Reviews
Dr Elizabeth Bluff | Ashgate

Safe design and construction of machinery

The results of a review of 66 Australian machine manufacturers on their attitudes towards assessments, risk and design made for some dismal reading, ranging from the reactions of well-intentioned bumblers to blatant buck-passers. 

 

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The study was carried out by Dr Elizabeth Bluff, research fellow with the Research Centre for OHS Regulation at the Australian National University, who has published the findings.

Bluff explored such questions as: what motivated the manufacturers on healthy and safe design; how much did they know about risk assessment and legal requirements; how effective were they in identifying hazards; what strategies did they apply to minimise the risks to the end user; what information on safe use did they supply and how good was it? 

Her results revealed most manufacturers to be ignorant of national and international machine safety standards, narrow-minded on identifying the range of hazards machines can present, unsystematic in their approach to risk assessment and sketchy in the safety information they provide. 

Most seriously, they are quick to attribute accidents to operators’ failure to use their machines “properly”, and slow to face up to the fundamental design and construction issues that would make those accidents less likely and less serious.

Although the research relates exclusively to Australian manufacturers, of which only a few supply the UK market, the findings are relevant here.

For a start, we can learn from the firms’ failure to think broadly about hazards. Our risk assessments should address not just the obvious mechanical dangers, but also health risks such as noise, vibration and chemical use. Then there are the hazards that arise in the overall operation of the machinery itself, some of which can create significant risks – work at height and confined space entry being two possible precursors of fatal accidents that have nothing to do with entanglement, direct contact and the other conventional machine hazards.

There is also sound advice on: focusing on creating a “safe place” rather than a “safe person” – what we (currently) in the EU would call collective rather than individual protection; what makes a good safety instruction – clear, broken down into steps, illustrated, in the active voice, does not require the user to cross-refer to another document; and on the need for machine safety systems to cover maintenance, clearance of blockages and jams, cleaning and similar activities. These, present some of the most significant risks to the operators involved.

Though readable, this is an academic book. It does make some sensible recommendations about policy and regulation, but it could have been made even more useful to the general reader by a clear statement of what the best manufacturers - and by contrast the worst - did. This would provide a valuable checklist for the practitioner. As it is, though, this information is buried within the text and it requires the reader to tease it out. Nonetheless: challenging, and recommended reading.

Ashgate | Hardback £65  

 

Paul Smith’s career spans enforcement, consultancy and the power industry. A former Health and Safety Executive inspector, he’s now a specialist writer on safety and health topics.

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