The problem with hard to access parts

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plant and machinery

In this article, Finch Consulting’s health and safety specialist solicitor Susan Dearden and engineering inspection consultant Richard Hoyle consider the risks posed by hard to access part of plant and machinery and suggest some practical steps that can be taken to manage and mitigate those risks in your business. 

An alert published by the HSE on 3rd June 2021 highlighted the possibility of catastrophic failure arising from a failure to inspect and maintain all components in a marine loading arm.  Whilst the specifics of marine loading arms may not float your boat (ahem), the wider issue of failing to inspect and maintain parts of plant and machinery that are difficult to access, is more common than it should be.

The HSE recommended “Plan, Do, Check, Act” approach is sound in principle but theory and practice do not always entirely align, nor do principles necessarily help you with the “how”.  The human factor impact of cutting corners where a job is particularly difficult or time-consuming need to be considered.   The same barriers that leave some checks on the “too difficult” pile or in the “I’ll do it next time” box, also impact anyone required to check that something has been done and false assumptions being made that all is as it should be when reviewing compliance.

If keeping staff, visitors, and contractors safe is not motivation enough, be aware of the criminal offences and sanctions that apply when this issue is not taken seriously.   Remember the key employer obligations under:

1. Sections 2 and 3 Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA).

These sections impose duties to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of staff and others who may be affected by your business.  The offence for breach of this duty does not require an accident to have happened.  Failing to appropriately manage risk is the offence and even a relatively modest breach can leave you looking at a starting point for a fine in the region of £1m, for businesses with turnover in excess of £50m annually.

2. Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER).

Regulation 5 mandates that employers “shall ensure” that work equipment is maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair.” Regulation 6 mandates that employers “shall ensure” that work equipment exposed to conditions causing deterioration, which is liable to result in dangerous situations, is inspected at suitable intervals to ensure that health and safety conditions are maintained and that any deterioration can be detected and remedied in good time.  Unlike the HSWA requirements, taking reasonably practicable steps is not enough to comply with the “shall ensure” requirements of PUWER.

There is an Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) published by the HSE regarding compliance with PUWER. The ACOP accepts that the need to maintain some parts is not always obvious, “For example, failure to lubricate bearings or replace clogged filters might lead to danger because of seized parts or overheating.  Some maintenance routines affect both the way the equipment works and its safety….Equipment should be checked frequently to ensure that safety-related features are functioning correctly.  A fault which affects production is normally apparent within a short time; however, a fault in a safety-critical system could remain undetected unless appropriate safety checks are included in maintenance activities.”

Whilst the ACOP provides helpful guidance on what should be included in inspections, it is silent on the practicalities of ensuring that parts that are hard to reach, are inspected and maintained.

3. Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR)

Regulation 3 requires every employer to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees to which they are exposed while at work, and to others who may be affected by their business, to identify risk controls needed to comply with the regulatory and statutory requirements.  If five or more people are employed, the risk assessment needs to be recorded in writing.  Breach of the MHSWR requirements is also a criminal offence that can lead to a fine (on a company) and fine and/or prison for a breach by an individual.

4. Some equipment has mandated statutory inspections such as those required under the Pressure Safety Systems Regulations 2000 (PSSR),  or the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER) to identify safety-critical issues. Breach of these regulations is also a criminal offence.  Duty holders are directed by PSSR and LOLER not to simply wait for or solely rely on the thorough inspections.  With the periodicities of mandated inspection generally being between 6-12 months (LOLER) and 12- 24 months (PSSR – and/or in accordance with a Written Scheme of Examination), the thorough inspections must be supported by a robust maintenance regime to bridge the gap between them, and a competent person must carry out all of the required inspections for you.

Hard to reach parts can impact the statutory inspections just as it can the general inspections and maintenance of plant and machinery.  For example, inspectors/surveyors may find they cannot reach safety-critical components such as the overspeed governor in a lift shaft, overhead crane tracks, or pressure safety valves.  Inspectors will sometimes in these circumstances apply a risk-based approach, provided the equipment is suitable for continued use in all other aspects by requesting supplementary tests to be run by the maintenance provider. If those are not carried out it may mean that equipment fails on the next statutory inspection.  Or the statutory inspection provider may refuse to conduct the next statutory inspection and instead will issue a ‘plant not available report’, which some less observant duty holders may read as a report of completed inspection because they physically do not check the content of the paperwork.  If this is the case then the equipment is technically out of compliance with the regulations.  The impact of this ranges from invalidating insurance to breaches of the regulations and enforcement action for breach.

Solutions

In practical terms, your risk assessment is the starting point which, in addition to identifying risks from the operation of plant and machinery, needs to recognise which parts may cause an additional hazard through failure, and identify the inspection and maintenance regime (whether mandated or not) which is required to eliminate that risk.  Additionally, and particularly in consultation with those who carry out the maintenance, it is crucial to identify the critical parts which are tricky to maintain and hard to reach and accept that there is a human factor element to management of that risk of which account needs to be taken.

With that in mind, thought needs to be given to how you can be sure that inspection and maintenance of hard to access parts is in fact completed.

Acceptance of the issue is part of the solution because that then drives thought to how to make hard to access inspections easier without increasing risk to the inspecting engineer, and how to obtain proof that the inspection/replacement of part has been done.

Planning the placement of machinery/factory layout can mitigate the risk for you. Many access issues can be ‘engineered out’ with careful planning and that should be the priority where this is a viable option.

Consideration should also be given to equipment which might facilitate easier access to hard to reach parts.  For example, long-armed mirrors, fibre optics probes (although physical access to areas where people have to be positioned to operate such visual aids must be considered) or drones (for larger external equipment) may make inspection easier, and the availability of MEWPs where needed and practicable, to facilitate access.

You might also think of adding in a requirement that a part replaced is produced as proof of replacement for the “job done” sign off.  This has the additional advantage of enabling examination of the replaced part’s condition which will feed into a better understanding of the wear and tear experienced and the adequacy of frequency of inspection given usage.

Photographs of disassembly and reassembly might also usefully be required by you to form part of the evidence-based record that hard to access maintenance has been done.  The requirement to evidence the work will disincentivise the ”leave it to next time” shortcut.

Summary

Factor into your risk assessments consideration of how to limit access difficulties, what equipment might be needed to facilitate access to hard to access parts that remain, and the human factor reluctance to access those parts.  In relation to the safety-critical hard to access areas think about how you might ensure that they are dealt with, not just by making that aspect of inspection and maintenance less difficult, but by ensuring that proof of the inspection is obtained and retained as part of your records. Do also feedback access issues to your machinery supplier as this can feedback into an improved design for the future.

If you need guidance in identifying and resolving inspection and maintenance issues in hard to access areas in your plant and equipment Finch Consulting’s team of consulting engineers can assist.

Email [email protected] or call  +441530 412777.

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