Let the chain take the strain

Supply chain problems are causing injuries says AWG's Richard Green

As end-users of increasingly advanced process plant and equipment, water companies are the final link in a long and often complex supply chain. New water supply or waste treatment facilities generally operate with minimal risk to customers, or those living nearby. However, there is evidence that the nature of the design and construction process may be giving rise to health and safety problems for those who have to operate them.

Richard Green, AWG's technical and supply chain safety professional, believes health and safety aspects of some water company sites could be improved. The way the procurement and supply chain has developed means detailed, intimate knowledge of the way plant is operated and maintained at a hands-on, day-to-day level is not being taken into sufficient account.

Put in the most simplistic terms the supply chain begins with the water company approaching a civils contractor about a new plant, in turn the civils contractor contacts process designers to undertake planning work. The process designers will often then seek help from other specialist engineers. Once the plans are finalised the suppliers of the process equipment get involved, and they contact sub-component suppliers.

Then construction begins, involving civil, process, electronics and other specialist contractors; finally the utility takes charge of a new plant.

Green contends that, at an individual level, all the contractors and suppliers are meeting their health and safety obligations. The sub-components such as pumps and valves are inherently safe and meet all the required standards and regulations. Plant designers produce the safe, regulatory-compliant processes specified by the water company and the constructors translate the plans into a safely-operating installation.

The problem, Green believes, often lies in the details. A site designed and operating safely from a process point of view is not always as safe as it can be as a place of work. Green uses part of a treatment works to illustrate his point. Several valve wheels are sited above head height or in confined areas, making them difficult to turn and putting operators at risk of muscle strain injuries.Some of the wheels are difficult to turn because they are too close to insulation. In another example, pipes run at head height, creating a head injury risk, and a heavy drive which requires maintenance is set at a height which could cause handling or crushing injuries when uncoupled.

Green is trying to address these problems which are rarely life-threatening but have the potential to cause painful or debilitating injuries. He said: "Equipment that is difficult to get to and awkward to use is costing a fortune in injuries." The cost for 1999 is estimated at £380,000 for his company alone.

An element of the problem, Green believes, is that those involved at the planning stages do not have to operate the plants: "Process experts return solutions for process engineers, not operators." Green believes problems like the ones in the treatment works example could be solved without affecting the process and with minimal cost, if addressed early on in the planning stage.

Another problem is the "Russian doll" nature of the supply chain. With so many contractors and suppliers involved, responsibility for manual handling safety issues in the final plant is subject to a degree of ambiguity. Component elements meet CE standards, but obtaining CE declarations of conformity is difficult because once equipment is integrated as part of a greater system, suppliers lose control over the way their products are used. It is the same at every level; as work progresses contractors and suppliers surrender control of their contribution to those involved in the next stage. The issue is one of fragmentation.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) make it the responsibility of the end-user, the water company, to ensure mechanical equipment complies with essential requirements, but as has been shown, the equipment is in itself safe and difficulties tend to stem from installation or usage. Most of the problems Richard Green takes issue with are covered by the Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 (amended 1994) which were intended to address injuries from machinery. To ensure compliance with the regulations, AWG is addressing the matter at all levels of the supply chain. The company is raising awareness of the situation with designers, specifiers and supply chain managers - as well as seeking input from site staff - so that faults can be addressed at the design stage. Similar dialogue is taking place with external suppliers and contractors who are being invited to join AWG health and safety courses.

The trend towards partnership agreements, too, is having a positive effect as water companies build closer, long-term relationships with small pools of suppliers and contractors. Green believes the problem does not lie with specific areas of the design and construction regime, and as such it can only by addressed by a holistic approach, "starting from the bottom and working all the way through the supply chain." This means getting all of the designers to talk to each other and the end-user, which is where the Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations come in.



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