes and equipment. Failure to fully consider health, safety, and other operational aspects at the concept and design phases of a project can result in costly setbacks during construction and operationalization. Achieve safety and productivity dividends over the long term by employing the following strategies and tactics to make safe design, safe construction, and safe operations a reality where you work.

Know applicable standards

If you were to hear, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” you wouldn’t be alone if your response were, “Thanks, but no thanks; I’ve got this.” People don’t want to be forced into action. Most of us would rather be guided into choices by benefits. There are benefits to standards (even the mandatory ones).

Government regulations and consensus standards are rich sources of good practices and pain-free lessons learned. People like you from companies like yours provided the insight upon which standards were written. The adage that safety standards are “written in blood” isn’t far from the truth. Why in the world would anyone want to learn their own hard lessons? It’s much easier to learn from others’ experiences. You’ll want to figure out which standards apply to your projects and to do this during early phases of the project, ideally before putting a project out for bid, writing internal work orders, or taking other initial steps.

Contracts should require compliance with applicable standards and regulations. Outcomes will be predictable if applicable standards and regulations (your expectations) are not specified during the work scoping and bidding process: 1) Vendors will bid low and perform minimally to preserve profit margins, or 2) You’ll incur numerous delays and change orders for out-of-scope requests.

One thing that standards and regulations require for some systems in some regions (and is a best practice for all systems in all areas) is a risk assessment. In a risk assessment, the vendor documents the expected as-installed hazard and grades the risk for operation and maintenance in the presence of these hazards, and then uses the process to quantify risk mitigation possible through recommended controls/precautions. Even when risk assessments are not formally required to meet minimum government expectations, it is always wise to ask vendors to provide this documentation. It almost goes without saying that companies should do their own assessments and see if things match up.

Another frequently included contract requirement is that the vendor must have a “safety-competent person” on-site during the work’s construction/integration phase. The role of the safety-competent person is to ensure that health and safety considerations are accounted for (so your organization will not be affected by contractor safety mistakes). The vendor’s competent person is a point of contact from whom to receive site-specific information about hazardous energy control, confined space entry, hazardous chemicals, and egress/evacuation protocol. In an ideal world, the foreman or site superintendent (the overly busy person whom you see carrying blueprints and project schedules) can serve double-duty as the safety-competent person. Dedicated safety resources are recommended for complex and large-scale jobs.

Most progressive health and safety management systems contain provisions for contractor/vendor approval. The health and safety department or purchasing agent will typically furnish vendors with expectations prior to bidding. Vendors in turn furnish necessary documentation regarding historical health and safety performance and mechanisms in place to ensure site safety. Typically, contractors will also furnish policies for prehire and random substance and alcohol testing, insurance coverage, and other documents. Less-safe vendors will be screened out prior to bidding work.

Clear contract language goes a long way toward preventing confusion, costly change orders, and delays. Companies that receive vendor work products will want to follow through and ensure contract compliance actually happens.

Understanding applicable standards

Standards and regulations can be difficult to read and apply properly. Simply handing a safety regulation or standard to maintenance, operations, and other (nonsafety) support personnel probably won’t lead to a deep understanding or correct application of the subject matter. Support specialists such as health and safety professionals should be part of the project team. These specialists can help decode and interpret tricky regulatory language.

Even if there is a health and safety professional on the project team, you may still want to consider briefing/training the entire project team on applicable standards. A common language and understanding is needed so project team members can communicate around common goals of the project. When training, emphasize the reasons for standards. To aid in clear understanding, project leads should request project team participation in end-user and vendor visits for a more complete as-used representation of processes and equipment. Remember, people would rather choose to comply because of benefits, not because the government or “corporate” says so. Train early in the process for full project lifecycle benefits. Expect coordination and communication difficulties if the health and safety specialist is the only person who understands the standards.

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