Manufacturing electroless nickel plating: The safety challenges involved
With over 40 years’ experience specialising in the electroless nickel plating process, NiTEC has developed a comprehensive range of metal finishing processes and techniques, including the diffused nickel plating process, which means it has the capability to plate all manner of substrates.
The company has recently been granted a licence from the globally-recognised brand Made in Sheffield, which marks it out as a trusted supplier of high-quality engineering products.
In late 2017, NiTEC was subject to a management buy-in by Cooper-Brown Enterprises. The transaction was led by Marie Cooper and Chris Brown and also included the acquisition of specialist test house Spire Laboratories Ltd.
The company’s Chesterfield plant is one of the largest electroless nickel plating facilities in Europe and employs approximately 50 staff. There are nine plating lines with seven of these dedicated to electroless nickel. An onsite laboratory means processes can be closely controlled and high quality maintained.
Goods are generally free issued to us for plating and then collected by the customer once ready. An on-site a HSE Manager is responsible for maintaining the 18001 and 14001 management systems, supported by the Quality, Production and Maintenance teams.
Have you implemented any strategies or initiatives which proved successful in improving or maintaining your safety record?
“Earlier this year a documented hazard reporting system was introduced. This included a paper version as well as a digital version in the form of the app ‘Spotlight’ on all company mobile phones. The app allows team leaders to photograph and/or report hazards in real time. We have found this beneficial in dealing with hazards promptly and for engaging staff in reporting such matters without feeling like they are forever filling in forms. The success of the Spotlight app for hazard reporting has resulted in it being rolled out across other areas of the business recently, primarily for reporting quality concerns and issues.
“Team Leaders are responsible for safety on their plating lines and within their allocated areas, but further to this we have made different employees responsible for checking and reporting any potential issues with key pieces of equipment on a regular basis, for example, one employee will check that each eye wash station on the premises is fully stocked and in satisfactory working order. The Team Leader would also perform the same check if there is an eye wash station in their area.
“We have introduced a bunded area away from the shop floor where chemicals can be stored safely. This minimises the risk of any incident occurring on the shop floor being made more serious by the presence of stored chemicals. In addition to that we have appointed a spill response team within the business. If a chemical spill was to occur then we have a team trained in the safest and most appropriate way to deal with this, depending on the chemicals involved, the location and the severity of the spill.”
You have recently been awarded the Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Specification (OHSAS) 18001 certificate, what does that mean for the business?
“It reiterates to customers, suppliers, employees and anyone associated with the business that we are committed to safety and it is indeed our number one priority. It is not an easy environment to work in – there are significant hazards, mainly in relation to chemicals, so securing this accreditation is a particularly important achievement. Maintaining the 18001 Standard ultimately minimises the risk of production delays, ensures employees are following procedures and working safely. This in turn results in satisfied customers, engaged staff and increased profits for the business.”
How important is your safety record when it comes to retaining and attracting new customers?
“Safety is critical within many of the industries we process work for. We have a number of oil and gas, nuclear and defence customers that need to ensure the highest levels of health and safety throughout their full supply chain. Having 18001 reinforces our commitment to working with these customers and reduces their workload in terms of the depth and frequency of audits and inspections they need to conduct at our facility. For other customers, having a plating supplier with 18001 is not essential but for many parts operating in critical areas or performing key functions, a supplier’s commitment to safety and quality is more important than other factors such as low price.”
Please tell me a little more about the process of electroless nickel plating and some of the hazards which are involved?
“An electroless plating is a metallic coating that is, as the name suggests, electroless. Whereas electroplating makes use of a process where an electrical current is applied to a chemical component, causing the chemical composition to shift and deliver a resistant coating to the surface of whatever is being plated. Electroless plating, on the other hand, is a non-galvanic process that does not use external electrical power. The process is actually simpler, using a variety of chemicals and proprietary solutions and not requiring the extra equipment that electroplating does. Electroless nickel coating is used for a range of applications, from marine and automotive engineering to being used as an undercoat to improve hardness before a covering coat of gold or another metal. Other uses include surfaces or items which see a great deal of everyday usages, such as doorknobs – being touched every day, no matter how gently, will inevitably mean that the superior wear resistance of electroless nickel plating is necessary to prevent a tarnished, weakened surface.
“The process of electroless nickel plating isn’t without its hazards. Aside from the usual hazards you would expect to find in a production environment such as cranes and forklift trucks, NiTEC prepares, uses and disposes of a variety of chemicals on a regular basis. Employees are continually handling dangerous chemicals, storing and safely disposing of them as well as being exposed to potentially hazardous airborne contaminants.”
How is safety viewed by staff at NiTEC?
“The company values are ‘Safety. Quality. Delivery.’ All employees are expected to put the safety of themselves and others ahead of anything else, actively performing regular inspections and reporting hazards. We see it as a positive that in the last month a total of 44 hazards were identified and reported by employees. Every meeting begins with a safety moment and the Health & Safety committee are consistently reviewing and relaying updates to the team regarding new and ongoing issues.”
What kind of training do staff go through, in order to maintain the high standards of health and safety which you strive for?
“All employees receive an initial health and safety induction, including manual handling, when they join the business. Role specific training is given to individuals where necessary including formal training for the operation of forklifts and cranes. Ongoing training is delivered primarily in the form of toolbox talks on a fortnightly basis. Following analysis of reported hazards, trends are created and relevant topics identified for inclusion in the toolbox talk programme. Safety and Awareness campaigns are continually running within the business with recent initiatives focusing on preventing injury to hands and identifying mistakes.”
How to you manage the ergonomics of staff working on the production line and what is in place to make their work more comfortable?
“The tanks at NiTEC are capable of plating parts up to 25 tonne and 13 metres in length. Not only do employees need to negotiate the chemical risks associated with electroless nickel plating, on many occasions specialist lifting equipment, cranes, platforms and fork lift trucks are also a necessity.
“Comprehensive training is given on all mechanical aids and only authorised personnel are permitted to perform certain functions. To ensure employees can safely lift parts in and out of tanks, we use various platforms, handrails and hydraulic benches to ensure comfort. Local exhaust ventilation systems are in operation and frequent air monitoring is conducted to ensure a safe level of chemical vapour in the atmosphere.
“PPE as standard comprises of safety shoes, hard hat and glasses but specific PPE is issued to employees working in some areas. This includes overalls and chemical resistant wellies, high visibility jackets for those working outside or in fork lift areas and air fed respirators for use in shot blasting booths.”