Employee safety is a concern in every workplace, but process manufacturing plants have more potential health and safety issues than your typical office. Heavy machinery, sharp edges, industrial equipment, and hazardous chemicals are commonplace and, if not treated with care, can create dangerous situations. 

Manufacturing companies want to protect their employees, both out of concern for their workers and to avoid fines from industrial bodies and government regulators. Here are some of the top safety concerns for process manufacturing plants, and what they’re doing to address them. 

1. Trips, slips, and falls

Mundane though it may seem, trips, slips, and falls were the most frequent safety violations in 2020 according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one of the largest and most comprehensive organizations that tracks these issues. While OSHA focuses only on the USA, the hazards are similar across the globe. 

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Slipping on wet stairs, tripping over industrial debris, and falling at the same level can all lead to broken or sprained limbs, cause employees to lose work time, and trigger OSHA fines for violating workplace safety requirements.

Part of the reason why falls are so common is precisely because they’re mundane; the unguarded machinery of a raw feed mill is an obvious risk that draws attention, but worn-out non-slip taping or a cord trailing across the floor are easy to overlook.

2. Chemical hazards 

Chemical hazards can be present in every process plant, causing harm both through inhalation and skin contact. Respiratory irritants include cement dust; spices in a food and beverage plant; even flour dust, the primary cause of occupational asthma in the UK. Employees can also experience skin irritation and lasting damage from contact with corrosive substances like powerful cleaning materials and acids used in production processes. 

Other chemicals can cause long-term health effects, like the carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene released through petrochemical processing. Cleaning agents like methylene chloride, used to degrease metal in numerous plants, can cause cancer, liver damage, and harm the central nervous system if inhaled. 

3. Electrical hazards

Equipment that hasn’t been installed correctly, worn-out cables that expose electrical wiring, and electrical panels that aren’t secured are just some of the dangers electricity poses to plant employees. 

One of the biggest issues, and number 6 on OSHA’s list of most frequent violations, is the risk of serious injury or death from the unexpected release of energy or startup of heavy machinery during repairs or maintenance. 

4. Hazards from industrial machinery

Risks of injury, maiming, and death from heavy industrial machinery is probably one of the first hazards that spring to mind when people think about industrial safety. Employees are at risk of collisions, cuts, crushing, and other injuries from heavy and light industrial equipment.

Heavy trucks and forklifts tend to cause more violations than other heavy machinery, perhaps because they receive less attention than equipment with blades and crushers.  

5. Physical hazards

The physical hazards that employees might encounter in a process manufacturing plant go beyond injury from direct contact with equipment. They include:

  • Deafness and tinnitus due to the loud noise of heavy machinery; 
  • Poor health from repeated exposure to extremely high or low temperatures; 
  • Damage to skin and eyes, and potentially loss of eyesight, from the lasers used in many plants for cutting and welding;
  • Repetitive strain injury and back damage due to lifting heavy items. 
Employee Safety Concerns in Process Manufacturing

Addressing safety hazards in process plants

Process plants need to take a multi-faceted approach to remove hazards wherever possible and reduce the risk of harm to employees. In the US, OSHA details employers’ responsibilities to ensure employee safety, checks for compliance and responds to complaints, and enforces fines when violations occur, and similar bodies exist in other countries. Here are some of the steps that process manufacturing plants should take to create a safe working environment.

1. Detect and remove safety risks

Hazard limitation begins with plant design and equipment selection. Executives need to consider potential “pinch points” where employees could jostle each other; edges and corners that workers might bump into; uneven surfaces that could trigger falls; etc. Removing a hazard entirely is the best approach. 

2. Ensure equipment is in peak condition 

Safe operations relies on equipment that’s in top working order. Machinery that’s fouled, corroded, vibrating, or incorrectly installed is a safety hazard for everyone working around it. AI-powered predictive maintenance can help verify that machinery is checked in time, and alert process engineers to early signs of potential incidents, as we’ll explain further in the next article. 

3. Establish effective machine guarding 

Dangerous machinery needs machine guards and barriers that are installed correctly, to prevent employees from getting caught in equipment. Machine guards also protect employees from flying debris and sparks caused by the equipment, and from their own carelessness if they operate machinery incorrectly. 

4. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE)

Eye guards, respirators, industrial masks, gloves, helmets, and other protective clothing should be a no-brainer to protect against burns, minor cuts and abrasions, and chemical inhalation. Employees need to be provided with PPE that fits well and is in perfect condition, and that they can access easily.

5. Enforce safety training

The best protective equipment in the world won’t help much if employees don’t know how to use it. Plants need to train workers in safe ways to handle chemicals, raw materials, cleaning supplies, parts, and machinery, and enforce regular review. Signs, reminders, and color-coding in different areas and walkways can also help ensure compliance with safety regulations. 

6. Apply lockout/tagout policies

Lockout/Tagout solutions are tools which ensure that heavy machinery and trucks are safely de-energized before repair teams begin working on them, preventing the risk of electrical discharge or of equipment suddenly starting up again unexpectedly. 

7. Establish clear lines of communication 

It’s inevitable that hazards will emerge from time to time, even in the best-regulated of plants. Employees need communication channels to alert managers, and managers need fixed procedures that guide them to inform everyone about each issue and resolve it as quickly as possible. 

8. Good housekeeping

Simple measures like keeping areas clear of trip hazards, ensuring that spills are cleaned up quickly, replacing worn-out anti-slip mats, etc. are crucial for keeping plants and employees safe. 

Process manufacturing safety will always be important

With so many potential hazards to employee health and wellbeing, plant safety is a complex and constantly evolving concern for process manufacturing companies. Fortunately, advances in technology are creating new, effective safety solutions that help plants create a safe, protected work environment for their employees, boosting their reputation and helping attract both top talent, and ethically motivated customers. Read our next blog post to discover how AI is improving plant safety, and the third in the series to learn more about specific safety concerns for specific process manufacturing vertical industries.