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April 12, 2019

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Technology in Manufacturing

Can technology make the workplace safer? 10 ways to introduce risk free tech

Can technology make the workplace safer? Statistically, the answer is yes. The introduction of technology driven solutions into the manufacturing industry has seen a drop in reported cases of workplace injuries and occupational diseases.

Since 1990, there has been a decrease by over 30% in self-reported musculoskeletal conditions which can be attributed, in part, to developments in technology. So how can the manufacturing industry maintain momentum and continue to innovate whilst keeping workers safe? Charlotte WoodCharlotte Wood from Eversheds Sutherland (International) LLP considers some of the possibilities and pitfalls when implementing new technology.

What does the law say on technology in manufacturing?

Any new machinery for the use in the manufacturing industry must comply with the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC[1] unless excluded.

The safety requirements for new machinery and technology include:

  • Any machinery (both new and second-hand) meets all relevant health and safety requirements including sufficient instructions in the language of the end user;
  • There is a technical file for the machinery;
  • There is a Declaration of Confirmation for the machinery; and
  • There is a CE marking affixed.

It is difficult to predict the impact of Brexit on the legal requirements for placing new products on the European market. For the short term at least transitional arrangements will be in place.

What should I take into account when introducing new technology?

The introduction of technology in the manufacturing workplace is not without risk. Whilst it can offer an increase in safety, failure to consider the practicalities of hazards can render the new technology useless.

Our top ten tips are;

  1. What is the goal? A primary manufacturing goal is to continuously improve equipment effectiveness, productivity, efficiency and visibility. New processes, procedures and technology should serve a purpose and seek to make positive change. If your new technology will not increase efficiency, drive growth or help manage your health and safety risks – you don’t need it.
  2. Who will control the risk? The risks of implementing new technology into manufacturing are often misunderstood. Human error cannot always be eliminated. Managers need to understand the risks and implement control measures. Whether you decide to implement industrial robotics, increase the use of nanotechnology or develop a manufacturing execution system, possible malfunction need to be contemplated and planned for effectively.
  3. Will new technology provide immediate results? Not necessarily. Change does not instantly equal progress and although cost and functionality are important, compatibility with your business and workforce should be a primary consideration. Hyperawareness of how potential products and services work in practice is key and thought should be given to the immediate and long term risks. For example, increasing additive manufacturing and/or 3D printing can instantly provide new possibilities which traditionally could not have been achieved with human input alone. However hazards need to be addressed such as the risk of inhalation of ultrafine particles or volatile organic compounds to name a few. Other health risks can arrive from the handling of nanomaterials, opening up a new category of potential occupational health issues, in a similar way as asbestos fibres.
  4. Who should choose the new technology? All key stakeholders of your business should have a say in new innovations, so it is essential to arrange a consultation. Make sure you involve your employees so that everyone understands the benefits. Consultations help to roadmap a safe implementation period for all new introductions to your business. The introduction of technology should not be any different.
  5. How should it be tested? Avoid the impulse to rush. Every large tech developer will have a pilot period, so factor in a reasonable time limit before going live. For instance, wearable technology can be widely tested, whereas improvements to plant or machinery will need specialist testing which will affect the time implementation period. Where your employees participate in a testing period, it should be balanced with current workloads to avoid your employees feeling ‘over-connected’ with the tech world. The HSE estimate between 60% and 80% of accidents are related to fatigue, so remember that the increase in use of technology could actually lead to an over-engagement in work.
  6. What is the best method to introduce technology to a workforce? There is no perfect answer to this question! As a starting point, try to offer support to employees involved in the testing phase or those who will be the end user. A quick briefing with a hefty paper manual isn’t effective but practical guidance and refresher sessions would be. Safety benefits and risks should be explained to make certain that the technology is used to its full potential.
  7. How do I keep up? Managing technology updates of your current infrastructure is a challenge in itself, so planning for the future of your new investment will certainly save a headache later down the line. Product specialists can be costly but worthwhile for any major overhauls, but consider keeping regular and more routine updates in-house. Finding willing people in your business with an interest in technology to participate will ease the financial burden of constant updates and servicing. Be aware that this option will require rigorous management to ensure safety risks are minimised.
  8. Can technology help with my safety data? Technology is not only for innovating your manufacturing equipment. Networking devices, often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), can integrate into existing systems to provide analytics which in turn assist with cost savings, planning and strategy. IoT algorithms have been shown to increase production capacity by 20% but networking technology can be particularly vulnerable and the threat of hackers can lead to operational disruptions.
  9. What if it fails? For each new innovation, ensure you have a back-up or at the very least a back-up plan. If you are phasing out an older piece of kit, don’t remove it until your alternative has been embedded and tested. Again, it is imperative that workers know the procedure to follow in the event of failure. Training and ongoing monitoring will reassure your workforce to continue to operate safely.
  10. What is the worst that could happen? Technology is rarely a complete solution. It needs to be integrated into other systems and correctly used. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. As a stark reminder, in July 2015 a contractor at the Baunatal Volkswagen plant was tragically killed by a robot, who grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate. The contractor was a technician installing a robot which was designed to complete a series of tasks in the assembly process. Volkswagen maintain this was a human error, yet it demonstrates why the management of technology risks present conventional new challenges.

[1]       Directive 2006/42/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2006 on machinery, and amending Directive 95/16/EC (recast)

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