Basic rules when conducting maintenance work
Klaus Kuhl and Ellen Schmitz-Felten, The Cooperation Centre (Kooperationsstelle), Hamburg
Safe maintenance work requires proper planning, a safe work area, appropriate equipment, careful work execution and diligent final checks.
A large number of all working persons are involved in maintenance tasks. Figures are difficult to establish, because it is a cross-sector activity and many workers may have their main task in production or service work, but it is estimated 15% of workers Germany , and 6% in France and Spain , are involved in the maintenance of machines and plants. On the other hand, these workers achieve a considerable turnover, estimated e.g. for Germany by the Forum Vision Instandhaltung (FVI) in 2005 to be around 250 billion Euros, almost double that of the construction sector .
These figures underline that this work is crucial for the smooth running of our economy. It keeps the necessary items safe and reliable. Maintenance workers are usually highly qualified as their work often involves the servicing and repair of complicated structures, appliances, machines and equipment such as chemical plants, metal working machines, telecommunication equipment, infrastructure, buildings, heating systems, cars, tractors, food processing lines, etc. With the importance of maintenance becoming more and more apparent in a highly competitive situation, maintenance no longer only aims to preserve the normal level, but tries to improve the technology and the processes . This requires staffs that are even more qualified.. This requires staffs that are even more qualified.
The complicated nature of maintenance operations which often involves time pressure, working along with running processes, working at heights and in awkward positions, and using hazardous chemicals, etc. has resulted in a high accident rate and health problems for maintenance workers. In France about 44% of all fatal accidents in 2002 were related to maintenance . More than 50% of all accidents in the German metal sector production and one fifth of all fatal accidents in all sectors happen during maintenance . The situation regarding work related diseases is quite similar, as industrial maintenance employees have an 8-10 times greater chance of developing an occupational disease than the average population . In Finland, there were slightly more violent and accidental deaths amongst industrial maintenance workers than other occupational groups between the years 2004 and 2008 . The same study reported that this group of workers had a 20% higher incidence of disability pensions than other employees.. Europe-wide it is estimated that around 15-20% (depending on the country) of all accidents and 10-15% of all fatal accidents are related to maintenance operations >. The Austrian Ministry of Labour established that 40% of all machine-related work accidents do not happen during normal operations but rather during maintenance work, although these jobs only require 5% of the whole working time .
Maintenance workers and their supervisors need to follow some basic rules in order to ensure the safe conduction of the work. These basic steps following the major causes of accidents  are described in the following chapters.
Maintenance can be seen as either reactive or proactive . Reactive means engaging in maintenance activity to resolve equipment and machinery which are not functioning properly. Proactive maintenance occurs when steps are taken to maintain, clean and ensure optimum functioning of machinery and equipment to prevent lack of optimum functioning. Maintenance and particularly proactive maintenance are important management issues:
“To ensure the business survives they must strive to ensure the assets' capacity by constantly optimising equipment availability.” This requires the careful planning of the maintenance tasks by involving all stakeholders, including the maintenance workers. Otherwise misunderstandings are likely to happen and will lead to unnecessary work interruptions and unsafe situations. While developing the plan the employer or management has to ensure that clear roles and responsibilities are assigned.
For smooth, safe and successful maintenance work a prior risk assessment has to be carried out. A risk assessment is a careful examination of what could cause harm to people, allowing one to judge whether there are enough precautions in place or more if more are needed to prevent harm. It involves identifying the hazards present in any undertaking (whether arising from work activities or from other factors, e.g. the layout of the premises) and then evaluating the extent of the risks involved, taking into account existing precautions . Potential hazards could be: dangerous substances, confined spaces, working at height, awkward positions, plant under pressure, moving parts of machinery, unexpected start-ups, chemical substances or dust in the air, stress, communication problems, etc. Outsourcing and subcontracting should be afforded special consideration and the risk assessment should include both perspectives as well as any problems with work arrangements and communication.
The results of a suitable and sufficient risk assessment should enable to choose which good practice measures are most appropriate in preventing risks in general and also in preventing risks to any individuals identified as being particularly at risk. The implementation may mean making changes to the organisation and working procedures, working environment, equipment and products used. Changes could also be necessary in training management and staff as well as improving communications.
Employees and their representatives should be involved in the carefully planned adoption of any policies and measures, as a key component of success. This should include coordination and communication between the contractor and service company personnel. The general principle, also laid down by the respective EU directives, is that risks should be prevented at source and that work organisation, tasks, equipment and tools should be adapted to workers in order to eliminate and reduce risks. Measures should follow the prevention hierarchy:
- Elimination of risks
- Substitution e.g. of dangerous substances
- Collective control measures like exhaust systems
- Individual control like personal protective equipment
This means for example that personal protective equipment has only to be seen as last resort. There have to be periodic reviews to check that measures, policies and procedures remain appropriate and are working and revised if necessary.
Special issues, qualification
Based on the conducted risk assessment the following issues need special attention:
- A qualification level has to be determined for the specific repair and maintenance tasks. It may be necessary to put a permission system in place, only giving specifically trained people access to sensitive and dangerous areas. The issuing of permits for work and lock-off systems has also to be considered. A permit to work should detail the work to be done and the precautions to be taken.
- Enough time and appropriate resources have to be allocated. Stress and unsuitable tools may lead to errors, unsafe situations and prolonged down times.
- Coordinating panels involving the service company have to be set up while the means and paths of communication between all stakeholders need to be established carefully. Comprehensive instructions should be provided. For complicated tasks written work orders should be issued and discussed with the workers.
Ensuring instructions, qualification and further education of the workers performing maintenance tasks is another important planning issue. With buildings and machines becoming more and more sophisticated, and maintenance also being seen as a means to improve technology, maintenance staffs need to keep up with this development. Employees should be given the opportunity to not only develop their knowledge but to also bring in their experience. This is all the more important as maintenance tasks can always bring about situations of unplanned and unforeseeable danger and workers need to make use of all their knowledge and skills to manage these situations safely. It also plays an important role in changing risky behaviour on behalf of the workers. However, in this aspect it is also of utmost importance that all superiors set a good example and always follow the determined rules themselves.
It might also be necessary to seek advice from outside experts, if the company does not have sufficiently qualified personnel.
Maintenance workers and their representatives should already in the planning stage look to it, that the outsourcing issue is considered sufficiently:
- Outside workers are usually less familiar with the company-specific layout and construction of machinery and plants; special instructions are needed.
- Communication between own and outside workers may be problematic with regards to time, language and organisation; special monitoring as to understanding of measures is necessary.
- Coordination of production and maintenance work becomes more difficult; contact persons, deputies have to be identified and time schedules set up to ensure they are on site during the maintenance work.
Being a worker in small and medium enterprises can be quite different in comparison to larger firms. They often have an opposing perspective, because they may be part of service companies doing the maintenance work for larger companies or individual customers (e.g. garages). From this point of view, it is important to always have the right contact persons, to be involved in the client’s risk assessment processes, to always be up-to-date regarding the developments with the contractor’s buildings and machines, to have the right equipment, and to receive sufficient training.
Providing a safe work area
Only authorised personnel should be allowed to do repair or maintenance work. This becomes all the more important when the machines and structures are more sophisticated. Only then can it be guaranteed that the right steps are followed and the correct equipment is used.
The work area needs to be secured by preventing unauthorised access, for example, by using barriers and signs and safe routes, which have to be established for workers to enter and exit the work area.
Structures and machines have to be cut off from any energy sources, such as power supplies and pressure hoses using special locks, whereby only the maintenance workers and their supervisors have the keys necessary for doing this. Warning signs should be attached to machinery, with the date and time of lock-off, as well as the name of the person authorised to remove the lock. In this way, the safety of the worker performing the maintenance on the machine will not be jeopardised by another worker inadvertently starting it up.
Any residual energy should be safely discharged (e.g. an exhaust system for decompression of gases and liquids may be necessary) and it should be considered that some machine parts may need additional time to move into their home position. This has to be indicated in the machine’s manual. The essential health and safety requirements of machines and plants have to be met with regards to maintenance. They have been established by the Council Directive 2006/42/EC on machinery .
Sometimes, it can be necessary to conduct the repair or maintenance work at running machines. In this case special measures have to be taken:
- The normal safeguards should be in place and should be used.
- If that is not possible, special protection devices have to be used (special tools, mobile switches), the speed of the machine has to be reduced, and special covers for dangerous areas have to be provided.
- If this should, in some very special cases, not be possible, special measures have to be taken based on a detailed risk assessment. Supervision must be provided throughout the process.
Allocating appropriate equipment
According to statistical data, the next largest cause of accidents during maintenance – after ‘getting injured at running machines’ – is, ‘falling from heights’. This clearly shows that in addition to improving the design of structures, machines and plants in order to provide easier access for maintenance and repair, it is very important that maintenance workers have safe access to and safe work platforms at their place of work. Ranked in hierarchical order, the following measures are recommended:
- Stationary steps (fitted with slip resistant material) and work platforms with guards (secured against unauthorized access)
- Scaffolds (providing proper stability and structural safety)
- Mobile elevating work platforms
- Properly installable special work platforms for specific fork lifts
- Safety ladders (if possible, fitted with special working platforms)
- Personal protection equipment against falling.
Maintenance work often requires contact with a variety of substances, many of them hazardous:
- Cleaning and lubricating agents should be selected carefully e.g. using selection tools such as GISBAU, CatSub or Cleantool, in order to use substances with the least impact on human health.
- During the work time, gases, smokes and vapours may occur, e.g. by releasing pressure, cleaning surfaces or welding and soldering. When appropriate, quantitative measurements should be taken. Workers or supervisors can also be equipped with test tubes. Appropriate exhaust systems have to be put in place and comfortable personal protection equipment has to be provided.
- If liquids flowing from machines or plants cannot be avoided during maintenance work, workers have to have proper instructions and equipment to handle these (exhaust, skin protection, etc.).
- Work often produces or raises dust. The risk assessment will indicate as to whether there is any asbestosrisk present (brake linings, sealings, insulations). In this case, very special measures have to taken.
- Flammable substances as well as welding and soldering will also involve the danger of fires and explosions. (dust too, when getting airborne, can lead to explosions). This requires special equipment (e.g. non-sparking tools) and related instructions.
- be appropriate for the risks involved, without itself leading to any increased risk
- correspond to existing conditions at the workplace
- take account of ergonomic requirements and the worker's state of health
- fit the wearer properly after any necessary adjustments.
The work has to be conducted in a safe manner. Only workers with the appropriate qualification should be allowed to conduct specified work (e.g. welders must not repair their welding machines; this must be left to electricians; machine operators may not be aware of rest energy in the system after switching devices off, etc.). These rules have to be communicated while related instructions have to be given. Workers should be involved in establishing these rules, as this will contribute to their adherence. However supervisors must also set a good example.
Site-specific instructions should also be given, which is especially important in the case of contracted out maintenance. That way the workers will be aware of any company specific characteristics.
Safe procedures need to be followed as established in the planning phase, even when under time pressure. Procedures for unexpected events have to be in place: “Part of the safe system of work should be to stop work when faced with an unforeseen problem or a problem exceeding one’s own competence.”.
Major work campaigns should be discussed and evaluated together with the maintenance workers. In that way valuable experience will lead to a continuous improvement of safe and healthy maintenance work.
Improperly maintained machines, structures and plants may put company employees and the neighbouring public at risk. Before re-starting the normal operations, the maintenance team must absolutely make sure that everything is in a safe condition. Only after the required tests have been carried out successfully by the competent staff can the green light for re-starting procedures be given.
Since 1989, a number of European directives have been adopted, which lay down a general framework for the minimum requirements in protecting workers at the workplace. These directives also apply to maintenance activities, first and foremost the framework directive, including the obligation for the employers to carry out a risk assessment at work: Council Directive 89/391 - "Framework Directive" about the general principles concerning the prevention and protection of workers against occupational accidents and diseases. It contains the general principles of prevention while laying down the employers’ obligations concerning the assessment of risks, the elimination of risks and accident factors, the informing, consulting and balanced participation as well as training of workers and their representatives.
On the basis of the "Framework directive" a series of individual directives were adopted, all relevant for carrying out maintenance in a safe manner. Examples of these directives include:
- Directive 89/654/EEC: Concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for the workplace, includes among others, that technical maintenance of the workplace and of the equipment and devices is carried out and any faults found which are liable to affect the safety and health of workers are rectified as quickly as possible;
- Directive 89/655/EEC: Concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for the use of work equipment by workers at work, whereas use of work equipment comprises maintenance and servicing; and,
- Directive 89/656/EEC: On the minimum health and safety requirements for the use by workers of personal protective equipment at the workplace stipulates that personal protective equipment shall be in good working order and satisfactory hygienic condition by means of the necessary maintenance, repair and replacements.
A more exhaustive review of these, and other, directives are available on the EU-OSHA website. Many of these include specific provisions regarding maintenance activities and requirements for maintenance in order to eliminate workplace hazards. These directives including the framework directive had to be transformed into the national legislation of the member states.
Links for future reading
Bandow, G., Schaefer, F. W., ‘Ganzheitliche Instandhaltung – Strukturen und Strategien’, Handbuch der Prozessautomatisierung, Oldenbourg Industrieverlag, 4th edition, München, 2009, pp. 727-749.
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