It seems astonishing that, just 40 years ago, there were over 250 fatalities a year in the UK manufacturing industry. It was the ground-breaking 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) that triggered the start of a steady decline in the years that followed. One significant aspect of both the HSWA and of the 1977 Safety Representatives and Safety Committees (SRSC) Regulations, is the extent to which they imposed obligations on both employers and unions to implement safe working practices. And it worked: recent figures released by the HSE show that in 2016-17 there were 19 fatal injuries to manufacturing workers, and while it’s still 19 too many, it’s less than a quarter of the deaths in the manufacturing sector in the mid-1990s.
Safe Working and Productivity
Over the past ten years or so, there has been something of a sea-change in the way that safety is addressed. In part, this is because, with more automation in factories, there are fewer workers. But it’s also because of an increasing awareness among manufacturers and end-users, that safe working can have a major impact on improving productivity. This, in turn, has led engineers and equipment designers to make safety a key focal point in the development of the latest generation of production machinery.
The digital revolution has helped massively with this, with the invention and refinement of components that make machines faster and more accurate, but also intrinsically safer. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs), for example, provide a single point from which machines, or a group of machines, can be operated. And this point can be remote from the machines themselves so that operators stay well away from the actual equipment.
Safety light curtains are also increasingly used to prevent workers from inadvertently causing harm to themselves and others. These are, like it says on the tin, beams of infra-red light forming curtains between the business end of the machine and the outside world. The beams impinge on sensors and, if broken, will stop the equipment operating. Unlike mechanical interlocks, which can often be by-passed, a light curtain will simply shut a machine down if any attempt is made to interfere with correct operation. And because light curtains are digitally controlled and monitored, they can be moved, isolated and lifted as part of a machine’s control procedures.
Digital motion, vision, light and colour sensors are all extensively used in modern machine tools and production lines, on everything from vehicle manufacturer to packaging of pharmaceuticals. They enable machines to operate at what would previously have been impossible speeds: for example, modern pharmaceutical packaging machines will fill up to 100,000 bottles an hour, while other machines can apply more than ten labels a second.
But as well as making machines faster to operate, these digital sensors also play an important role in ensuring safety. Motion sensors, for example, can prevent unauthorised operation of controls, while vision sensors can detect if anything – such as a wayward product – is out of position on a machine. Smart programming and devices such as face-recognition and biometric readers have been more widely introduced, to ensure that only authorised personnel can operate – or even come close to – sensitive machinery.
Crucially, the human element…
Of course, automation itself will improve safety statistics, if only because factories have fewer employees, and machines do the more dangerous work. Even so, manufacturing is still a relatively high-risk sector, and the importance of safer work processes – alongside these safer machines – can never be underestimated. Training is crucially important, both for process users – the factory workforce – and the process designers themselves. 19 industry deaths a year, whilst significantly lower than the reported number 20 years ago, is still too many and is, in fact, an increase on the 14 fatalities recorded in 2013/14. The upshot of which is, there’s never room for complacency when it comes to workplace safety. The ultimate objective should be to eliminate all workplace injuries: a seemingly impossible task but equally one that we should all be prepared to keep striving to achieve.