Proactive approach to occupational health and safety is the key to reducing work-related risks in industry

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Industrial maintenance can be considered as a high risk activity. When something unexpected happens in a factory – a machine breakage, for example – it needs to be fixed quickly. The risk level in such a sudden and one-off event is high. Deficiencies in safety culture and practices may lead to human errors.

Ifin turvallisuusasiantuntija Salla Lind-Kohvakka”Maintenance often involves unusual tasks, especially under time pressure, which is one of the main reasons behind occupational accidents”, says Salla Lind-Kohvakka, Development Manager at the Finnish insurance company If. She explored the safety-related issues in industrial maintenance already while writing her doctoral thesis. Later on, the research work was changed to more practical risk management services at the insurance company If.In maintenance, the first phase involves dismantling, with its risks. Then comes the repair work, again with its risks, and finally the assembly with new risks.

“Severe accidents are often caused by sudden events, for example, when a production line or a machine stops working”, describes Lind-Kohvakka.

Occupational accident insurers like If offer risk management services to their customers. They can include, e.g. management consulting, audits and observation walks. “Medium-sized and larger companies take most advantage of the services”, says Lind-Kohvakka.

Long-term safety work reduces risks

How can injuries be avoided? “Risk assessments are the basis – the focus must be right, neither too small nor too big. Especially in maintenance, hazards related to work tasks, work environment and circumstances must be comprehensively considered. Identifying hazards and evaluating risks will never end”, emphasizes Lind-Kohvakka.

Among her customer companies, the industrial operation and maintenance service company Maintpartner has through determined safety work managed to reduce the number of occupational accidents to a very low level.  “At Maintpartner, the bar in safety-related issues is set higher than usually, and it remains there even if the client’s requirements were on a lower level”, summarizes Lind-Kohvakka.

”In Finland we have over one thousand employees in operation and maintenance, and we want to take good care of them”, says Saija Pottala who is responsible for HSEQ at Maintpartner. The HSEQ includes also environment- and quality-related issues in addition to occupational health and safety. The company has from the beginning systematically developed safety, the focus has been strong especially in the current decade. Safety is part of the company’s strategy.

The results are good: In the first full year of operation in 2007 there were dozens of injuries which meant 21 accidents per million hours worked. This year, the corresponding figure at present is 5 accidents leading to absence from work, i.e. 3 per million hours worked.

Plenty of practical work still to be done to improve safety

Maintpartner has taken actions and is still doing a huge amount of them, starting from risk assessment and minimizing risk points for example through observation walks, work ergonomics and by using protective equipment. Before starting a work task, the possible hazards must be identified. Accidents and near misses are investigated thoroughly and the gained knowledge is shared among the staff.

Work safety often begins with the individual, which means that the right kind of safety attitude is a condition for success. Each Maintpartner site has its own safety requirements and introduction to safety rules, for which the immediate supervisor is responsible. New employees are made familiar with and engaged in the safety culture both on site and in the common e-learning platform, which is part of the induction process.

Jouko Ryytty, who has been involved in industrial installation work for twenty years, says that there has been a clear change in safety attitudes in the current decade. “There has been so much information that people have learnt to become more alert”, he describes.

Experience teaches also technicians to be more careful

Those close to Ryytty have had only one severe occupational accident during the years. It happened when a cut-off machine broke and a piece of cutting disc wounded the employee’s neck badly. “Have to admit that this has come to my mind always when using a cut-off machine.” From this we can conclude that a nasty, but functioning motivator, are the incidents to others: At that point, if not before, people start to improve things.

Other injuries that Ryytty has encountered have mainly been stuck fingers and bumps on the head in tight spaces – “something that needed only a little patching up”, as Ryytty puts it.

In Ryytty’s opinion, occupational health and safety have taken big steps both at Maintpartner and elsewhere since he started his career. Still a decade ago there were traces of change resistance and belittling of safety work but as the subject has been frequently and visibly handled both in-house and in customer companies, the attitudes have changed and safety has become the norm. ”No one deliberately causes damage at workplace”, emphasizes Ryytty.