A few years ago when I was 54, a newspaper article caught my eye. It reported how a 54-year-old industrial worker had died! At work! Apparently he had become complacent, forgot where he was, turned around, and stepped off the roof of a building!
This article is part of our monthly Palmer's Planning Corner column. Read more from Doc Palmer.
Industrial work, and especially maintenance, is dangerous. Maintenance work deals with dangerous environments, dangerous assets, and dangerous tools. Perhaps most importantly, while the work is routine enough to cause complacency, it is not routine enough to avoid surprises. No one should ever blindly follow any job plan or schedule, but management can greatly improve safety with planning and scheduling.
A proper maintenance planning and scheduling program boosts safety in three ways. First, planners provide job plans in advance that anticipate and prepare for potential hazards. Second, planners save and apply knowledge from previous safety encounters to make plans even safer over time. Third, schedulers increase craft productivity to complete more proactive work to reduce the need for the most dangerous work altogether.
Traditionally, and correctly, plants establish planners to do advance preparatory work to make the execution of jobs more effective and efficient. Planners clarify the scope of the job. Exactly what should be done? What parts and tools should be ready? What is the craft skill level required?
Having the right person do only the appropriate task with the correct parts and tools is obviously safer than any combination of the alternatives, including inexperienced/unskilled persons, wrong tasks, wrong parts, and wrong tools. A planner notes that a particular job involves difficult high access and recommends scaffolding be ready instead of using a long ladder. We can all agree that a planned job should be safer than an unplanned job.
Nonetheless, proper planning goes beyond the traditional view of simple advance preparation. Plants that employ the traditional view by itself cause craftspersons to complain about planners when the plan misses something.
Because there is no way a single planner can anticipate all job problems, no one wants to be a planner, and planning fails. No one can be perfect. But consider that nearly all maintenance jobs are repetitive over time even if they are not as repetitive as being the exact same job every minute, hour, or day. A maintenance job might not be repeated until after six months or even five years. A different person doing the job the next time further makes any repetitiveness less noticeable. But taking advantage of the true repetitiveness allows planners to do their best work.
Proper planning is about growing better plans over the years. A single planner can be a great help as a craft historian gathering and sharing the cumulative wisdom and experience of thirty craftspersons! A craftsperson gives feedback that a particular job would have gone better if the plan had included wasp spray. Another craftsperson reports that a wrench extension would made removing a particular fastener safer. The planner saves this information and includes the wasp spray and wrench extension, thereby making the next job safer.
Going even further, the scheduling aspect of a program is perhaps its most effective leverage for improving safety. The safest job is the job not done. Does this mean the best way to stay safe is to stay in bed? Not quite.
Consider that reactive maintenance is the most dangerous work of all. A machine breaks because a bearing failed in the middle of a rainy night and severely impacts production. The maintenance force responds immediately. The on-call craftsperson might not be the best choice in skill. The job is not planned. The exact problem is not yet known for sure. The parts and tools are a guess. (Fortunately, the person does have access to call in additional resources for information or actual hands-on help.) But everyone is hurrying in a rainy, dark environment, each a hazard in itself.
Fatigue is another great safety hazard. Everyone may be tired if the plant has much reactive maintenance requiring call-outs or overtime. It follows that a reduction in reactive maintenance would lead to safety improvement, and that’s where proactive maintenance comes in.
Think of greasing a bearing properly in time so that a bearing seldom fails and seldom impacts plant production. The greasing job is planned in advance for the most appropriate skill doing the exact task needed in the right time with the right parts and tools. It is done on a sunny day without rushing. Doing this proactive job to grease the bearing instead of the reactive job to replace the bearing improves plant safety.
So why don’t plants do proactive work instead of reactive work? The problem is that most plants are fairly good at identifying failures and fixing them, but not so good at identifying the proactive work that would have prevented the failures. Furthermore, even when plants have identified proactive work, they have trouble completing it. Most plants reward the completion of reactive work but not proactive work, so proactive work doesn’t get completed in time even if it is identified.
When and how should management praise someone for being busy when nothing is breaking? That’s a difficult question. Consequently, in the course of time, plants generally end up with their “hands full” of reactive maintenance. Should they stop doing reactive work and do proactive work? No, they can’t stop fixing things that break. But plants can become more productive with proper scheduling. With the same size staff, they can do the current reactive work and extra proactive work at the same time. Eventually, the extra proactive work completion should lessen the sheer number of breakdowns. Fewer breakdowns occur. And the safest job is the job not done.
Good safe traditional plants plan jobs to anticipate and prepare for hazards. Even safer plants actively collect safety feedback to improve those plans. But the safest plants use scheduling to force themselves to do more proactive maintenance to reduce hazardous reactive work.
Finally, regardless of the type of maintenance, remember the great advice for nearly any sport: “Keep your mind in the game.” Blindly following any job plan or schedule is not the key to safety. Avoid complacency. Keep yourself safe and alive for yourself and your family. (And remember to give feedback to make the plan better the next time.)