Knowing that you don't know

People who attended the awards gala dinner in November won’t recall the name of the man who accepted the collaboration category award on behalf of Frucor Suntory, but they most likely will remember the length of his beard.

Barry Williams chuckles as I confess the sense of ironic concern I felt seeing a man with a spectacular beard receive an award for a machine guarding initiative. Surely there’s a risk of …

“I wear two snood masks,” he reassures me. “Also, my speech was the shortest on the night.”

Williams, the company’s automation and process manager, remains a key member of the collaborative team at the heart of what is surely one of the most comprehensive machine safety initiatives ever undertaken by a New Zealand manufacturer.

In its award entry, the company acknowledges it had fallen into a reactive pattern of ‘fixing’ hazards after an injury occurred. Stepping back and taking a critical risk view of what might seriously harm its people, it realised that machinery was number one. Further, it realised it need to take a holistic approach but lacked sufficient internal knowledge to do so. It needed external help.

They brought in Tait Wichman of Weratech and asked him to answer some key questions, including whether Frucor’s machines complied with standards, was operator training and supervision adequate, and were the instructions clear and appropriate? Just the sort of conventional questions you’d expect.

Need better questions

But after spending some time looking at the array of different machines across its two manufacturing plants, and talking to operators, Wichman realised the company needed to expand the scope of its review and required better questions to help push it in the right direction, namely:

  • Do operators understand machine safety, in general and specifically, to be able to perform safely?
  • Do operators and maintenance staff have the skills and knowledge to identify machine safety concerns and raise them?
  • Does the company have sufficient processes in place to ensure existing safeguards remain functional and in good condition?
  • Are there adequate processes and resources to deliver necessary improvements to machinery and operating processes?
  • Will safety-related deficiencies with machinery be identified and rectified methodically or accidentally?

Williams says bringing in outside expertise was an essential early step, because people who work in the plant every day stop noticing things. “I’ve worked in manufacturing, in oil and gas, in water treatment, and I’ve walked past and thought OMG that doesn’t look quite right, but what you walk past becomes the normal.”

The key difference with this project, he reckons, is that it is focused both on the now and on the future: not only what has to be done now to make the plants safer, but what has to be done to ensure they remain safer, five years down the line.

“If you take a piecemeal approach, then that bit goes safer for a while but eventually it gets dragged down to the level of everything else. It’s human nature – people have priorities, more often that not about getting product off the end of the line.

Wichman not only posted the five questions to set a framework for further work, but he made multiple specific recommendations. These included taking a holistic approach using the hierarchy of controls; ensuring permanent technical expertise is developed within Frucor Suntory; developing machine safety competency at operator level; tackling deficiencies in fixed guards; and regular professional testing of safety devices and systems.

Assembling the team

The company then put together a team to run its machine safety programme, consisting of several internal people plus Wichman and Barry Kleine from TEG. Unusually, it also formed a governance team of senior managers to monitor progress and help overcome roadblocks.

Jo van den Berg, head of health, safety and wellbeing, says the governance team helps keep things realistic. “What are we tasking ourselves with over the next month? Is it achievable? Do we need additional resource?”

Williams says having two external experts on hand helped to convince staff the company was taking machinery safety seriously. “Bringing people in from outside and giving them carte blanche shows people we are giving the right level of gravity to the project.”

With Kleine on board, the team began a series of machine safety sweeps in its manufacturing and logistics areas to identify quick wins and urgent actions. These identified 52 urgent actions and 66 non-urgent actions, including things like repairs to missing or broken guards, emergency stops, warning signs, and interlocks. Also ensuring electrical cabinets had effective access controls, and identifying concerns raised by operators that could be addressed by better design.

Williams says this phrase allowed the team to hit the ground running, both in tackling issues and becoming highly visible to staff. “What are the easy wins? What’s the stuff that makes you go, OMG, we need to sort that out as quickly as possible? It very quickly raised the flag of machine safety to everyone.”

Inventive work-arounds

The sweeps also identified longer term concerns that allowed the company to build what it calls a Heat Map to help prioritise attention, including conducting formal machine risk assessments covering everything: operation, cleaning, maintenance, guarding, interlocks, emergency stops, energy isolation, signs and markings, and analysing the manufacturer’s specific instructions.

These assessments follow a template – devised by Frucor – and include extensive input from each machine’s operators, maintenance staff and cleaners. This was essential, says Williams, because just spending a few minutes looking at a machine in action doesn’t begin to encompass the scope of what could go amiss.

“A machine’s safety system and the guarding around it changes, depending on the state of the machine. Is it running? Is it stopped? Is it in fault? Are they cleaning it? Reconfiguring it for the next product? Doing maintenance on it?

“You speak to the people and they tell you, oh well, if a bottle falls over there, what I have to do is reach in with a stick and poke it out. If you didn’t ask you’d never know.”

Operators, he says, want to hit their production targets and will come up with some inventive modifications or work-arounds to keep things moving – always with the best of intentions. If what they have devised is safe and better it’ll be introduced into the SOP and they’ll get the credit.

Van den Berg agrees: “Some of these changes are great. You think, why did we complicate it so much, when we could make an easy change?”

Building capability

Frucor also took on board the advice to build machine safety capability internally. Williams and two others have completed Pilz’s four-day Certified Machine Safety Expert (CMSE) course, and maintenance engineers have completed a similar two-day course. Machine operators have attended a Basics of Machine Safety Training module to alert them to what can go wrong and the minimum requirements of safeguarding.

Before the CMSE course, says Williams, it was difficult for anyone with a query about machinery standards or legislation to identify someone to ask. “CMSE gives you a status, almost, so that people will respect the reply they get.”

Engineering staff are now aware of what a safety system looks like, and that if they propose to alter it in any way that there are rules and validations that need to fall into place to preserve its integrity.

“They double check now. If we do this, does it mean we are altering the safety design? Is there a way to do it that doesn’t alter the design? How far can we reach an arm in here?”

Van den Berg says general awareness of machine safety has risen tenfold – people are aware there is a potential safety consequence to any change.

“There’s been an increase in reporting, and people are asking for guidance before making changes. That’s got to be the value – in the asking.”

Conveyor redesign

Williams cites an example of how greater awareness of machinery safety systems resulted in a relatively simple redesign. It was an area half the size of a tennis court, with a conveyor running through the middle of it, interlocked guarding all around it, with an interlocked door on the right side and another on the left side. The operators were stationed on the left side.

It all looked fine: if you were on the left, you exited the enclosure through the door, walked around the outside of the area, and entered on the right through the interlocked door.

Except that’s not what was happening. Talking to the operators, they realised no one even considered doing going out the door and around the other side when it was so much less hassle to just step over the moving 600mm wide conveyor.

“We called it ‘unforeseen misuse’,” says Williams. “We started pricing up putting a walkway over the top of it but then realised that in the hierarchy, eliminate is best.”

They soon worked out how to rearrange the layout to get rid of the central conveyor altogether, and to rearrange the guarding to be simpler and easier. There was no need to introduce an expensive walkway, with its additional fall from height risk.

Extra benefit? The line deals with sticky and acidic fruit such as oranges. Removing the conveyor makes cleaning and washing down the line much simpler and more thorough.

Pleasant surprises

It has been a massive project and is ongoing, so I ask Williams what has most surprised him. He says it is the genuine sense of collaboration from staff, from cleaner and operator and all the way up.

“Training sessions on machine guarding sound like the dullest thing you could ever imagine, but we got so much positivity during them. Every time you trained an area, you’d go back there a few weeks later and people would say that training was great, or that guard there didn’t have all the bolts in it that it should’ve.”

People have appreciated the essentially collaborative nature of the initiative and want to get involved. “They all feel part of the thing. It wasn’t just a bunch of people from up yonder sweeping through and making demands.”

Pandora’s box

Williams also reckons he knows what holds back many companies from taking a hard look at the safety of their machinery: fear of not knowing what they might find, of opening Pandora’s box, and how much money they might need to spend. But it’s the wrong way to look at it, he says.

“If you find something wrong, you don’t have to make it perfect. You just have to make it safe, and then, later, find a way to make it better. It doesn’t have to be perfect tomorrow, just better than it was yesterday.”

Van den Berg agrees, citing the example of a “really old” machine that has lots of safety controls already in place, but the feeling is that it ultimately needs to be replaced.

“We have spent money to keep it as safe as possible while we work to replace it. That comes from our CEO: what do we need to do to keep it safe now? And in the longer term, how do we invest in the future?”

She says that even more than two years into the project, and with all the investment of time, expertise and resources, people are still finding things – and that’s good.

“That’s the challenge, to keep that level of vigilance. Surely, you say, we have found everything? But you never have.”