A trend is emerging within the industrial cleaning industry whereby technology is driving improvements in safety. While using technology to improve a product or make a job easier and more comfortable for a worker is not a new trend, using technology to improve safety is a trend worth exploring.
The No. 1 hazard of an industrial cleaning company in relation to hydroblasting is water cuts. And there is no such thing as a minor water cut. These cuts can be very severe and the treatment is almost always extensive. With a water cut, workers experience substantial pain and suffering.
Another hazard that can be reduced significantly by the use of automated equipment is heat-related illness. In most cases, hydroblasting jobs use automated equipment that can be set up so the employee operating the equipment is outside of the hazard and exposure zone. This means the worker doesn’t have to wear as much PPE, such as a slicker suit, which results in less incidences of heat-related illness.
In the safety profession, the first step to protect employees from an injury or a hazard of any type is the implementation of engineering controls. According to OSHA, engineering controls is a best practice for hazard prevention and control: “The first and best strategy is to control the hazard at its source. Engineering controls do this, unlike other controls that generally focus on the employee exposed to the hazard. The basic concept behind engineering controls is that, to the extent feasible, the work environment and the job itself should be designed to eliminate hazards or reduce exposure to hazards.”*
Particularly for industrial cleaning jobs that require hydroblasting, creating and implementing automated technologies for industrial cleaning engineers the hazard out by removing the employee from the exposure areas and the exposure potential. On jobsites where we’ve implemented automated equipment, we’ve had no recordable injuries on hydroblasting-related work. Safety is becoming the No. 1 driver for major industrial companies to switch to automation.
Major industrial owners have recently begun using third-party consultants as part of the contractor hiring process. While this allows companies to outsource that process so they can focus on their core services, these consultants generally only look at a contractor’s numbers and statistics. They might, however, be better served to take a more comprehensive look at a contractor’s safety program. Other safety-related factors, especially value-based safety programs and acceptance into OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), are important considerations when hiring an industrial cleaning contractor.
Value-based safety programs combine management’s commitment and employee involvement. They include behavioral-based programs that engage the employees and incorporate effective communication programs that ensure employees are fully aware of issues and incidents. In the industrial cleaning industry, companies with value-based safety programs are also very involved in the growth of automation technology. The same automation technology that removes personnel from the hazard area also enhances the cleaning capability. Moreover, we’ve found customers who share this same value-based safety culture are embracing automation 100 percent.
In addition to value-based safety programs, those companies that work to gain acceptance into OSHA’s VPP program should also be considered when hiring an industrial cleaning contractor. Established at the federal level in 1982, the VPP recognizes employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies that have implemented effective safety and health management systems, and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries.
By participating in OSHA’s VPP, many employers improve their workplace safety and health management systems and implement activities or procedures that produce outstanding results and contribute to improved safety and health for their workers.
With the introduction of automated equipment, reaching a “zero target” injury goal is very much becoming a reality. A large part of that is due to a shift to these value-based safety programs where training is a key component.
Training on this new technology brings a whole new level of excitement for employees. They recognize the commitment the company is making toward their safety and become very enthusiastic about compliance. It brings them to a whole new level of safety because they recognize their company is investing in an initiative to keep them safe.
While implementing automated technology is improving safety, no regulation exists as far as automated technology is concerned. OSHA provides best practice guidelines but doesn’t require companies to incorporate automated equipment into their cleaning programs. And most safety associations don’t know about hydroblasting because it’s a very specialized industry.
The encouraging news is some of the major industrial owners are taking proactive steps to implement guidelines for safe hydroblasting. They are forming internal hydroblasting oversight groups because they’ve recognized the level of hazard involved in hydroblasting. They are working side by side with their contractors during the equipment development process to create automated hydroblasting cleaning solutions. As new automated technology and equipment are developed, owners and contractors conduct a thorough safety review of the equipment to ensure it’s safe to operate and that new hazards are not created.
One such owner is on the cutting edge of this movement and often consults with our team when changes are made to their hydroblasting program’s standards. Others are starting to create internal oversight boards of their own.
These major industrial owners will start to expect automated technologies by their contractor and will also expect the contractor to utilize hydroblasting equipment that offers solutions to counter safety perils. Eventually, the level of automated capability the contractor has will become an identifier of the industrial cleaning company working on these sites.
As the automation initiative goes forward into the future, it will change the type of employee needed to complete the task. It will require a different type of worker, moving away from a manual worker to an operational worker with computer diagnostic skills. The implementation of automation technology in the industrial cleaning industry is very attractive to the current generation due to the added intellectual aspect of the remote operation versus labor-intensive manual methods used in the past.
Training for automated technology equipment must be developed as the equipment is engineered, designed and constructed to ensure employees have the qualifications and competency to operate the equipment safely. U.S. military veterans, for instance, will find their skills are very desirable as they are already highly trained.
In the end, we should all recognize the reason for the move to automation is driven by safety. There are many other positives that result from it, such as better quality and better consistency, but the primary initiative is the safety of our employees.
Sam Harkins is vice president of Environmental, Health and Safety for Veolia ES Industrial Services.
For more information, contact Harkins at Sam.Harkins@VeoliaES.com or call (713) 307-2100.
*Taken from OSHA’s Safety and Health Management e-Tool (www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/safetyhealth/comp3.html)