Taking health and safety seriously

It is crucial to ensure that whilst operating machinery of any kind, relevant personal protective equipment (PPE) is used. Picture courtesy of Hywit Dimyadi/Shutterstock.com
It is crucial to ensure that whilst operating machinery of any kind, relevant personal protective equipment (PPE) is used. Picture courtesy of Hywit Dimyadi/Shutterstock.com

Today many industrial establishments are much safer places than a few years ago, as regulations have led to fewer accidents in the workplace. However, many industrial disease claims could have easily been avoided had health and safety fundamentals been clearly defined and understood by both the employer and the employee. This article outlines some of the main health and safety measures engineers should take.

Although great strides have been made to promote worker safety in recent years, the most notable changes have been in the development of effective personal protective equipment (PPE) and government regulatory Acts in the interests of workers. Despite this, working in the pump industry still comes with numerous risks. With every development in safety equipment, machine pumps become more powerful (and dangerous) to match, making a sound awareness of health and safety principles imperative for today’s engineers.

Under the UK’s Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, UK employers have a duty of care to employees to minimise workplace and occupational hazards as far as possible. Nonetheless, negligence still occurs, and causes costly complications when it does. It is advisable not to leave matters as vital as personal health in the hands of your employer, and to be aware of your right to a safe working environment.

Noise levels

As a pump engineer, one of the most important health and safety considerations you can make is the noise levels of any machine pumps operated. More than two million people are exposed to noise at work which may cause irreparable damage over their years of labour, with engineers representing a significant portion of that figure. Experts have established that regular exposure to noise levels above 85 decibels can bring to bear a number of negative health consequences. These might range from basic concentration disruption which might cause slips and falls, or the drowning out of important sounds and signals like fire alarms. More commonly, prolonged exposure to industrial noise can cause permanent hearing damage, a condition known as Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) or industrial deafness.

Hopefully, your workplace has already implemented some noise control procedures in any enclosed space where loud machinery is used. However, in many cases, employees are unaware of how little exposure is needed to cause damage, and so there are still two measures the individual should take to guarantee their safety. These are, firstly, to limit exposure to loud noise where possible, and secondly, to use the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever exposure is faced.

It is wise to take regular breaks from noisy work environments to ease the consistent accumulation of noise vibration within the eardrums which is thought to be the cause of most damage. As part of this philosophy, workers in close proximity to powerful machine pumps should ensure that they do not stay in and around these environments for any longer than is necessary. For example, if noise is still audible whilst eating in the workplace, it may be prudent to consider taking external lunch breaks to allow the ears adequate recovery time.

It is crucial to ensure that whilst operating machinery of any kind, relevant personal protective equipment (PPE) is used. Though this might sound obvious, statistics indicate that of the 2 million people exposed to dangerous noise levels at work, only 1.1 million are thought to use PPE regularly. Clearly, workplace noise is still a problem which isn’t given due consideration. The aim of PPE is to reduce noise to an acceptable and less dangerous level, whilst still allowing for worker safety (e.g hearing important alarms and signals) and communication.

Employer’s responsibility

PPE varies in the effectiveness of noise reduction, making it integral that engineers are using the appropriate equipment for the work to be performed. It is an employer’s responsibility to conduct a survey of working areas which consider relevant factors, providing the necessary equipment free of charge. This is particularly important if the work is being performed within enclosed spaces, where noise will reflect and reverberate off walls, amplifying decibel levels to far more damaging degrees than with outdoors use. These situations will tend to demand stronger noise reduction, and varying levels of PPE should be provided and used contextually.

Noise is not the only consideration a pump engineer should make as far as health and safety is concerned. The vibrations pump tools generate must also be considered, with frequent exposure to vibrating surfaces linked to the development of numerous industrial diseases. Using vibrating tools causes hand-arm vibration (HAV) which may lead to the onset of conditions such as Vibration White Finger (VWF), and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), which may even require surgical attention. These conditions each cause problems with feeling, loss of strength in the hands, and pain in gripping objects, which may affect workers’ ability to perform their job safely and effectively. In the case of the pumping industry, the greatest risks obviously are posed by hand pumps, although machines with platforms attached or those used in enclosed spaces may cause collateral surface vibrations, which engineers may touch or walk upon. The increased power of modern engineering equipment has widened the spread of vibration-related conditions, leading to the modern tendency to class VWF under the umbrella term ‘Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome’, which includes the elbow and upper arm as well as the hands and fingers.

Regular breaks

Once again, the best measure an engineer can take is to take regular breaks from using vibrating equipment. According to 2005’s Control of Vibration at Work Regulations, UK employers have a responsibility to make sure risks from vibration are controlled, providing information, instruction and training on those risks and the action taken to control them, ensuring suitable health surveillance takes place at all times. The regulations also provide an Exposure Action Value, which represents a clear risk requiring management, and an Exposure Limit Value – a high risk above which employees should not be exposed. With hand pumps, the Exposure Action Value (EAV) which can pose a risk of a vibration-related disease occurs after about an hour’s consistent usage, when a break is advisable.

These regulatory figures have certainly helped limit exposure – now, vibration monitoring equipment is available which tracks the amount of vibration a user has been exposed to, alerting users as to when a break may be necessary. It might be worth asking your employer to make an investment in workforce safety by purchasing these tools. Nonetheless, everybody is different. If you feel tingling or numbness during or after exposure to vibration, it may be causing you harm. Your employer should also ensure that you are provided with warm clothing to keep blood circulation levels up whilst using vibrating tools, as low body temperature is believed to be a strong risk factor for vibration-related diseases.

More general matters of health and safety must not be overlooked either. Best practice dictates that regardless of the industry, working environments are kept clean and clear from obstruction. There have been numerous cases where workers have endured nasty falls and severe injuries after tripping over equipment left out in the open. It is imperative that risk assessments are regularly conducted in your workplace, identifying new hazards as they emerge. If these are not being conducted, it is your right as an employee to ask this of your employer.

Chemical handling

Finally, pump engineers who work in chemical handling must be aware of, and comply to, health and safety best practice when handling potentially hazardous substances. Chemical substances can cause an array of negative health effects, from minor irritation to third degree burns. To date, some toxic substances have been strongly linked to the development of life threatening respiratory conditions and cancer.

Safety measures in handling chemicals should include being aware of chemicals which are incompatible with the pump used, preventing chemical reactions by using separate pumps for different liquids, and keeping flammable substances away from potential fire hazards such as electrical equipment. Once again, it is imperative that engineers working within chemical handling use the correct PPE, which may include gloves, protective clothing and safety glasses to avoid exposure to the skin, and also mouth protection to prevent toxic vapours being inhaled, which may cause respiratory conditions such as asthma.

Although this article has outlined some of the main health and safety measures you should take as an engineer, the importance of immersing yourself in relevant information and taking necessary precautions cannot be understated.

Speaking on the risks pump industry workers face, Asons Solicitors Head of Industrial Disease Emma Simcox-Oliver said, “It is easy to presume that an employer will be aware of the risks their pump engineers will face, acting in their best interests. Unfortunately, throughout my career I have time and time again seen cost cutting measures take priority over safety and well-being. Many industrial disease claims could have easily been avoided had health and safety fundamentals been clearly defined and understood by both the employer and the employee. It is better to have such measures in place, than regret their absence after what could be a serious and debilitating accident.”

Although it may take some time to learn the health and safety guidelines specific to you and your industry, it is a worthwhile investment. Nothing should be a higher priority than your long-term health. ♦